Building Lifeboats – Building Community

NAVIGATING UNCHARTED TERRITORY

“‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” ― Voltaire

The sinking of the Titanic is horribly memorable for many reasons, but one stands out above all: that so many lives were needlessly lost due to “if only” or “what if.” The “unsinkable” vessel lacked sufficient lifeboats to easily hold all passengers and crew, and when launched, those boats were only partly filled.

Looking deeper: many more Titanic passengers could have been saved if only the crew had been better trained, if only the lifeboats had been deployed in a timely way, if there had been a lifeboat drill, If third class “steerage” passengers had been assigned emergency stations, and if only the ship’s captain had taken iceberg warnings seriously instead of being in deadly denial. Today, no passenger vessel can leave port without an adequate number of well provisioned lifeboats, proper training and preparedness. So the impacts of disasters at sea, which do inevitably occur, are minimized. 

Leaping forward from an historic calamity to a looming catastrophe: the world is sailing toward a Titanic moment — a collision of unprecedented proportions between blasé “business as usual” planning and a rapidly escalating and increasingly violent climate crisis. New York’s Hudson Valley is the world in microcosm.

Looking forward rationally and unflinchingly at all major indicators, extreme weather events far worse than Hurricanes Irene and Sandy could lie just over the horizon, meaning that our communities could soon face cataclysmic food and energy shortages, transportation disruptions, infrastructure failures, inundation of vital facilities and valuable properties by sea level rise, a massive financial meltdown and all manner of attendant debilitating social disarray. But no one is seriously preparing.

Flooding
forest fire

 We lack both the leadership and the necessary wherewithal at the state, regional, and community levels. But we know that intensifying climate shocks are no longer far off, low probability events. We’ve been warned not only by the climate models — maps of our potential future — but also by daily current events: unprecedented heatwaves storms and droughts are here now. For proof, we need look no further than the cataclysmic fires in Australia and the Amazon, or Paradise, California.

The stages of climate grief:  

With every passing day it grows more dangerous for us to depend on good luck or forced optimism and false hope as our best protections. Sooner or later the United States, the Northeast and the Hudson Valley will be slammed by climate disaster. Will we be ready?

The short answer: we won’t, unless we rapidly move through the stages of climate grief, from paralysis to action. The climate change facts at hand tell us we should already be well past the first stage, denial. But that isn’t the case, with the national government — our ship of state — making its rudderless way through a wildly roiling sea of political division, while individuals are consumed by incapacitating grief. Clearly, the only way forward right now is through decisive local action.

To help determine the healthy way ahead, let’s look at the stages of our global trauma:

Obviously, we need to move to the fourth stage as quickly as possible — without panic, acting rationally as we prepare ourselves for unpredictable, but increasingly likely climate shocks, the “what ifs” of our current historic moment.

Survivalists, preppers and lifeboat builders:

Some may compare lifeboat builders with survivalists (1) and preppers (2) — those constructing fortified bunkers in remote areas to protect themselves from the “others” in event of “Apocalypse.” 

But there is a significant difference: lifeboat builders aren’t only thinking of themselves; they’re leading the way, constructing small, local, resilient community systems where we will all be able to rely on each other for survival and safety. This sort of local resilience allows us to live not separately, but together in hope and possibility, rather than in fear — to thrive rather than merely survive.

Like a ship captain and crew, however, today’s lifeboat builders must prepare well in advance of chaos. They must anticipate disaster as it might unfold, making sure they’ve provided enough boats, stocked them with adequate provisions and trained crew who know how to respond in a crisis. As we sail into the uncertain waters of climate chaos, we must ready our households, neighborhoods and communities. 

And just as we would never accuse a ship captain who conducts regular lifeboat drills of “doom and gloom thinking,” we must face reality: the real danger of impending climate chaos comes from us ignoring the signs and doing nothing. Inaction puts us all at significant risk. Action offers us hope.

A New Narrative:

As a species, we are storytellers. And the stories we tell collectively, whether they be found in Gilgamesh, the Bible, or traditional American History all serve as action plans for the time. They tell us what worked well in the past so we might move into a productive future. But sometimes those tales become outdated and the signposts pointing to safety in the past instead lead us down paths into danger.

The tale we’ve told ourselves over the last 300 years, since the Age of Reason and on into the Modern Age of Expansion, is that we live in a time of limitless progress, of ever-expanding opportunity and possibility, in which there is a high technological fix for every problem.

In this story, we tell ourselves that unlimited growth and soaring GDP is a real measure of economic health and community wellbeing; that a rising stock market protects us, no matter how rundown our neighborhoods;  that deregulation stimulates investment, even as climate destabilizing emissions rise; and that national security need only focus on existential threats beyond our borders, and not on quality of life and preservation of civil liberties.

Today, climate change — along with the socio-environmental and economic upheaval it brings — is turning the idea of endless progress on its head

Unnatural disasters — pandemics, human-amplified heatwaves, intensified storms and droughts, and rising sea levels falling like bombs randomly across the landscape — are as destructive and demoralizing as war. Extreme weather events now batter whole countries, states, cities, suburbs and rural areas; disrupting commerce, undermining the bottom line, putting human lives at stake, destroying homes and hopes.

That’s why it is long past time for us to tell a new story: one that recognizes the turbulent sea of change we sail in; a story that recognizes the dangers around us, but doesn’t demand a fear or grief response. This new story inspires us to prepare together as communities with open eyes, minds and hearts — ready to face the risks of impending calamity while embracing the promise of resilience and hope of regeneration.

