At present, whether you need to move around yourself, or whether everything you need is delivered straight to your door, you depend for transport on industrial products whether they be cars and lorries, planes, trains, ships, bicycles, or even just a good pair of shoes. Is any means of transport available that you could provide, build or even service yourself that does not require access to industrial materials, products or services?
Even human bipedal locomotion has been industrialised: just to get from the bedroom to the bathroom you might want to put on slippers, and they probably say “Made in China” on them. They were made in a large factory, and were brought to you on an even larger container ship. Few of us know any cobblers who live within walking distance, whereas, were the global industrial economy to unravel, bipedal locomotion would become, pardon the pun, our sole recourse. It is an old experimentalist tradition to try experiments on oneself, and so, as an experiment, I spent a few months going about barefoot. I found it quite possible, reasonably safe, and even perfectly pleasant, in the warmer seasons and climates, following a few weeks of somewhat uncomfortable adaptation. But that’s a minor matter; my other, more ambitious experiments have made me quite optimistic regarding one’s ability to cover huge distances and generally move about the planet, even after jet aircraft, container ships and other leviathans of industrial civilisation go off to join the dinosaurs. Provided, that is, that one makes some timely preparations.
A Thames barge, a traditional 80ft shoal-draft craft designed for estuaries and coastal waters, could carry large amounts of cargo and be sailed by a man and a boy. Photo: Steve Birch.
Although a complete and instantaneous collapse of global industry doesn’t seem particularly likely just at this very moment, its likelihood begins to approach 100 per cent as we move through the 21st Century. The opposing view – that industrial civilisation can survive this century – comes up rather short of facts to support it and rests on an unshakable faith in technological miracles. In an echo of medieval alchemy, the hopes for technological salvation are pinned on some element or other: yesterday it was hydrogen; today it’s thorium. Fusion reactors are currently out of fashion, cold fusion doubly so, but who knows what new grand proposal tomorrow will bring?
In the meantime, we have far more mundane problems to consider. We’ve had ample chance to observe that when key supplies run short, industrial economies crumble. Throughout their relatively short history, industrial economies have tended to do well as they were given more and more of everything they needed (energy, raw materials, fresh water, land, cheap/free labour and so forth). There are no examples of industrial economies surviving chronic shortfalls of key commodities — especially ones that have no readily available substitutes. Quite the opposite: we have the stunning example of the USSR, where the peak in domestic crude oil production precipitated a financial collapse and a political dissolution just a few years later, events which were followed by a severe and prolonged economic decline. It was only by integrating with the global economy, which had plentiful resources at the time, that the Russian economy was able to recover. No such rescues will be available when the shortfalls become global.
We also have the example of the current Great Recession, which occurred as soon as the global economy encountered a physical limit to oil production. These events are like canaries in a coal mine, because over the course of the century the global industrial economy is destined to encounter not just global peak oil, but peak just about everything else it runs on: coal, natural gas, iron ore, strategic metals and minerals – in short, just about everything that industry requires to maintain itself and to grow. Since most footwear is now made of polymers, which are synthesised from oil and natural gas, we are also likely to pass peak shoes. Such facts can now be gleaned from a number of authoritative reports published by international and governmental agencies.
Why, then, don’t these facts inform the discussion on the future of transport? If one were to assemble a panel of professionals and experts on transport technology and ask them to propose transport solutions that could continue to operate for the remainder of this century, one would no doubt hear of various high-tech products – electric cars, light rail, high-speed trains, hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids and so on. These would enable our contemporary, industrialized society to perpetuate its current lifestyle, and everyone to keep their jobs. That’s all well and good, but as a follow-up question one might wish to inquire as to how their plans will be impacted by a variety of factors, some of which are already present, some certain to happen at some point during this century, with only the exact timing in dispute. The list of such factors might reasonably include:
- The inability to supply/afford transport fuels in the amounts needed to run existing transportation networks, construction and industrial equipment. Transport fuels are made almost entirely from oil, and global oil production has probably already entered terminal decline. Since coal and natural gas are set to follow within the next 15 years, they can scarcely provide substitutes. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or biomass either do not provide transportation fuels or provide them in comparatively tiny quantities.
- A lack of the resources required to build new transportation infrastructure due to a permanent and deepening economic depression. Economies that fail to grow, or grow more slowly than the population, would not produce a surplus sufficient to maintain their existing infrastructure and vehicle fleets, never mind investing in ambitious new schemes.
- Shortages of strategic metals and key rare earth elements needed to manufacture high-technology components such as electric vehicle batteries, photovoltaic panels and high-efficiency electric motors.
These are mined predominantly in China and are only available in restricted quantities.
- Social disruptions and political upheavals caused by population pressures in the face of a shrinking economy. These are unpredictable but would predictably result in disruptions to global supply chains, shortages of parts, and project delays and cancellations.
- Disruption of ocean freight once rising ocean levels begin to inundate port facilities. The current authoritative worst-case estimates are for a 1.5 metre sea level rise this century, but it is based on incomplete understanding of global warming effects and dynamics of polar ice cap melt. As knowledge improves, the estimates tend to double every few years, but they have not been keeping up with observed reality. The ultimate sea level rise may be as high as 20 metres.
