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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Rational depletion of natural resources

Variable relationship:

Acheson (2006) suggests that resource users may rationally deplete natural resource stocks (Commons Condition) when resources have low levels of productivity (Productivity) and users are not dependent on a particular instance of a resource (i.e. a particular environmental commons) and can invest in other income generating activities (Livelihood Alternatives).

First, Clark (1973: 630) has advanced the most widely known explanation of the failure of private property to conserve resources. He argues that “[a] corporate owner of property rights in a biological resource might actually prefer extermination to conservation, on the basis of maximization of profits.”  This occurs when the growth rate of the resource is less than the discount rate. It does not make sense to borrow money from the bank at 8% interest to invest in a resource that increases in value at only 4% per year. This would not be a rational investment. Under these circumstances, it would only be sensible to deplete the resource as fast as possible and invest the money where it will give higher returns." (Acheson 2006).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Natural Resource Unit, Natural Resource System


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Livelihood alternativesProximate independent variableWhen resource users have alternative sources of livelihood benefits they are more likely to face incentives to overuse resources. Easily Access other Alternatives
ProductivityProximate independent variableResources that have low rates of productivity produce benefits over a longer time intervals and thus discounted benefits tend to be lower favoring overuse. Poorly productive
Property regimeProximate independent variableUsers individually own the resource so they are free to use them to maximize the short term returns and minimze long term opportunity costs of investing in alternative economic activities. Private property or Corporate property
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeAs a result of low levels of economic dependence, alternative sources of livelihood and low rates of productivity actors are more likely to deplete natural resources. Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Private property rights and conservationcontradictory
Marginalization and degradationrelated

Related Studies


Acheson, James M. 2006. Institutional Failure in Resource Management. Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 117-134.


Clark, C.W., 1973. The economics of overexploitation. Science 181, 630–634.