We need to change the narrative now, embrace a new story truer to circumstance — a storyline in which we heroically face adversity together, creating abundance out of crisis together, moving with agility through chaos toward new community values that will sustain us in the unsettled years ahead.

The roots of that story are certain: we will thrive only by being earth and community stewards, rather than exploiters; only by demanding that our leaders address not only the economic balance sheet, but also our ecological and equity balance sheets. Only then will we be able to go ahead with hope and find a safe harbor in the climate crisis. Only then can we leave a better world for our children.

Planning resilient, future-proof “too small to fail” Hudson Valley communities:

Future proofing communities can be difficult….  Thinking ahead to the challenges of tomorrow is not something that every community proactively considers. By doing so however, and by actively working with an eye to the future, communities can both improve themselves now and put them in a better position for the years to come.

While it is true that there is little that small communities can do to independently reverse climate change, there are many things these same communities can do to mitigate the climate crisis in their area as it unfolds, and to future-proof themselves against climate chaos.

Importantly, because communities are smaller than states or nations, they have the capacity for rapid change and quick course corrections. They are better able to bring citizenry together, to reach consensus and to act decisively.

As such, individual Hudson River communities can serve as laboratories, where citizens work together to build lifeboats, to stock and staff them against the dangers ahead. Moreover, many local communities acting in this way throughout the region could ultimately “float all boats” in a climate emergency — increasing our chances of mutual survival across the region.

Where to begin? Every community needs to start by objectively assessing threats. Then we need to unflinchingly evaluate the greatest points of weakness — whether these take the form of infrastructure; social, public health, economic and political structures. Finally, communities need to fortify those weaknesses against the storms to come — work that will enrich our towns and neighborhoods in the present, while reducing risk and enhancing resilience for the future.

food Security

A few practical lifeboat building ideas: community flood-proofing in preparation for climate chaos, implementation of drought-resistant landscaping, institutionalization of green building practices, zoning against development in climate disaster-prone floodplains, the installation of redundant storm-proof energy systems, the establishment of community-wide food security, and the creation of damage control centers equipped to deal with sudden disasters — all of this and much more can protect our communities now, while future-proofing them against the harms common on a much warmer, more turbulent planet and in a post-carbon future.

Resilient communities are at the core of a “Too Small to Fail” future. If we don’t plan for more robust proactive communities, and implement solutions for looming problems, a catastrophic crash seems inevitable. However, in our new storyline, crisis can equal opportunity — as our nation learned during the Great Depression and World War II.

But if sensible democratically arrived at plans to manage disaster aren’t formulated and pressed forward now, the opportunity afforded by crisis could be hijacked by a better organized, well-financed minority with an authoritarian agenda that benefits the few at the cost of the many. One need look no further than autocratic governments in today’s Brazil, Turkey, Venezuela, and China to see what is at risk.

Here is glimpse of what our Hudson Valley Lifeboat Culture might look like:

  • Governance: We will prosper via an eclectic egalitarian innovative amalgam of businesses, public interest non-profits, county and municipal governments working together towards a common goal;
  • Energy production: We will promote rooftop and regional solar farms, wind farms, small hydro, tidal energy, community choice aggregation, and conservation to achieve energy independence from the global fossil fuel grid;
  • Food production and food security: We will encourage and protect rural and urban farmers (and the land), develop a new “Grange,” promote “victory” gardens and rooftop/backyard apiaries; convert city and suburban lots into linked “front yard” farms; provide opportunities for artisanal commercial fisheries, fish farmers, and fish mongers; grow our local farmers markets, and build and stock community/emergency food and water storage facilities.
  • Transportation: We will work toward a local water-based and human electric/transportation system to bring goods to market and continue to move people from place to place.  That system will also be hardened and fortified against the impacts of rising sea levels and extreme weather events;
  • Communication: We will develop communication networks and devices that are independent of large corporate telecommunication networks.  An emergency ham radio system for communication in a disaster, community and neighborhood internet, community equitable internet initiatives, and mesh services, and expanded neighbor to neighbor communication.
  • Emergency preparedness:  In the event of an emergency citizens and organization have to be trained and in a position to augment the emergency services, or when those are overwhelmed take a leadership role in both preparing for disaster and implementing responses.
  • Environment: We will clean up our waterways to make them more productive; restore and create wetlands that guard against flooding and storm surges, while serving as nurseries for fish and wildlife; nurture wildlands and “forest gardens” where fruits, nuts, mushrooms and herbs can be sustainably harvested; manage sustainable forests that are logged selectively with an eye on future production; convert urban brownfields to greenfields that balance natural systems with commercial needs.
  • Economics: We will avoid sole reliance on a nationally volatile currency by creating a (or expanding the use of existing) local currency used to pay for local commodities; buying and hiring (and training) locally; creating public works projects for sustainable development, move away from an international and national economy toward a regional economy that fosters local businesses and micro-industries — ranging from brewers and butchers to cheese makers and toolmakers; from ship builders and seafarers, coopers, blacksmiths, and bicycle builders; local wind turbine, solar collector, and tidal generator manufacturers and installers; shoemakers, Repair Cafes, and fix it shops; composters and fryer fat oil recyclers.  Land for farming and sustainable forestry will be protected through conservation easements and equitable urban development will be conserved through community land trusts.
  • Society and education: We will develop regional and seasonal “Common Ground” fairs and celebrations and Chautauqua’s with music, dancing, demonstrations and exhibits of local makers’ products, local food, beer, wine and spirits, and fellowship. Encourage an education system that doesn’t result in graduates leaving for other regions, but in their staying within their communities to pursue sustainable livelihoods. We will ensure affordable housing, improve work opportunities for disadvantaged groups, and allow seniors and children to play useful and valuable civic roles.