In response, one would no doubt hear that solving such problems is outside of the area of expertise of transport technology professionals. Transport might be able to overcome some combination of such external problems, given enough time and money. For instance, a way might be found to manufacture high-technology components without using the rare earth elements in short supply. Or, if rising sea levels inundate ocean freight terminals, then, clearly, the terminals would have to be re-built again and again. However, if the resources were not available for such an ambitious and ultimately futile undertaking, then that would be regarded not as a technological but as a financial or even a political problem. Working one’s way up the technological food chain from the transport sector to the energy sector, one finds that energy professionals always blame production shortfalls and high prices on lack of sufficient investment. Why do they always say that the problems they face are not physical but economic? Economists, in turn, are perfectly content to ignore physical realities and treat all problems as problems of economic policy.
And so it would appear that the overall working assumption of every specialist, expert and professional in every discipline is ceteris paribus – all other things being equal. They will work just on those problems on which they are qualified to work, provided that sufficient research and development funds, materials and facilities are made available to them. They would prefer to assume that future demand patterns will be much like the present ones: to-be-developed electric cars and light rail lines would be used to convey commuters to and from their jobs and consumers to and from nearby businesses and shopping centres. It must be inconceivable to them that this equipment would be idled while the former commuters and shoppers, bankrupted by wasteful and ineffective investments in technology, would be forced to spread out across the rural landscape in search of hand-to-mouth sustenance. They would no doubt prefer to think that their profession will continue to exist and have relevance: jobs will lead to pensions, graduate students will grow up to be post-doctoral students and hope to become junior faculty members some day, grant money will continue to flow, conferences will be organised and peer-reviewed journals will be published. In every field of research, from oil field analysis to climatology, no matter how conclusively morbid the results, more research will always be needed. But won’t the sort of disruption we are going to encounter deal the coup de grace to the industrial-scientific establishment? This perfectly reasonable question is answered either with quiet despondency or with entirely unjustified accusations of defeatism or extremism. Such emotional responses are woefully unprofessional; we can and must do better.
One approach to doing better seems to have already exhausted its possibilities. A branch of science known as systems theory was once seen as a way to de-compartmentalise thinking and to formulate interdisciplinary solutions to the problems of large, complex systems. An echo of that approach can still be heard in some of the current thinking on climate science, which attempts to leverage conclusions based on observations and climate models to formulate international public policies to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Experience with both the Kyoto Treaty and the more recent failure to agree a Copenhagen Treaty has laid bare a critical flaw in such thinking: it confuses knowledge with power.
The ability to analyse a complex system does not in any way imply an ability to influence it. Scientists appear, as a group, to be naïve about politics, and are misled into accepting as fact a fiction of control perpetuated by politicians and industry and business leaders, who find it useful to pretend that they possess the power to alter systems over which they merely preside. Be it the fossil fuel industry, or mining and manufacturing, or industrial agriculture, or the weapons industry, or the automotive industry – all of these can be modelled as machines lacking an “off” switch. Yet each one requires energy, raw materials, and financial and social stability and can only continue to operate as long as these needs continue to be met, after which point they undergo systemic breakdowns and cascaded failure. Although an analysis based on systems theory cannot do anything to prevent them, perhaps it can offer valuable insights into how long these systems should be expected to continue functioning, or provide some detail on how their demise will unfold.
If we are willing to concede that the global industrial economy will not last through the 21st century, then, while it is still possible, we can put together technologies and designs appropriate for the post-industrial age, and set in motion forward-looking projects with the goal of creating enough momentum, in the form of strong local traditions, institutions, practices and skills, to carry them through periods of economic disruption and political dissolution. Future generations will have to learn to make do with much less of everything, and with much less research and development in particular. Working in the twilight years of the industrial era, we could offer them a great service by leaving behind a few designs that they will actually be able to build and use.
In particular, post-industrial transport is a subject that until now has been quite neglected. Quite a lot has already been done to elucidate some of the available options for post-industrial construction, agriculture, medicine and other areas. Yet the ability to travel, on foot or otherwise, is the Achilles’ heel of our ability to implement solutions in any other area: innovation and diffusion of new practices, technologies and ideas is bound to come to a near-standstill without the ability to move materials and people. Without long-distance transport, long-distance communication is bound to break down as well, and the current unified view of the planet and of humanity will dissolve. Unlike other components of the industrial life support system, industrial transport systems have no post-industrial back-ups worth mentioning. Post-industrial agriculture has its organic and permaculture alternatives, post-industrial architecture its passive solar, cob, straw bale, rammed earth and round timber alternatives, post-industrial medicine its traditional Chinese medicine and other alternative medical traditions and practices, but when it comes to transport there do not appear to be any presently available post-industrial alternatives beyond horses and our very own scantily shod feet.
Our contemporary transport systems are almost entirely dependent on refined petroleum products for both the maintenance of transport infrastructure and most of the actual movement of passengers and freight. It took decades to phase in large-scale transport technologies such as coal-fired steam engines or marine diesels. Moreover, these transitions could only have taken place in the context of an expanding economy and resource base, and with the older modes of transport still functioning. Thus, it seems outlandish to imagine that a gradual, non-disruptive transition to alternative transport technologies might still be possible. A resilient plan should be able to survive an almost complete shut-down and provide for bootstrapping to an entirely new mode, within a new set of physical limits. Take away petroleum, and none of the contemporary industrial transport systems remain functional. Even electric rail or electric cars, or even bicycles, which do not use petroleum directly, require an intact industrial economy that runs on fossil fuels, and on petroleum-based fuels for the delivery of spare parts and infrastructure maintenance. The current global recession and trends in the global oil market make it possible to sketch out how a Great Stranding will occur: transport fuels may still be plentiful in theory, but in practice they will become unaffordable, and therefore unavailable, to much of the population.
