Climate data food security research

Unintended outcomes and the tragedy of the anticommons by Felix Lim

For Journal Club, Grantham Scholars discussed a paper about unintended outcomes and the tragedy of the anticommons. Here Felix Lim sets out what they made of the paper.

Grantham Scholar Felix Lim.
Grantham Scholar Felix Lim.

This week at Journal Club, we talked about unintended consequences of management decisions. In particular, we discussed the problems arising from tragedies of the commons and the anticommons, as described in Symmetric Tragedies: commons and anticommons.

What is the tragedy of the commons?

The tragedy of the commons describes how individual gains can lead to the depletion of a common resource. Allowing individuals to maximise their gains by exploiting a public resource ultimately leads to an overall loss for everyone.

Examples can be found in environmental and ecological issues such as land degradation and deforestation from slash-and-burn agriculture, and depletion of fish stocks in the high seas.

Implementing regulations and policies (e.g. privatisation, land reforms and concessions, and access rights) is often effective in preventing the overuse of these resources. But, useful as they may seem, are they really effective in preventing the overexploitation of resources? Can we go too far with regulations?

Tragedy of the anticommons

Michael Heller coined the term ‘tragedy of the anticommons’. He used it to describe a mirror-image scenario of the tragedy of the commons that arises from excessive privatisation.

The paper we looked at further explores Heller’s arguments. It shows how having multiple regulations could lead to resources being under-used and so reduce their value. Ultimately, the outcome was similar to the tragedy of the commons, despite them being opposite scenarios.

We need to account for undesirable outcomes

Our discussion revolved around the need to account for undesirable outcomes that could arise from policies and decisions, as highlighted by the tragedy of the anticommons. By placing more restrictions with the intention of protecting resources (or people), we may instead reduce the overall value of the resource we had set out to protect in the first place.

In food security, for example, multiple regulations may be imposed on food access that might exclude those that need it most. The very policies meant to prevent overexploitation of a resource may instead restrict access, often at the expense of the people they were meant to protect. We spoke about some instances where possibly negative outcomes may be overlooked. For example, carbon taxes can force oil companies to change the way they extract oil, but the companies may still end up extracting more fossil fuels overall.

Valuing nature

We also talked about the need to value the resources such as ecosystem services.

Trying to understand underuse and overuse means we need to set values on concepts like lives and nature. This is especially important in sustainability and conservation. We need to be able to place values on these concepts and their associated resources before we can assess the trade-offs of our decisions.

Overall, the paper was useful because it highlights the dangers of instituting policies without evaluating all possible consequences. It is important to consider these outcomes in order to optimise the impacts of management decisions.

More on the tragedy of the commons

How the Paris Agreement was made: overcoming the tragedy of the commons by Rob Hardie. Grantham Scholar Rob Hardie was an official observer at COP21. Here Rob sets out how Ostrom’s theories about overcoming the tragedy of the commons were proved by the Paris Agreement.

Journal Club is meet up of Grantham Scholars to discuss publications from a multidisciplinary perspective. It is part of the Grantham Scholar training programme.

Edited by Claire Moran. Photo by Sandy Torchon from Pexels.