These goals can seem utopian, especially if we look at them through the lens of the old story of “progress.” There are, of course, also hard realities to contend with as we develop a Lifeboat Culture.  The Hudson Valley and the New York City Bioregion — is connected to the rest of the world by literally thousands of lifelines, all of which are now at risk. These include an aging and increasingly failure-prone power grid; an aging and leaky water system; and a vast network of roads, rails, shipping and air routes that rely exclusively on fossil fuels whose supply is prone to sudden cost spikes and shortages.

Like a patient on intravenous life support, any major interruption in the flow of these resources to the  region can hamstring or harm its economy and people. With global oil, gas and coal production predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, a related economic collapse becomes not a question of if, but when — unless we act now to soften and deflect the blow, creating redundant energy, food, product and transport systems that kick-in as international resources become unreliable.

In the face of this reality, how do we transition from the storyline of unlimited growth and intense capitalist competition to a storyline that calls for community union, local shared economic prosperity, and the building of a Lifeboat Culture? The journey begins as:

  • The region and its communities commit to being a leader in sustainability and resilience.
  • Local people hold their elected officials responsible for inaction and reward effective action.
  • We recognize that real economic pain is associated with the changes needed to mitigate and avoid the effects of sea level rise and climate change, and find ways to reduce that pain.
Main Street

Main Street versus Wall Street:

Any plan for a resilient bioregional economy must insure that every citizen has fundamental needs met for nutritious food, shelter, healthcare, education and ecosystem services. This must be a non-negotiable condition if we are to meet the climate change challenges ahead and satisfy the promise of our great egalitarian democracy.

As radical as the ideas presented in this proposal may seem when seen from inside our current myopic progress-obsessed worldview, many of these concepts are rooted in our common regional immigrant heritage:  my immigrant grandfather, for example, joined with a friend who owned a pushcart to start a lumber company. They scavenged construction sites daily for discarded lumber and wood scraps, selling the material for what it was – a recycled product. They built their company into a large wholesale/retail lumberyard, and eventually became a regional self-serve hardware and lumber company.

What my grandfather and uncles, who eventually took over the business, never forgot was that they had an obligation to their employees — many of whom worked at the company for their entire careers. The firm sold a good product, treated their customers with respect, supported their community, and made a living for their families. But after my uncles retired, their partner sold the company to a Fortune 500 company and within a few years it no longer existed.

I tell this story for a reason: that lumber company was a Main Street business — locally rooted and privately held. It was innovative, successful, and sold materials to people who became repeat customers because of the quality and service they received. As soon as the company became the property of Wall Street, those values were lost; replaced solely by a drive for limitless profit. Until that point, their business had been “too small to fail.”

Evidence increasingly shows that every dollar spent at a “too small to fail” locally owned business generates two to four times more economic benefit – measured in income, wealth, jobs, and tax revenue – than a dollar spent at a globally owned business. This is because locally owned businesses spend much more of their money locally and thereby are a regional economic multiplier.

Under our present economic system, large transnational companies reap big profits. But no local businesses receive any of our pension savings, investments in mutual funds, venture capital firms, or hedge funds. The result is that many of us over-invest in Fortune 500 companies we distrust, and under-invest in the local businesses we know are essential for a strong local economy.

That’s why we need new mechanisms to enable investment in local, place-based, “too small to fail” Main Street businesses. At the heart of such mechanisms is our investment in a Lifeboat Culture. By thinking small, not big; local, not global, we strengthen community resilience against climate change.

Main Street investing is how the local economy once functioned, and it was the basis of much 20th century urban prosperity. It was then in the interest of well-off farmers, merchants, and small town banks to loan money to, and invest in, businesses that hired local people, in order to make something that held value and created real wealth.

When we support “buy local / hire local” campaigns, promote “locavesting,” urge a resurgence of local currencies; and institute new public and community banks, community development financial institutions, credit unions and other local lending institutions, we reinvigorate our region’s Main Street economy. And by so doing, we strengthen our regional Lifeboat Culture — put simply, in such a world, the Hudson Valley thrives!

Revival of the Commons: Share management of shared resources

A key strategy of our Lifeboat Culture, if it is to succeed, will be for communities to take back the commons — finding ways to manage our waterways, fisheries, pastures, forests and other local landscapes in a sustainable manner that can be productive for hundreds of years.

This means reinstituting many of the rules that people created and used in generations past to protect shared resourced for future generations so that they could be harvested and shared without degrading ecosystems. While local supervision flies in the face of 21st century trends of federal and state management, corporate exploitation, or privatization — it helps to build community resilience.

Like a bank account, a farmer or fishermen never removes more from a commons ecosystem than nature can replace in a reasonable amount of time. And it is the community that ultimately benefits.

The co-operatives model:

Co-operatives in various forms (production, retail, housing, and credit) are another organizational model in which ethics are embodied and embedded, and which are vital to a functioning local Lifeboat Culture.