Two factors play a key role. The first is the maximum price that consumers can pay. Beyond this price, demand is destroyed and the recession deepens. Each time this price is reached, a great deal of wealth is destroyed as well, and when subsequently a partial recovery occurs, consumers are poorer, and the maximum price they can pay is lower. Thus the maximum price decreases over time. The second factor is the minimum price that oil producers can charge, as determined by their production costs, which rise over time as easy-to-produce resources become depleted. Beyond putting a floor under prices, this trend cannot continue past a physical limit: as the easy-to-exploit resources are depleted, a point is reached when the resources that are left, though they may yet be plentiful, cannot be produced profitably at any price, because the amount of energy required to do so would exceed the amount of energy they would yield. Thus the minimum price increases over time.
Although an argument can be made that this trend can be offset to some extent by developing alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, nuclear or biomass, a careful study of this question reveals that the net energy yield of alternative energies is, in all, rather poor, that the overall potential quantity of energy delivered by the alternatives is rather low, and that the massive financial investment that would be necessary to exploit them is increasingly unlikely. Most significantly, while individual countries may find solutions, there are simply no alternative sources of transport fuels in the quantities required globally for current systems to continue functioning, nor are there resources available to replace existing systems with anything else on a similar scale.
Thus we have two trend lines: a falling maximum price that consumers can afford, and a rising minimum price that producers have to charge. When the two lines cross, production shuts down. Since there is finer structure to both the supply and the demand, this is likely to happen in stages. On the demand destruction side, consumers can forgo holiday airline trips; they can stop driving cars and switch to walking or bicycling; they can heat just one room of the house; they can go back to the older tradition of the weekly splash in the tub (whether they need one or not) in place of the daily hot shower. This will allow them to make do with far less energy, and to sustain much higher energy prices. In turn, energy producers can cut their costs by producing less and closing wells or mines that are expensive to operate.
As the oil industry shuts down, maintenance requirements for roadways and bridges, sea ports and other infrastructure will no longer be met, while the price of transport services will come to exceed what businesses and consumers can afford to pay. There are already signs that we are in the early stages of such a slow-motion train-wreck. In 2009 the northernmost State of Maine could no longer afford to continue maintaining many of its paved rural roadways, which were being allowed to revert to dirt. At the opposite end of the transport spectrum, global airline travel had begun to decline, with most airlines reporting losses, and with air traffic still expanding only in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Such a gradual winding down of the industrial economy will leave little room for many non-essential activities, such as safety and efficiency upgrades, infrastructure maintenance, fleet replacement, and research and development. We can expect priority to be given to keeping existing equipment in running order by cannibalising and reusing parts as fewer and fewer vehicles remain in use. As this happens, safety and reliability will suffer, with many more cancellations and accidents, and cargoes being lost due to spoilage.
One can reasonably imagine that certain internal combustion vehicles will stay in sporadic use longer than others. For instance, limousines for weddings and hearses for funerals will perhaps remain motorised the longest, moving slowly over unpaved roads, since people would still be willing to pay extra for dignity on special occasions. We can also foresee that certain groups, such as governments, mafias, armed gangs and other social predators will be able to secure a supply of fuel the longest.
It is difficult to imagine that such a winding-down can happen uniformly, smoothly and peaceably. Inevitably, geography will be the determining factor: remote population centres, to which fuel must be brought overland, will have their supply curtailed long before those that are close to pipelines, railway lines, seaports or shipping channels. In communities that find themselves without access to transport fuels, much of the remaining economic activity will centre round gathering the necessary resources to escape, and they will steadily depopulate. Only the old and the sick will be left behind.
To see where this process might eventually lead – if we are lucky – it is helpful to look at pre-industrial settlement and transport patterns. After all, industrial, fossil fuel-powered transport has existed for just a blink of an eye in the long history of global trade and migration. By the time the fossil-fuel age arrived, the vast majority of the planet’s surface was already explored and settled. People moved about on foot, on horseback, by boat and by sailing ship, and these are the transport modes to which humanity will return once the fossil fuel-driven episode is over.
Transport costs can be grouped into two categories. The first is energy cost, encompassing consumables such as fuel, food and fodder, as well as the energy embodied in the equipment used – draft and pack animals, carts, boats, ships and so on. The second is cost of predation, which includes tributes, bribes, taxes, tariffs, duties and tolls, some officially sanctioned, some criminal. Efforts to avoid predation, by choosing pack animals over draft animals, or by taking detours to avoid toll roads, or by fording rivers instead of paying tolls at bridges, or by sailing random courses instead of following sea-lanes, or by sailing smaller vessels so as to pose a smaller, less desirable target, or by travelling in armed convoys to dissuade would-be robbers, and so on, form a grey area between the two. The upper limit on the amount of transport that is feasible is limited by the sum of the two costs. There is also a trade-off between the two: higher energy efficiency allows for more and fatter prey, and, in due course, for more and fatter predators. On the other hand, successful efforts at avoiding predation may increase energy costs but lower predation costs, resulting in greater overall efficiency and a larger volume of cargo that actually reaches its destination. In this case, greater resilience is achieved by “wasting” energy on predation avoidance rather than by striving to be maximally energy-efficient while inadvertently maximising the level of predation.
