The Tragedy of the Uncommons: On the Politics of Apocalypse

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The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a classic type of problem, involving multiple actors who face individual incentives to deplete shared resources and thereby impose harms on others. Such tragedies can be overcome if societies learn through experience to mobilize collective action. This article formulates a distinct type of problem: ‘the tragedy of the uncommons’, involving the misperception and mismanagement of rare catastrophic risks. Although the problem of rare and global catastrophic risk has been much discussed, its sources and solutions need to be better understood. Descriptively, this article identifies psychological heuristics and political forces that underlie neglect of rare catastrophic ‘uncommons’ risks, notably the unavailability heuristic, mass numbing, and underdeterrence. Normatively, the article argues that, for rare catastrophic risks, it is the inability to learn from experience, rather than uncertainty, that offers the best case for anticipatory precaution. The article suggests a twist on conventional debates: in contrast to salient experienced risks spurring greater public concern than expert concern, rare uncommons risks exhibit greater expert concern than public concern. Further, optimal precaution against uncommons risks requires careful analysis to avoid misplaced priorities and potentially catastrophic risk–risk trade-offs. The article offers new perspectives on expert vs public perceptions of risk; impact assessment and policy analysis; and precaution, policy learning and foresight.

Policy Implications

  • As societies succeed in overcoming ‘tragedies of the commons’, they can and should pay increasing attention to ‘tragedies of the uncommons’.
  • Public perceptions may neglect routine familiar risks, and may overreact to unusual experienced risks (especially crises affecting identified individuals). But a third type – ultra-rare catastrophic risks – may be neglected due to factors such as psychological unavailability, mass numbing, and underdeterrence. Expert assessment is needed to overcome public neglect of such uncommons risks.
  • Much risk regulation is spurred by policy learning from experience and experimentation. But rare one-time threats to the existence of life or civilization will not offer such opportunities for learning. This absence of adaptive learning offers a stronger rationale for precaution than mere uncertainty. Foresight and anticipation are essential to preventing such rare catastrophic risks.
  • Overcoming neglect of rare catastrophic risks is necessary but not sufficient to choose optimal policy responses. Policies to prevent rare catastrophic risks may also misplace priorities, or induce catastrophic risk–risk trade-offs. Optimal precaution against tragedies of the uncommons must be based on careful foresight, impact assessment and policy analysis.
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