Co-operative principles confer greater resilience – which matches the priority for safety and security in difficult times. Although there are no panaceas and co-ops can fail too, it is also true that co-ops have a track record of longevity and survival that is superior in many cases to private companies that is vital in times of economic contraction and environmental turmoil.

Living fully in a world of “what if”

At the start of this proposal we profiled the human tragedy resulting from the wreck of the Titanic — an unnecessary loss of life that occurred not only because of a natural disaster, but that resulted from human carelessness, unpreparedness, elitist hubris and stupidity.

As the Hudson Valley sails into an uncertain, but surely dangerous, climate crisis, we can learn from the horrors experienced by the Titanic on the high seas. We can move steadily away from dependence on increasingly undependable fossil fuels, giant transnational companies and international finances. We can build energy, food and economic redundancies into local communities to buffer them against international and national shortages and systems collapses. We can invest in our neighborhoods and our neighbors, working together to create “too small to fail” Main Street businesses, non-profits and local governments that strive in union to serve their communities and the people.

None of this will insure us totally against the dangers ahead, but preparedness as engendered in a Lifeboat Culture, will give our communities resilience and staying power. By acting now with foresight and hard work, we can care for each other, reinvesting in people and the land, creating a future for the Hudson Valley that emphasizes Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share.

We can create organizational and institutional structures that are sustainable, endowed with ethical values that serve all citizens not only a privileged elite. In our Hudson Valley Lifeboat Culture, the emphasis will not be on blind, reckless progress at all cost, but on the creation of an equitable society that avoids resource depletion while fostering slow growth, and most importantly, hope for everyone, including the most vulnerable people and species. 

Ultimately, the journey begins simply, with the joining of hands; the breaking of bread; and in taking a first step together, in your community or in mine. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.


(1) a person who makes preparations to survive a widespread catastrophe, as an atomic war or anarchy, especially by storing food and weapons in a safe place.

(2) a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies.  “there’s no agreement among preppers about what disaster is most imminent”

(3) a farmers’ association organized in 1867. The Grange sponsors social activities, community service,

Comments by the Center for Post Carbon Logistics on the NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan: Working Waterfront and Transportation of Goods.

The New York Port in 2050

“Moving goods and people from place to place in a carbon constrained future will be dependent on sailing vessels, hybrid/fossil free electric ships, and people/electric, powered transport for first and last mile logistics. “

New York’s Working Waterfront has long been a key contributor to the region’s financial wellbeing and our nation’s economy. But, in a carbon constrained future, how will goods and people be moved from place to place, and what role will The City’s Waterfront play in this vision? How should we meet the looming challenges of climate change, rising sea level, aging infrastructure, changes to global shipping patterns, threats to food security, and the risks these changes bring to New York’s financial sector?

The biggest question of all: How do we address this daunting multitude of challenges and turn them into opportunities for transforming the waterfront and Port in order to effectively and efficiently serve our regional and national economy far into the future?

“Life at the water’s edge is rapidly changing. The impacts of new technology, patterns of urban development, and globalization are redefining global logistics, and while some waterfront cities will thrive as ports and grow under these new conditions, others will need to evolve in order to survive and succeed…. How will New York re-invent its waterfront?”

If present trends continue, New York Harbor will need to be transformed into a hub of the spokes for “short sea shipping” (any movement of freight by water that doesn’t cross oceans such as freight ferries, short-haul barges and various other marine vessels). rather than serving as an unsustainable container cargo port. The good news: the New York metro region has an extensive network of waterways, and so is very well suited for the short sea shipping mode of freight transport. Moreover, public agencies and private companies are investigating the potential economic and environmental benefits of transferring more cargo from road to sea.

As New York moves forward to the working waterfront of tomorrow, the constraints, and in some cases the advantages, of smaller and (s)lower tech modes of transport must be considered; allowing for the integration of slow tech transport into harbor infrastructure to support these imminent changes.

If the New York port is to thrive, 19th, 20th, and 21st Century technology must meld seamlessly into new, mid-century methods of transport, also with an emphasis on what might seem like bygone, but productive, methodologies in order to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.

To offer just one example, ships of all sorts will need to be built (and rebuilt) locally, from locally sourced or recycled materials, and be crewed by locally trained seafarers, in order to adjust to declines in these resources globally, declines brought on by the climate crisis and social upheaval abroad.  These new vessels will likely be very different than the ones built today

As fossil fuels become more expensive and are restricted by climate change policy, port infrastructure will need to be part of a carbon neutral trading network that links us to the region and the world. The good news: our port is well positioned to become a laboratory for maritime innovation, offering competitive freight rates on 18th and 19th Century shipping routes enhanced by 21st Century technology.

A Port Facing the Greatest Challenges in Its History

Our world is now convulsed by converging crises of a magnitude never seen by humanity: climate change and sea level rise, global economic instability, and peak everything. Add to these threats the risk of wars over natural resources, climate migration, failure of aging and over stressed infrastructure, unstable economies, and the erosion of community values. Each of these crises presents particularly thorny problems for New York City, its Port, and the region. Challenges which also offer opportunities.

New York City owes its very existence to its location on one of the greatest ice-free harbors on earth; in turn, that great urban powerhouse was built on its Harbor and shipping industry. But as new threats loom, our aging Port has devolved into a dangerously tenuous lifeline to the world overseas.

