The Tragedy of the Uncommons: On the Psychology, Politics and Policy of Existential Risk

In this public lecture, Professor Jonathan B. Wiener, formulated a distinct type of problem: ‘the tragedy of the uncommons’, involving the misperception and mismanagement of rare catastrophic risks.

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.

Although the problem of rare and global catastrophic risk has been much discussed, its sources and solutions need to be better understood. Descriptively, one identifies psychological heuristics and political forces that underlie neglect of rare catastrophic ‘uncommons’ risks, notably the unavailability heuristic, mass numbing, and underdeterrence. Normatively, one can argue that, for rare catastrophic risks, it is the inability to learn from experience, rather than uncertainty, that offers the best case for anticipatory precaution.

Professor Wiener 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. Professor Wiener offers new perspectives on expert vs public perceptions of risk; impact assessment and policy analysis; and precaution, policy learning and foresight.

The Q&A session was chaired by Dr Julius Weitzdorfer.

About the Speaker

Jonathan B. Wiener is the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy, at Duke University.  Before coming to Duke, he worked on U.S. and international environmental policy at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and at the US Department of Justice, serving in both the first Bush and Clinton administrations (read more).

This lecture was part of the Blavatnik Public Lecture Series at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

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