For some cargoes in the past, the cost of predation as a result of official tolls and unofficial tributes collected along the way could double the goods’ final price. Tolls were collected along inland waterways and at bridges and river crossings on major roadways. In more remote areas, and especially near mountain passes, brigandage was widespread. Often the only distinction between official and unofficial predation was that the former was sanctioned by the local aristocracy.
For bulk commodities, the energy cost of transport imposes hard limits on the maximum distance that is feasible. For instance, if the product is hay, and the mules pulling the cart eat half of it by the time they reach their destination, then either the trip was futile, or the mules would have nothing to eat on the way back. The energy value of the cargo also imposes an upper limit on the level of predation that is sustainable; if the limit was exceeded frequently, the predators would deplete their prey. Since moving bulk goods by barge is more energy efficient, canals could charge higher and more frequent tolls than toll roads. But the ease with which tolls could be collected along canals often led to abuses by rapacious local officials, forcing canal traffic back onto the less energy-efficient roads and depressing the overall level of trade.
Wheeled vehicles were used for local transport of bulk goods (hay, firewood, grain and other bulk commodities) but not for long-distance transport, which relied on caravans of pack animals. Energy considerations made long-distance overland transport impractical for bulk commodities, restricting it to high-priced items, such as specie (gold and silver), works of art and craftsmanship such as porcelain and cloth, and spices and medicinals. For such high-priced goods, transport costs represented a much smaller fraction of their final price, making avoidance of predation far more important than conserving energy. Wheeled vehicles make predation avoidance more difficult, because they have to use roads and bridges, whereas pack animals can use footpaths, steep mountain passes, dry riverbeds, and can ford rivers and streams. Unlike wheeled vehicles, pack animals can be pulled off the road and hidden by making them lie down behind vegetation, to avoid confrontations with both highwaymen and local officials.
Overland transport is orders of magnitude less energy-efficient than water transport. Before the advent of railways and coal-fired steam locomotives, it cost more to move freight a few kilometres overland than it did to ship it across the ocean by sail. The fortunes of coastal cities were determined by the quality of their harbours. In the New World, cities such as New York, Boston, Charleston and San Francisco became transport hubs because of the large numbers of ocean-going vessels their harbours could easily and safely accommodate. Inland transport relied on navigable rivers and canals, making use of wind and tide to move cargo as far as possible up tidal estuaries. Where wind and currents were unfavourable or unavailable, propulsion had to be provided by draft animals (including imprisoned or enslaved humans) either rowing or pulling the vessel from the towpath. For this reason, inland cities were often built in tidal estuaries at the uppermost reach of the tides and along rivers, lakes and canals.
Coal never fully supplanted sail either in coastal freight or on the high seas, and it was not until the widespread adoption of the marine diesel engine in the mid-21st century that the last sail-based merchant vessels were finally decommissioned. With the exception of very profitable routes and cargoes, such as the China tea trade, which was served by large and fast tea clippers, most sailing vessels were rather small, with large numbers of schooners of around 60 feet (18 metres) and crews of about a dozen, and with the vast majority of ocean-going vessels under 100 feet (30 metres) in length. There was a tendency to build larger merchant vessels in the richer trading nations and during politically stable and prosperous times but, even there, less prosperous and uncertain times brought a reversion to norm. There were many reasons for this, from the inability to secure financing for an ambitious shipbuilding endeavour, to lack of profitable cargo with which to fill a large vessel.
A different logic applied to building military vessels, where ability to project force was prioritised above economy, and where large crews could be obtained cheaply from the ranks of young men who were pressed into service by the simple expedient of denying them any other option. Conditions on board could be almost arbitrarily brutal, with discipline imposed through flogging. Disgruntled seamen swelled the ranks of pirates and privateers, who were often unopposed in their confrontations, because the seamen often sympathised with the pirates rather than with their own loathed and despised officers.
Although, within the larger naval empires, the horrid naval traditions often carried over to the merchant fleets, including the megalomania, the brutality, and the purpose-bred viciousness of the officer class, in general merchant vessels could not exceed a size that could be sailed profitably, with full loads of cargo and the smallest possible crew. Significantly, a crew of about a dozen is the optimal size for a self-organising, self-managing, tightly knit group. Anthropological research has shown that groups larger than this size either have to expend an inordinate amount of time on social grooming activities (politics) to preserve group cohesion, or they have to be structured in a rigid hierarchy and disciplined to instil blind obedience, with vastly lower effectiveness in either case. Such limits appear to be biologically determined: humans have evolved to be most effective in self-organized groups of about a dozen. A smaller crew is problematic, because there would not be enough hands to comfortably man all watches, there being typically two four-hour watches per day per crewman, and two crewmen per watch, for a minimum of six crewmen. Add the captain and the first mate, and that brings it up to eight; a cook (since feeding this large a crew is quite a job) and a bosun (who typically does not stand watches) bring it up to ten. Throw in a mechanic and a steward, and you have a full dozen. And so it turns out that the most efficient vessel is one that can be sailed by a crew of about a dozen men.