Mid-west drought

Today, the far-flung international trade network that once pumped vibrant economic life into New York City and our region is threatened with collapse as imported natural resources grow more expensive, carbon pollution from shipping grows much worse, and the fossil fuels needed to transport goods become increasingly scarce and costly. Spiralling petroleum costs, and turmoil in nations upon which we rely for imported goods could snap our international lifeline at any time. 

The present system is unsustainable, so we must prepare to transform it, and we must move quickly

It’s important to understand that all of the many crises we face are intimately linked to each other, and magnify each other, impacting our port’s future. Just a few troubling examples:

  • A severe long-term drought in the American Midwest, could cut off our region’s supply of wheat, corn and soy, causing food shortages and a financial calamity.
  • Peak oil requires that we drill for fossil fuels in increasingly extreme landscapes, like the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, prone to more and more powerful hurricanes, or by using hydraulic fracturing that will likely contaminate groundwater in the heart of our regional foodshed, and the grain belt. Sudden price surges would impact shipping and our Port.
  • Our sprawling global oil pipeline stretches around the globe, making us vulnerable and dependent on volatile states prone to war, revolution, and migratory upheaval. Again, such conflicts could seriously impact global commerce and our Port.
  • An economic crash or a financially-sapping resource war abroad, could wreck our balance of trade and shatter our tax base, then making it fiscally impossible to adapt our infrastructure to accommodate climate change impacts, which would lead to more unpreparedness and economic hardship.
  • Meanwhile, poor harbor planning, and inappropriate non-water-dependent development along New York City’s flood prone waterfront could seriously hamper adaptation to these many crises. 

The accumulation and interaction of such shocks could be catastrophic if we do not prepare

Despite its present dominance, the New York Port and its current maritime logistics system remains fragile. It is reliant upon carbon-based fuels, driving internal combustion engines. This local fossil fuel-dependent system is interwoven into long-distance, globalized trade and is designed for Just-In-Time delivery. Importantly, it also depends upon a financial accounting system that avoids paying for negative environmental and social externalities such as global warming, environmental pollution, and sea level rise. But the bill for these negative externalities is coming due now and will be paid by our Port, our city, and our regional economy for decades to come if we don’t prepare to prevent that from happening.

Here is a stark reality that we must deal with if we are to thrive as a 21st Century Port: The World Economic Forum determined in 2018 that if shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Those maritime emissions must be slashed, and soon. That being true, there are grave doubts that our current shipping system can easily adapt to the policy and technological shifts needed to successfully curb climate change. But failure to adapt will be catastrophic for our Port: sea level rise alone could make sure of that. So we have no choice: we must adapt.

The NY/NJ Port, New York City’s working waterfront, and the greater region are at a crossroads, a turning point. Looking forward rationally at all the indicators, our “business as usual” carbon model, dependent on globe-trotting fossil fuel powered container ships is putting us on course for systemic failure, marked by cataclysmic energy shortages and infrastructure collapse, inundation from sea level rise, financial meltdown and its attendant social disarray.

For those who think otherwise, our climate change future and its inevitable impacts were foreshadowed when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City in October 2010, bringing with it a destructive wall of water that flooded subway tunnels and neighborhoods, cut off power to lower Manhattan, washed away century-old structures, cost the city millions, and left it forever changed. Sandy “was a turning point, that’s true not just for anticipating future Sandy-like storms, but also for predicting overall sea-level rise and such climate-change impacts as more frequent heat waves, which the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects will triple by the 2050s.”

Despite widespread agreement upon these future climate change-driven inevitabilities, the Port Authority — because it has invested so heavily in large container port infrastructure — continues to write “resiliency” reports, even as large container ships becomes increasingly obsolete — outdated dinosaurs  at the end of a fossil fuel era.

It is also expected that Port Authority will continue to pour millions of dollars into incremental “port improvements,” while failing to address the inexorable rise of the sea and the eventual destruction of most of its expensive industrial port infrastructure. Likewise, the Corps of Engineers, despite some attempts at “greenwashing” remains in denial, as are the City of New York, and the States of New York and New Jersey. Bold initiatives proposed after Hurricane Sandy collect dust on agency bookshelves.  Attempts at “pilot” projects related to climate change protection and adaptation have so far been way too feeble, too small and too late.

Meeting Challenges of a 21st Century Port

If the Port (and the City and Region it serves) survives into the second half of this century it will be significantly smaller, more sustainable, and resilient with an emphasis on adaptation, and realistic outcomes for the continuation of the transport of goods and people.

The contemporary Port of NY/NJ is the largest port on the East Coast and the third largest in the US. For the freight offloaded at its facilities, our Port is just one stop in an extensive intermodal distribution chain.

But here’s another important fact: we drastically underutilize an invaluable regional transportation resource: our local waterways. In New York City’s metro region, 80% of freight transport today is carried by truck, a practice that congests our highways, increases air pollution, and is entirely dependent on fossil fuels. In the context of a working waterfront of the second third of the 21st century, (electric) trucks and rail may continue to have relevance in city-to-city transport, but all large trucks will likely have necessarily disappeared from the urban core.  Congestion, pollution, and quality of life issues make this inevitable. And Just in Time delivery will be replaced by Warehouse in Transit Logistics (WIT or Warehouse –in- transit” is the successor to JIT or just-in-time which is now selectively outdated. Many cargoes that speed along highways to spend days in a warehouse could as easily and more economically / beneficially move by water).

