The ratchet effect

One problem with powering down is the difficulty of overcoming the commitment to excess. It is not simply the volume of consumption on the individual level (reducing which would be directly threatening to manufacturing capital’s need to continually expand production) but also the built-in excess required for transient competitiveness which then becomes the entry level for all future products and services, even though it no longer serves any purpose – not even competitiveness.

For example… Just yesterday I was in the London Underground in a bleary kind of post-work state, so it took a while to notice that I was standing opposite a large electronic advertising hoarding. About 5 metres long, I can’t imagine how much energy it must have been using. Of course, from the advertiser’s point of view, it was, great – a real edge over the competition. But then they all join in, and then there are thousands and thousands of them. In fact, given that every single advertising display on the main escalators in some major underground stations is a little electronic screen too, they will soon be filling up the entire system.

So then what? The competitive edge has been lost, because everybody’s doing it. There is no longer any benefit, to advertiser or client, is using a screen rather than an old-fashioned poster. Yet electronic advertising hoardings become the entry level medium. So it doesn’t buy you any advantage, but you can’t stop doing it. So advertisers have successfully ratcheted up the energy costs of advertising for short-term gain, and now they can’t get back down again. A transient advantage to a single company becomes a permanent burden on the environment.

I wonder how many such arrangements there are? Millions, I have no doubt – in public and private life, at every level, in every sphere. What can we do about it? Is there a process for getting us back down again, without any winners or losers?

More of RJ Robinson at

Leave a Reply