High costs of predation were by no means unique to overland transport. At sea, both privateering and piracy abounded, the distinction hinging on the presence of official sanction rather than the manner in which the business was transacted. Privateers carried government-issued letters of marque allowing them to take tribute from citizens of a certain country as reparation for past misdeeds, such as damage caused or non-payment of loans. Pirates lacked such official permission, but the distinction was often an informal one. Additional duties were often imposed at the harbours that were the point of departure and the point of arrival. Since ocean-going vessels are restricted by their deep draught in their options of harbours and port facilities, it is easy for authorities to collect duties and fees from them. Moreover, certain governments went beyond this and designated certain ports as “staple ports” – the only ones through which commercially important products, such as Sicilian wheat, could be shipped, to simplify the process of collecting export duties.
Ocean-going ships were built with economy foremost in mind, cargo capacity second, and crew safety and comfort at sea left as an afterthought. Typically about a third of the expense of a journey was represented by the amortisation and maintenance costs of the vessel itself, with the remaining two-thirds going to the crew, as provisions and pay. If the vessel was to be defended against piracy, the additional expense of arming it could as much as triple the costs. Before the development of naval guns, security at sea was largely a matter of having superior numbers in hand-to-hand combat. The advent of naval guns made the contest rather uneven for a time, with large naval ships being able to threaten any smaller vessel with almost total impunity. With the arrival of ubiquitous and powerful small arms, shoulder-fired weapons, and a variety of special-purpose missiles and explosives, the odds have been evened, and mutual assured destruction prevails on the high seas. Navy ships have to remain on constant alert against even a small dinghy that might cause them serious damage as happened in Aden in 2000 with the US Navy destroyer USS Cole. It is quite a challenge for pirates to gain control of a vessel without getting killed or sunk if the prey vessel is armed and keeps a sharp lookout. Most confrontations with would-be pirates can now be prevented by a simple show of arms.
Although every effort was made to cut costs, the design and construction of ships was mired in conservatism everywhere and sailing technology was slow to diffuse westward from China and the Arab world. Even then, it was absorbed only partially. The pinnacle of Western sailing ship evolution is the unwieldy square-rigged vessel, which required the crew to go aloft in all conditions to handle sail – something that is neither necessary nor desirable, and one of the many problems that the Chinese and the Arabs had solved many centuries previously. And yet these manifestly imperfect vessels were the ones that explored and conquered just about every corner of the globe – a process that had largely run its course by the time the first steam-ship was launched in the 1840s. Countless lives were lost due to poor design, shoddy construction and incompetent command, but so great are the advantages of water transport over land transport that the gains were considered worth the risk.
In the light of this, what transport technologies will be relevant to an energy-scarce, climate-disrupted, socially chaotic future? We can foresee that road traffic will be greatly reduced as paved roads revert to dirt and become eroded and, in places, impassable, as bridges collapse from lack of maintenance, and as predation by both local officials and highwaymen increases both the costs and the dangers. Once again, pedestrian traffic and caravans of pack animals will try to evade official and unofficial predation, opting for the less popular, more circuitous footpaths instead of the direct and open road. Canals and other navigable waterways will once again play a much larger role in inland transport, with barges pulled by draught animals along towpaths and with sail-boats carrying freight and passengers along the sea-coasts. As the sea-ports that currently serve container ships, bulk carriers and tankers are submerged under the rising seas, the current hub-and-spoke transport networks will collapse, and smaller coastal communities will once again find ample reason to want to build and provision ocean-going vessels to trade with faraway lands.
Here are some questions we might ask ourselves
- “How can we help? What useful technological legacy can we bequeath to future generations?”
- “What if, instead of squandering its remaining resources on lavish parting presents for its ageing rentier class, the current profit-and-growth economic paradigm were to be quietly replaced with the idea that society should serve its children and grandchildren, should any be lucky enough to survive”?
- “What can we usefully accomplish in the time remaining before inescapable resource constraints force industrial life-support systems to stop functioning? What technological heirlooms and key pieces of learning could we convey, in the form of a living tradition, to give future generations a chance at surviving the dystopian future we are now working so hard to construct for them?”
It is becoming clear that future generations will be faced with a number of new challenges. One is that rapid climate change is very likely to put an end to the last ten thousand years of benign, stable climate. It was this rare episode of climate stability that allowed agriculture to develop and flourish and permitted nomadic tribes to settle down in one place without the risk of starvation. It allowed agrarian societies to produce such large food surpluses that cities and towns could become established, eventually growing to millions of inhabitants, all fed with crops grown elsewhere, at first in the immediate vicinity and now quite far away. As the climate deteriorates, people will be forced to return to a migratory and nomadic existence to minimise the risk of starvation by staying close to the sources of their food and diversifying them across large geographic areas. In other words, they will go to the food rather than having the food brought to them.
Another challenge will be posed by rising sea levels. The latest forecasts indicate that coastal communities will either adapt to life with constant flooding, salt-water inundation and storm erosion, or be abandoned. Ancient ports such as Cádiz, which was built by the Phoenicians and has been in continuous use ever since, will no longer be able to function. Formerly sheltered harbours will become exposed as barrier islands are eroded away by storms. Material from newly eroded shores will form shoals and silt up harbours and navigation channels. Efforts to resist the deterioration such as defending, existing shorelines, building higher jetties and breakwaters, constructing dykes and sea-walls and dredging harbours and inlets, will eventually prove futile as sea levels are likely continue to rise for many centuries. Consequently, those who wish to occupy and use the shoreline will have to find ways to cope with constant flooding.