In the 18th, and 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hudson River, the New York Harbor, and the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary and its river tributaries served as a bustling network of marine highways linking even the smallest communities to a web of regularly scheduled commercial routes. Boats of all sizes met local cargo and passenger needs: schooners, sloops, barges, and steamboats connected river town inhabitants. Farmers, merchants, and oystermen relied on this vibrant and diverse fleet of vessels to bring in supplies and deliver goods to market. The NY/NJ Harbor Estuary and its tributaries — and the ships and boats sailing them — were vital and integral to those who worked and lived along our inland waters.

Historically, thousands of vessels plied these marine highways, sailing to and from The City’s Harbor to the farming communities of New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, delivering fresh local farm produce, fish, shellfish, and passengers to ports along the way.

Today, those marine  highways still exist, but thanks to the boom in highway construction in the mid-20th Century, have fallen into deep neglect. They now need to be reinvigorated. Injecting new life into these regional maritime trade routes is far more than just a celebration of tradition. In a carbon constrained future, sustainable water transport will be a necessity.  As the climate crisis deepens, water-based low-or-no carbon transportation routes could link communities throughout the region.

The rivers, bays, canals, and coasts of the Hudson Valley, NY Harbor, and Mid-Atlantic region continue to be a marine highway today, but one that is limited to deeply dredged channels leading to container ports and fossil fuel and chemical tank farms.

In a carbon constrained future, we will need to return to our region’s nautical roots and advocate for the maritime, and for the “first and last mile technology” necessary for moving goods and people from place to place minimizing carbon pollution, opting for existing and emerging low carbon shipping and post carbon transportation businesses and organizations.

Question: How can we rapidly develop a new approach to waterway transportation logistics that is attentive to, and resilient to the climate emergency? And under fast-evolving environmental and social conditions, how can we alter our Port to sustain a vibrant economy and standard of living for ourselves and future generations — one that is also equitable and inclusive?

Vision for a Working Waterfront and NY Port in the Second Third of the 21st Century

Oddly enough, a vision for an efficient, economically vibrant, post carbon working waterfront in the 2030s, ‘40s and ‘50s will likely resemble the New York Harbor of the late 19th century, rather than what we see today. The Harbor of the near future will need to link not only to roadways and railways, but to our region’s marine highways, which will carry massive amounts of cargo and people.

Shoreline infrastructure will have to scale down and increase in capacity, and be nimble in its response to rising sea levels and more violent storms. It will have to be accessible to smaller, more numerous vessels on a preserved and restored Working Waterfront that is socially and culturally integral to the communities and our ‘sense of place” and include:

  • Charging stations for electric and electric hybrid vessels, flood-proof storage and production facilities for biofuels like methane (from sewage treatment plants), biodiesel (from used fryer fat), and hydrogen (created from seawater while sailing vessels are underway).
  • Waterfront and flood proofed warehouses and trading houses, business that specializes in facilitating  transactions between a home country and foreign countries. (A trading house is an exporter, importer and also a trader that purchases and sells products for other businesses. Trading houses provide a service for businesses that want international trade experts to receive or deliver goods or services).
  • Local ship and boat building and repair facilities to support a local fleet,
  • More accessible customs clearance areas,
  • More traditional break bulk cranes for bulk, palletized, and bagged cargo,
  • Cross-docking facilities for transfer of goods from larger ocean-going ships to smaller short sea shipping vessels, and for transfer to first and last mile providers, i.e. small sailing, rowing, hybrid vessels as well as people/electric powered small commercial trikes and wagons.
  • Access for docking of “historic” ships to enable the “new” traders and seafarer models for “preserving the tools and skills of the past to serve the future.”

To bring these infrastructure changes about, we will need to immediately establish:

  • A new binding agreement with the region’s farmers and farm advocacy organizations in our “foodshed,”(that includes a food security plan for the New York City Bioregion). This agreement could be modeled on New York City’s agreement with farmers in the drinking water Watershed.
  • An inter-port agreements with small and mid-sized ports within a 100 mile radius of the Harbor.
  • Small ship access to flood proofed regional produce and fish markets.
  • A new agreement with transport unions to allow ships to load and unload with their own equipment. Working with the Unions to hire and train more people for post carbon longshore work.
  • A partnership with the region’s Maritime Academies and the Harbor School to retrain mariners and for logistics careers for the new post carbon working waterfront; creating a maritime education center where professional practitioners and apprentices can participate in practical workshops to relearn maritime and Port skills of the past to serve the future.
  • An endowment for a new “sailor’s snug harbor for the “aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors”
  • An endowment for the preservation and utilization of traditional maritime skills and tools, and a traditional knowledge database, library, and pre/post carbon tool, technology, and machinery collection. This activity serves to preserve, restore and promote the re-use of traditional skills.
  • Establish a Sustainable Working Waterfront Toolkit—enumerating the historical and current uses and economics of New York’s waterfront. The toolkit must include legal, policy, and financing tools which river ports, blue highways and estuarine communities can use to preserve and enhance local and regional port facilities.
  • Create maritime mixed-use zones where public parks, walkways and bikeways are built in flood zones and are adjacent to and part of a working waterfront.
  • Establish a strong working relationship with NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program for working waterfronts.
  • Advocate for a reduced, less intrusive regulatory role for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Instead, encourage funding to the Corps for partnerships with other agencies, non-profit organizations, and an engaged public for developing, and redeveloping, a sustainable NY Port in a carbon constrained future, including but not limited to working with NY/NJ Baykeeper, the billion oyster project, and the Hudson River Foundation to build oyster reefs for habitat improvement and shoreline protection.

