The Economy of Sail

My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.



She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.


 

And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.

There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.

Soliton
The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.


A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.

It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?

A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.



A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.


 

There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.

I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.

GloucesterSchoonerFestival2
Photo credit: Gloucester Schooner Festival. 

The Age of Altruism

The only thing that will save the human race from ourselves is hope—hope in a future where we treat the earth and each other with dignity, respect, and consideration. Fear isn’t enough to change our behavior, not even fear of death, or patients who’ve had bypass surgery or angioplasty would quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more. It doesn’t happen. Fear isn’t enough to move us—only hope.

Dan Pink’s book Drive includes a remarkable insight. As a person matures, their interests tend to become more altruistic. That isn’t the insight. What’s remarkable is that we’re approaching a unique moment in human history when there will be more people in Western societies over the age of 60 than under the age of 8.

Wave

The aging of the West represents a potential wave of altruism the likes of which the world has never seen. It comes at a time when we are gravely threatened by diminishing oil reserves, the end of cheap energy, radical climate change and a human population that can’t be sustained by dwindling resources. If any time in human history desperately needed altruism, it’s now.

We need to recreate our economy based upon sustainability rather than compound greed. We need to use our resources wisely and share equitably or I’m afraid the wars for water, arable land, food and energy will leave human civilization in ashes. And as our days darken we will be at grave risk of surrendering ourselves to another brutal savior, another demagogue promising salvation and security in exchange for our souls, when what we really need is kindness and common sense and the will to act for the good of others.

Only hope will prompt us to action, hope in a better world, hope despite the evidence, despite our history, hope that we can be more than what we’ve been.

Perhaps the unprecedented numbers of people approaching the age of altruism will be the tipping point that makes our hope a reality. It seems to me our last, best hope before the encroaching darkness.