Black Plague & Boatwrights

Fair warning: This post is about widely disparate subjects strung together by apprehension.

Port Townsend occupies the intersection of Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It has always been a haven for cranks and eccentrics, people who dreamed and failed greatly. Port Townsend hosts the annual Wooden Boat Festival, the perennial Wooden Boat Foundation, and arguably the highest density of wooden boatwrights found outside Mystic Seaport.

A wooden boatwright’s art is compelling to a few but marginal to most, who think of it (if they think of it at all) as a quaint recreation like Jamestown, Virginia—people in period costumes doing obscure things without electricity—or a hobby like those enthusiasts who re-enact Civil War battles on weekends. Slightly cracked, of course, but harmless.

In the near future we may have a pressing, practical need for the boatwright’s skill and that of sail makers who can stitch cotton duck by hand and sailors who can handle a cargo schooner in the dog holes of the outer coast.

Warning: jarring change of subject ahead.

I am half-way through the most terrifying book I have ever read. Regrettably, it’s non-fiction.

James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is fascinating in the same disturbing sense as a traffic accident or a road kill. It’s a reminder of our mortality not just as individuals but as a species.

Kunstler’s premise is that humanity’s continued well-being is precariously balanced on the continued supply of cheap fossil fuels. Without cheap fuel, all the other props supporting our material culture—and the overwhelming burden of our population—begin to snap like wooden scaffolding. We’re talking food production, medicine, transportation, navigation, communications, heating, refrigeration. We’re talking famine, pestilence, warfare, chaos. These are the horsemen of the Apocalypse, folks.

Kunstler argues that our fate is inevitable whether in five or ten or fifty years. I won’t belabor the point. Kunstler’s argument is book length. Suffice it to say that he makes a convincing argument.

I cannot speak to the facts or whether Kunstler’s logic is flawed but his basic premise—that oil and natural gas production will peak within the next few decades, if not the next few years, and then decline—seems uncontested.

I’ve been so obsessed with this lately that my wife has outlawed the book as a topic of conversation; still I can’t help but think what our world will be like without oil or natural gas to drive the machines. Soon the satellites would fall from the sky and we will be plotting our courses by sextant and dead reckoning again. There will be no blast furnaces to make stainless steel, no fiberglass to shape into hulls, no Dacron to weave into sails. Not to mention famine, pestilence, warfare, and chaos.

To quote from W.B. Yeats, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…"

The Chinese have a traditional curse: May you live in interesting times. If Kunstler’s premise is even partially accurate, then we are likely to live in times far more interesting than the visitation of the black plague on medieval Europe.

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3 thoughts on “Black Plague & Boatwrights”

  1. If the fossil fuels run out, then the human race will cut down all the trees for fuel. Quite apart from the environmental disaster that this will trigger, there won’t be any wood left — even for making wooden boats.

  2. True enough. Still, I need some slight reason to hope, some reason to believe that we will not be utterly extirpated, that we’ll survive – humbled, greatly diminished, but grateful. It may not be a realistic hope but it keeps me from despair. That and a tumbler of rum.

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