The New Working Waterfront will also:

  • Create jobs in seafaring, logistics, ship building, harbor maintenance and more.
  • Revitalize waterfront communities by preserving the working waterfront and commercial enterprises, while providing more public access and recreation.
  • Improve regional food production and distribution, linking producers to buyers.

Imagining our Working Waterfront, circa 2050

Put simply, the shift from road, rail, and fossil fuel dependence, to dependence on our region’s extensive network of marine highways in a low-or-no carbon era, is a “breeze.”

Water-based transportation is just about the only form of transportation other than the bicycle that requires little or no roadway maintenance. There are no surfaces to grade or pave, no tracks, no bridges or trestles to care for. Of course, canals need to be restored and preserved; navigation channels need to be marked with buoys; locks and lighthouses need to be manned and maintained. But unlike motorway or railroad maintenance, these activities don’t require a large industrial base, and are far less energy-intensive than alternatives.

The 363-mile-long Erie Canal system, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, for example, has been continuously operational and profitable since 1825. The cost of keeping it running is tiny compared to the cost of equivalent highway mileage and with winters expected to be more mild the canal may be open year round.

The Hudson, Long Island Sound, the Bays of New York Harbor, and a significant number of natural and artificial waterways in the US and Canada comprise the greatest set of transportation assets in the world. Those marine highways will only see their status grow in a post carbon world — and the NY/NJ Harbor area is especially blessed with such waterways.

Let’s imagine: It is a hot, humid, late autumn day in 2050. From a high floor in one of lower Manhattan’s surviving skyscrapers, a trading house ship spotter, sees the topmasts of a tall ship entering the Lower Bay. The watcher signals the pilot schooner on post off of what was once Sandy Hook, and waiting Tug Augustin Mouchot a solar powered tug are dispatched to tow the engineless sea-going square rigger to a berth in the new port in the recently completed Gowanus Bay and Erie Basin Harbor with its oyster encrusted seawall created by repurposing concrete and stone from  waterfront buildings and piers inundated by rising seas over the last 30 years. 

Clipper Ship

The ship, the Jorne Langelaan, named after the builder of the first of the post carbon Eco-Clippers, has its crew aloft putting a harbor furl on the hemp cloth sails. She carries a mixed cargo of Caribbean fair trade coffee and cocoa beans bound for the region’s roasters and chocolatiers as well as preserved tropical fruits and rum. The Langelaan is looking a little “worse for wear” having skirted the 5th named Atlantic storm of the season. But her New York trained crew of young men and women is in good spirits, looking forward to spending time ashore, and to a few drinks of brew, cider, and spirits locally made and delivered by sloop and schooner from around the region, and to a good meal at a cafe serving up dishes harvested from the Harbor’s new artisan fishery and from oyster beds in shallows created by submerged piers and streets.   

A long shore crew, warehouse workers, drovers and their electric assist people-powered tricycles and wagons converge at the waterfront’s new storm-proofed floating dock — which rises and falls with surging tides. Cargo surveyors assist with the loading of schooners. Crews on solar electric canal barges and sloops make ready to transfer cargo from the Langelaan to their holds, and to carry that cargo to ports up and down the Hudson River, to the newly opened Delaware and Raritan, and Delaware and Hudson Canals, coastal New Jersey, Long Island, and New England. 

The Pilot Schooner comes alongside the Langelaan and the pilot goes up the ladder to the helm to direct the square rigger to its destination. Customs agents sail from Staten Island to clear the cargo. 

A huge tarred manila hemp hawser is passed to the ship from the tug and the last few miles to port pass under the clipper’s hull. The docking pilot skillfully moves the ship to the dock while the Clipper’s crew readies the ship’s gear, opening hatches, and starting up a steam winch that will do most of the lifting. There are also floating cargo cranes that can be used for cargo heavier or bulkier than can be handled by the ship’s gear. 

This (s)low tech port makes the best use of tried and true 19th century technology, supported with 21st century solar and battery electric gear and vehicles. More people are at work on the waterfront than any time since the 1920s; there are more warehouses and trading houses, ship building, repair facilities, and docking facilities than at any time in New York’s nautical history.

Just behind the waterfront are sail and rope makers utilizing New York hemp; forges and foundries using concentrated solar heat to form steel and bronze fittings. Riggers are hard at work in rope walks making running rigging and dock lines for the numerous sailing ships. Dry docks and shipyards look out on bikeways and walkways circumscribing the tidal flats from which hundreds of locals and tourists watch the port activity — safe in the knowledge that food and goods continue to come into the city, not “just in time,” but perhaps just enough. 

This narrative offers a positive look forward at the New York Port at mid-century. But that optimistic future totally depends on the will to make it so. Should we pursue politics and policy as usual, we may face a grimmer New York waterfront in 2050: Abandoned, flooded, mouldering buildings and piers; failing, low-lying sewage treatment plants and electric utilities; climate change and rising sea-driven New York City migrants crowding upstate communities seeking food and shelter; a polluted, fish empty estuary as oil and chemical plants go underwater. Food and fuel become too expensive except for the very wealthy; Crime and violence escalating, as are protests and riots bordering on insurrection, hard for law enforcement to contain; The City becomes more and more ungovernable, and faces a dark future bounded by economic gloom and rising water. 