In the parts of the world where people still walk or use pack and draught animals, they will muddle through somehow but it remains a large open question whether or not they will be able to continue to traverse oceans. Throughout history, the ability to sail the oceans has conferred tremendous advantages. Seafaring pre-dates industry, but it does require access to appropriate boat-building materials and a seafaring tradition.
Future generations will face three major problems in their attempts to preserve their seafaring abilities:
- Current, industrial shipbuilding practices, as well as the vessels themselves, will be of no use without both a functioning industrial economy and the widespread availability of transport fuels.
- Going back to traditional, wood-based shipbuilding techniques will not be possible because logging and deforestation have depleted the supply of the high-quality timber
- Access to the ocean will be in most places become complicated as the rising seas silt up inlets, navigation channels and harbours and wash away waterfronts. Deep-draught ocean vessels will find land access obstructed and difficult due to the eroded shoreline.
The vast majority of existing ocean vessels are welded out of steel plate and are propelled by diesel engines that burn bunker fuel, a low-grade petroleum distillate. For their operation, they require industrial facilities such as container ports (for loading and unloading cargo), bunkering ports (for taking on fuel) and dry docks (for maintenance). A vanishingly small percentage of overall gross tonnage is comprised of sailing vessels, which are built and operated mainly for the purposes of preserving maritime and naval history, luxury and ostentation, recreation and sport – pursuits lacking any practical merit. A truly infinitesimal number of more practical boats is custom-built by professionals or amateurs, and an even smaller number of these is actually sailed extensively on the high seas, but these voyages provide the vast majority of interesting contemporary seafaring narratives (“yarns”). Some of these unusual vessels can provide a glimpse of the future. Although the vast majority of even these vessels rely on industrial materials (marine plywoods and epoxies, fasteners, aluminium extrusions for masts and spars, stainless steel wire rope for the standing rigging and petrochemical-based synthetics such as long-strand polyester for the sails and the running rigging) their overall designs are sometimes sufficiently low-tech (which is to say, advanced) to survive the transition to the post-industrial age.
A revival of traditional, wooden shipbuilding is inconceivable in most places, as the required quantities of high-quality timber would be prohibitively expensive and its local supply would be quite limited. Most areas of the world, and especially those near sea-coasts or navigable rivers, have been extensively logged and largely denuded of old-growth trees – those with dense, clear grain that are useful for building hulls. Forest productivity is also being reduced because rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing rain to become more acidic. Carbonic acid has a number of negative effects on trees: it dissolves aluminium compounds present in the soil, which plugs up tree roots, starving the trees of nutrients, it dissolves nutrients in the soil, causing them to leach out and drain away, and it harms soil biota that help trees absorb nutrients. Thus even concerted long-term efforts at growing trees suitable for shipbuilding may not yield good results.
Large, deep-draught vessels would not be suitable for the new coastal conditions. Smallish ones, about 60 feet (18 metres) long, with a shoal draught of about 4 feet (120 cm) would be much better. They would have to be sturdily built with flat (rockered but not flared) bottoms to let them settle upright on the bottom at low tide. But it would also have to be a seaworthy, blue water sailing vessel, able to ride out storms up to and including tropical cyclones.
Dmitry Orlov's shoal-draft boat, Hogfish, at anchor in Salem Harbor, Mass.
In 2006, I put my findings together in an article, The New Age of Sail . At that time I had had very little actual ocean sailing experience, and had to rely almost entirely on second-hand information. I have since purchased a sailboat of the sort I described: a versatile and practical shoal-draught ocean-capable boat. My wife and I sold our flat and moved aboard the boat. We have since spent close to two years sailing the entire length of the eastern coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida, including rivers, canals and long stretches of the open Atlantic. We have encountered some very lively conditions whipped up by tropical storms and hurricanes. In the process, I was able to learn enough about boat-building to improve the design, building a new rudder and making numerous other adjustments and improvements. I also fitted it with solar panels and a wind turbine, a composting toilet, and a rainwater collection system.
I am very happy to report that just about everything I wrote in The New Age of Sail I have been able to confirm by direct experiment. I am also quite convinced that, in spite of what some sailing traditionalists and fashion-victims might think, shoal-draft seaworthy boats are very much a reality, and that it is quite possible for a dedicated home-builder to vastly exceed the results of a commercial boat-builder at a small fraction of the cost. Such boats may not please those people whose minds are fixated on the idea of getting to the finish line just a tiny bit faster than the next competitor, or people who have a fetish for varnished wood and polished bronze, or the various other strange fixations and affectations that affect what little has remained of the sailing world, but it is quite hard to see why they would be relevant.
My boat is decidedly not post-industrial. It is constructed of marine plywood (fir veneers laminated with synthetic adhesive), sheathed in epoxy and fibreglass and painted with polyurethane paints. The masts and spars are aluminium extrusions, the rigging is stainless steel, and the sails and lines are of synthetic fibre. It is equipped with advanced electronics, including an autopilot and a GPS chart-plotter. Yet there are many things about the overall design of this boat that are just right. It only draws two feet, it handles very well with the centreboard up (which is only needed when sailing upwind or manoeuvring in close quarters) and so it can be sailed over shallows. It can be run aground or beached without risk of damage and it settles upright at low tide. It rides quietly to anchor even in high winds (a surprisingly important but neglected aspect of yacht design). It is fast for its size, and it is so stiff that it is virtually impossible to capsize. Its almost square hull cross-section provides far more stowage space than round-bilge boats of much deeper draught. Its motion in a seaway is steady and gentle, allowing us to enjoy a nice cup of tea in conditions where the crews of other boats apparently have had to brace themselves to avoid being tossed about the cabin.
