Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ratchet Effects

For those who don't know tools, a ratchet is a device which allows something to move in one direction but not the other.  A ratcheting screwdriver, for example, will only turn the screw in one direction, so you can twist it back and forth without having to let go.

When a technology is introduced that expands the capacity to produce food, population grows to use all that extra capacity.  People don't generally voluntarily reduce population size, so the adoption of that technology becomes irreversible.  (I would like to thank Garrett Hardin for introducing me the ratchet effect.  It really is just an extension of Thomas Malthus's ideas and is central to Jevon's Paradox, that increasing efficiency in using a resource increases the overall use of that resource.  Hardin was specifically concerned with food production, but the ratchet effect applies to many other endeavors.)

Just because people don't choose to do something, however, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.  Technologies can be lost and populations reduced without any intention.  When they cut down the last tree on Easter Island, being a lumberjack was obsolete.  The bubonic plague significantly reduced the number of Europeans.

Going back to the tool analogy, a screwdriver which only tightens or only loosens screws isn't very useful.  That's why ratcheting screwdrivers have a switch: flipped one way it tightens, flipped the other it loosens.

There also is an reverse ratchet effect.  Extinction is a 100% phenomenon; a species is not extinct until every male or every female of a species is dead or incapable of reproducing.  So too is it with technology.  As long as someone somewhere in the world knows how to do something, the technology is not completely lost.  With the key technologies that allowed populations to expand, this leads to a ratchet effect on the downside.  Those who still have those technologies will have an advantage over those who don't, and they will grow in proportion to those who don't.  (Please note I am talking about relative percentages, so if one group loses 50% of its population and the other loses 75%, the first has doubled in relative proportion to the second.)

No matter how bad things get in the short term, the reverse ratchet effect will determine where we resume the Long Ascent from.

4 comments:

  1. "When a technology is introduced that expands the capacity to produce food, population grows to use all that extra capacity. People don't generally voluntarily reduce population size, so the adoption of that technology becomes irreversible."

    Craig Dilworth is calling that the Vicious Circle principle, in his opus, Too Smart For Our Own Good.

    "With the key technologies that allowed populations to expand, this leads to a ratchet effect on the downside. Those who still have those technologies will have an advantage over those who don't, and they will grow in proportion to those who don't."

    It's not so much the tech that allowed us to grow in number, as the tech that might provide for a comfortable, meaningful steady state, as in, hands-on food production, shelter building, water purification, communications (printing and radio).

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  2. Thanks for reminding me about Dilworth, I probably should have included him. I was introduced to his work on the Doomstead Diner. Of course "inverse Vicious Circle principle" doesn't have quite the same ring as "reverse ratchet effect".

    Your second point is very good, too. The key technologies are the ones that give us a survival advantage, such as the ones you mentioned. Many did help us grow, but there definitely are a lot of technologies which were useful in a resource rich world which are useless in a resource depleted world.

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  3. Species also go extinct because they turn into other species. One clear example would be dinosaurs to birds. Your definition is still technically correct.

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    1. That is a wonderfully appropriate example, russell. People think of steam engines as an obsolete 19th century technology, but nuclear reactors are basically just fancy ways to boil water for steam engines to produce electricity.

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