Provocations #3 – The Ratchet Effect

The Ratchet Effect

Image: A ratchet (pawl and gear) on a ballista (from: jere7my tho?rpe on

In Provocations #3, we will look at the first of the ‘trinity of the unwise’, the Ratchet Effect.  In case you have not read Provocations #2, the other two are ‘Questions of Scale’ and ‘Compounding Problems.’  These will be subjects of forthcoming Provocations.

According to, “A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction.”  I think this sums up my intended meaning here reasonably well.  Putting it a little less prosaically, each time we take from the Earth, there is less for the future.

Humanity is ruthlessly efficient and expeditious at seeking out and exploiting resources.  But at best we struggle to conserve, and utterly fail to place any limits on ourselves.  The general arc of our impact on the planet is one of decline and loss.  Our civilization is wired to consume, and consumption is a one-way street… it’s ratchet.

Another way of putting the ratchet effect is that the margins grow thin.  That is to say, with each societal iteration; with each new development; with each new mine or well; with each new technology; with each new industrial turning of the screw; with every human birth; the margins for error grow thinner. The margins for recovery grow slimmer.   The margins for human resurrection grow dimmer.

Here’s a very simplistic metaphor, the sharing of a candy bar. If you give half of your candy bar to a friend, then half of what is left to another friend, then half of the remaining quarter to yet another, and so on, very soon you find that there is no more candy left for anyone.  Likewise, if you sacrifice half of the existing land that has been preserved, for exploitation, then half again the next time; in a very few iterations you have no pristine, clean, wild places left.  And these places are the very well-springs of life.

The List is Long

There is currently a battle being fought at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness in northern Minnesota, where a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta PLC, is trying to build a giant complex of sulfide-ore copper-and-nickel mines.  Mining in this pristine region would scar the land for beyond generations and could result in acid damage to the land and waterways that can last for centuries.  See here for more information.

Another current case in point is that the current President of the United States seeks to open virtually all of our coastal waters to oil and gas drilling (as reported on January 4 2018 in Reuters and widely elsewhere).  These are just two current examples.  The list of these environmental ratchets is essentially endless; there are countless examples in the news each and every day.

There are also social ratchets.  This is a massive subject deserving of its own singular attention, but to make my point now, I will point out that the current Gini coefficient for the United States is estimated at a staggering 0.85 (see here).  You may well ask, what is a “Gini coefficient?”  It is a measure of the economic disparity, or inequality, of a society.  It was developed around 1912 by the Italian sociologist and statistician Corrado Gini. A country with total wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, whereas a country with all the wealth concentrated in one entity would be a 1.

Finite: “limited in size or extent”

(Definition complements of the Oxford Dictionary of English)

We have to recognize that the Earth and it’s resources are finite (save for the energy from the sun which is effectively infinite).  To deny this fundamental fact is to deny any form of rational thought, any perceived form of reality.  Proverbially, humanity is eating its own seed corn.  Once you despoil the land and water with nuclear waste or other toxic substances, it is useless beyond generations.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence – by definition once an animal is extinct, it is gone forever. Once a mountain top has been removed, there is no longer a mountain.

We are at risk of ratcheting ourselves into oblivion.  This strikes me as a good candidate for one definition of insanity.

A Bright Thought (with Some Big “IFs”)

I will leave you with a reason to act, to counter the great Ratchet.  IF we are willing to acknowledge that the Earth and her resources are finite, and begin to act accordingly, then Nature has proven herself resilient and she can recover, and then so too can we.  That is only IF we leave a substantive and meaningful something for her to recover from.

Next up in Provocations #4, is part two of the Trinity of the Unwise, Questions of Scale.

Closing Thoughts

I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.wendell-berry-L

— Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, 1971

Others have written this sentiment as “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved


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