But the choice of materials poses a problem. However, as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And so, by eliminating all industrial materials and technologies, as well as the pre-industrial materials that are no longer affordable or available in quantity, I have arrived at what must be, in the end, the only viable set of options for building an unlimited number of ocean-going vessels of the sort that would be required. Given the eventual unavailability of steel plate and welding technology, or high-quality hardwood, or petrochemical-based composites and synthetics, the one remaining choice of hull material is… ferrocement. Many such hulls have been built, with mostly good results, the bad ones generally resulting from improper techniques used by overly ambitious beginners enticed by the very low cost of the materials involved.
If done correctly, the resulting hull is strong, long-lasting, maintenance-free and fireproof. Cement is a pre-industrial material that was already known to the ancient Romans, who used it, among other things, to surface the spillways of aqueducts. It is currently available as an industrial product and in vast quantities, but in the small quantities needed by artisans for plastering hulls it can be produced using non-industrial techniques, by crushing and baking out limestone and clay in home-made kilns. It could conceivably be made using renewable energy: baking out limestone is potentially a good application for concentrating solar technology, while crushing and grinding can be powered by windmills or waterwheels. Limestone is available in unlimited quantities through manual surface mining in many places throughout the planet. The preferred aggregate used for building ferrocement hulls is river sand – sharp, almost completely indestructible granules of eroded hard rock that have not been weathered by surf or wind – a material that is also ubiquitous.
The steel armature that holds the cement plaster together typically consists of small diameter steel pipe, steel rod and steel mesh. These are industrial materials, but they will remain available for a long time past the end of the industrial age, in the relatively small quantities required for building hulls, because they can easily be reclaimed from abandoned industrial structures and facilities. The armature (called “the basket”) is assembled by hand, with simple hand tools, by bending the material into shape and tying it together with short lengths of wire. While the steel armature is a well-understood construction method giving a strong, durable result, it may be possible to replace the mesh and perhaps other parts of the armature with natural fibre. Clearly, thorough testing would be needed before a boat-builder would commit to such a change but this is not an urgent issue because the quantities of scrap metal that the two centuries of industrial development will have left behind will be sufficient for building a very large number of ferrocement hulls far into the future.
Covering the basket with mortar is usually performed by a gang of expert plasterers in a continuous session that may span several days. To become a first-rate ferrocement plasterer, one would start by becoming a master plasterer and then specifically train for the much more demanding task of plastering hulls. To control porosity, the mortar mix used for hulls has to be quite dry compared to the mixes used for other types of construction, making it more difficult to form it into sheets without any voids and without pulling aggregate to the surface. The skin of mortar has to be fair and smooth and as thin as possible (typically between 12 and 20 mm) but thick enough to prevent any part of the basket from showing through (to prevent corrosion). Tight process control is needed for optimum results, which are achieved by controlling temperature and humidity, keeping all contaminants out of the mortar, using precise mixing and plastering techniques, and keeping to a specific hydration schedule. After plastering, the hull has to be kept moist for about three months, during which it slowly gains strength and plasticity.
Unfortunately, the effects of improper technique often become apparent much later, when the hull leaks, abrades or cracks and the armature rusts, resulting in a shorter service life. However, sudden and catastrophic failures seem to be a rarity, and an older hull that would no longer be used for ocean sailing can still be considered safe for use in sheltered waters. Ferrocement hulls are quite easy to repair, and some that have suffered heavy damage by becoming impaled on rocks and coral-heads were subsequently placed back into service after being quite casually repaired with cement mix and a trowel.
There are likely to be opportunities to perfect the properties of the mortar. Microscopic cracking of the mortar, which is structurally benign but increases porosity, can be prevented by the addition of glass fibre chemically treated to withstand the alkaline environment of the mortar. While glass fibre is composed of minerals that are plentiful, it is currently an industrial product. However, as with cement, it is possible to imagine that a way will be found to produce it using concentrating passive solar in combination with wind or water power. The addition of glass fibre to the aggregate also makes the mortar lighter and more impact-resistant: some recent formulations for architectural use have resulted is quite thin sheets that nevertheless can withstand repeated blows with a pick. Another possible direction of research involves making the mortar self-repairing by inoculating the mortar mix with a culture of calcifying bacteria, along with their favourite food (urea). When a crack starts to form, the bacteria become active and fill the crack with new calcium. It remains to be seen whether increasing ocean acidity resulting from carbon dioxide emissions will interfere with this process.
So the prospects for building quite serviceable sail-boat hulls without recourse to industrial materials (with the exception of reused steel) appear to be reasonably good, provided the skills can be established ahead of time and passed on as part of a living tradition. But what about the other essential components of a sailing vessel – the masts, the sails, and the rigging? The current, industrial practice is to use extruded aluminium masts, or masts glued up out of precisely fitted planks using high-technology synthetic adhesives. In the past, sailing vessels had “grown” masts, which consisted of a single tree trunk. The smaller vessels could use such a mast in a free-standing fashion, supported only at the deck and shaped to give it a taper toward the top. On larger vessels the masts were supported on all sides by tensioned lines. By the time the age of sail was nearing its end, however, trees of the right size and quality for “grown” masts had become a rarity and shipwrights were forced to switch to “made” masts which consisted of many smaller tree trunks shaped and held together using dowels and hoops.
Although “made” masts could be given arbitrary thickness and taper, eliminating the need for standing rigging, apparently shipwrights could not imagine such a radical departure from the norm. For such radical post-industrial shipbuilding solutions we have to turn to the ancient Chinese, who explored much of the earth in their large sailing junks, which, incidentally, were equipped with free-standing “made” masts of bamboo. The advantages of free-standing masts are numerous: their design is much simpler, they have less wind resistance up high where wind speeds are highest, they can be taken down more easily, to make the vessel less noticeable when navigating inland and so to avoid predation, or to pass under fixed bridges, overhanging trees and other obstructions. It is difficult to design free-standing masts that are particularly tall, but since shoal-draft vessels of the sort being considered here cannot support masts that are much taller than the length of the vessel without making it unstable, equipping them with free-standing, tapered, “made” masts seems the obvious choice.
With regard to sails and control lines, the modern practice is to use low-stretch synthetic fibre such as long-strand polyester. The high strength and low stretch of these materials allowed designs to progress very far in the direction of very large expanses of fabric unsupported by any internal structure, controlled by a few lines, all under very high tension. The pre-industrial practice was to use much weaker and stretchier natural fibre: cotton or linen for sails, and manilla or hemp for rope, limiting the size of each sail. However, the ancient Chinese have done extremely well with gigantic sails made of even weaker materials such as woven grass mat by using an ingenious rig that distributed the loads over many small lines and panels of sailcloth: the Chinese junk rig. Modern adherents of this rig rave about its numerous merits such as the fact that it can be controlled as a unit, and have crossed oceans with sails so threadbare that they could be punctured with a fist, yet they held together through ocean storms because the individual panels were small and braced by stiff battens. At present, the Chinese junk rig is a splendid solution waiting for the problem that is about to present itself: the end of strong, low-stretch synthetic sailcloth. The junk rig is wonderfully versatile, allowing a vessel to be controlled without leaving the pilothouse, tacked up a narrow channel and even sailed backwards. Blondie Hasler, who has crossed the Atlantic in his junk-rigged boat “Jester” wrote that the ease of handling was such that he could imagine making the entire crossing in bathrobe and slippers, without once venturing out on deck.
But sometimes an auxiliary form of propulsion is needed – if only to be able to steer when drifting in a tidal or river current while becalmed, or to pass under obstructions with the masts lowered, or to shift berth in close quarters. Luckily, we can once again turn to the Chinese for a post-industrial solution that has already stood the test of time. Oars are not particularly useful on anything but very small sailboats because they would have to be quite long to reach down to the water. This would make them unwieldy and their action awkward and inefficient. Oars are inefficient in any case, because they have to be lifted out of the water and retracted for each stroke, wasting time and energy. The Chinese solution for propelling larger sailing vessels is the yuloh: a long, slightly curved sculling oar that extends aft with its blade floating just below the water. To propel the vessel, it is pivoted and moved to and fro by crewmen standing before the mainmast. The resulting motion is vaguely similar to that of a fishtail. With roughly 1kW peak power output per crewman, and with 2 yulohs worked by 4 crewmen each, as much as 8kW (10 horsepower) can be produced for a duration. On flat, still water this is more than sufficient to move even a fairly large vessel. When not in use, the blades of the yulohs are lifted out of the water and lashed to the sides of the hull.
Vessels of the design sketched out in this article would be of immediate practical value to numerous people throughout the world because of the wide variety of purposes to which they can be put. They can be used for transporting passengers and freight over open water and on rivers and canals. They can be used as floating, mobile workshops, schools, clinics, warehouses, offices, and residences on coastal land that is increasingly prone to flooding. This would allow people to hold onto their land for as long as possible and to float closer to shore or further inland when the time comes without becoming dispossessed in the process. The boats can be used for seasonal migrations, to gather scarce resources over a wider expanse and to avoid having to spend summers or winters in hot or cold climates. All that is required for building such boats is a bit of coastal land and materials, some of which are free (river sand), some quite inexpensive (cement, recycled metal), and others that can be grown and worked by hand (bamboo, hemp). The largest input is, of course, labour. Much of it can be semi-skilled physical labour that can be contributed by the local community. Some highly experienced, expert labour is also needed but only at certain key stages of the building process to ensure that the results are long-lasting, safe and reliable.
In a world where rising seas are already putting millions of people at risk of losing their homes, their lives, or both, a programme of building large numbers of inexpensive, practical, utilitarian and versatile sailing craft is a direct way to provide flood-proof, earthquake-proof, fireproof and storm-proof habitation, to build communities, to create local resilience, and to provide hope for a survivable future. It is a way to create connections between different parts of the planet that can survive into the post-industrial age. It enables people and goods to be carried in a way that avoids the predation that will be an inevitable element of a disrupted time. It offers us an opportunity to make sure that we remain a seafaring species even as the fossil-fuel era recedes into history, and gives us a way to salvage something very useful out of the wreckage of our industrial past.
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