The choice is ours. The path to a bright, sustainable future starts with this process of city-wide community engagement, and a research gathering effort that seeks input on a Working Waterfront. A good first step is being taken to better inform the waterfront planning process.

NY Port 2040

The next step will be even more critical: to take all of the information gathered, and to commit to honestly confronting challenges, while also boldly embracing opportunities and possibilities. We must move forward quickly and vigorously, and we need to do more than just convene. We must inspire individuals, communities, local leaders, city and state governments to commit to creating a thriving, post carbon Working Waterfront. We must also commit to the creation of a network of sustainable blue waterways in a region that advocates for a post carbon transition that people will embrace as a collective adventure, as a common journey, as something positive, and above all, as a future full of Hope. 


Transition, Permaculture, and Slow Technology

The Center for Post Carbon Logistics

Part one, the Origins of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics

 Traditional knowledge is in danger and its disappearance would not only cause the loss of people’s capability to keep and pass on the artistic and natural heritage, but also of an extraordinary source of knowledge and cultural diversity from which the appropriate innovation solutions can be derived today and in the future.

Lewis Mumford wrote in 1970, “The great feat of medieval technics was that it was able to promote and absorb many important changes without losing the immense carryover of inventions and skill from earlier cultures. In this lies one of it vital point of superiority over the modern mode of monotechnics, which boast of effacing, as fast and as far as possible, the technical achievements of earlier periods.”

Slow Money, Slow Food, and Slow Tech

“ …..just as the last 10 years or so have brought people greater awareness about the provenance of their food, we believe this is the moment to move people towards a greater understanding of their technology.”

Slow Food

 Slow Money is a movement to organize investors and donors to steer new sources of capital to small food enterprises, organic farms, and local food systems. The Slow Food movement aims to preserve cultural cuisine and in so doing to preserve the food plants and seeds, domestic animals and farming within an eco-region. It is also a social and political movement that resists the dehumanizing  effects  of fast food and corporate farming.  Slow Tech  is about the re-invigoration of heirloom technologies and traditional skills needed to thrive in a carbon-constrained future.

Transition and Permaculture

Transition is the movement by which people are re-skilled in heirloom technologies.  Permaculture gave birth to the Transition movement and offers guidance on how to use those skills to design resilient lives.  The ethics; earth carepeople care, and fair share  form the foundation for Permaculture and are also found in most traditional societies.  

Transition fosters and supports the revitalization of Slow Tech skills and Permaculture asks us to consider relearning the proficiency needed to reanimate wind mills, watermills, and sailing vessel while putting hand tools, levers, and blocks and tackle back into service.

Permaculture incorporates knowledge from cultures that have existed in  balance with their environment for much longer than our consumer centered fossil fueled society. We should not  ignore the positive accomplishments of modern times, but in the transition to a sustainable future, we need to consider values and concepts different from what has become the social norm.

Slow Technology:

C. Milton Dixon, interviewed in The (Chicago) Examiner, May 2011, said:   “(high tech is) industrial technology and refers to things that are out of your control, as opposed to low technology, which is simple things done in a smart way.  (S)Low technology is using the intelligence of nature to accomplish tasks. High technology is buying an apple from the store; low technology is getting an apple from a tree you planted yourself. One of the big differences is in high technology you are disconnected from cause and effect relationships. So if you pollute through high technology, you may not feel the direct result. Low technology is connection because you are involved in the process and you are directly affected by the consequences.”

Small is Beautiful

The idea of Slow Technology has its roots in the ideological movement called “appropriate technology,” a term coined by E.F. Schumacher in his book “Small is Beautiful,” first published in 1973.  Slow or appropriate technology centers on ideas of proper scale: technology should be “people-centered.”  “Slow technology as an ideology that extends thoughtfulness about how devices shape our relationships to time, emotion and energy. Slow Technology is articulated in an article about the concept written about by two Swedish designers, Lars Hallnas and Johan Redstrom, who in 2001 described Slow Technology as “a design agenda for technology aimed at reflection and moments of mental rest rather than efficiency in performance.”  The two also said, “The appropriate technology movement has at its philosophical heart the desire to capacitate people of all walks of life to create (1) Meaningful Employment, (2) Comprehension of Technology, (3) Self-Reliance, and (4) Reduced Environmental Impacts.” 

Technology can be Slow in various ways: 

  • It takes time to learn how it works,
  • It takes time to understand why it works the way it works,
  • It takes time to apply it
  • It takes time to see what it is
  • and it takes time to find out the consequences of using it

Slow Tech Practice:

Hand Woodworking Tools

No woodworker’s first project is a chair, a house, or a boat.  My first lesson in woodworking was to take a piece of rough lumber, and using hand tools, shape it into a three dimensional absolutely square finished piece of wood.  It took me a full day and I used every tool on my bench.

Chairs

Once my practice was established I developed a method that worked for me.  First I sat with a piece of tracing paper and did a rough sketch of the final product.  Then I drew it full scale in three views.  From that drawing I could determine what amount of wood was needed, where each joint would go, and how the pieces would transition from one to another to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.  Then the sawing, planing, joinery, shaping, and finishing would take place.  Each of those steps were learned by doing, learning from others, by using traditional references, and knowing that the dimensions and materials were appropriate for the final use.

I was lucky both to have mentors and to have the time to hone my skills first as a student of Alan Lazarus at Virginia Commonwealth University  and then as a resident woodworker at Peters Valley Craft Center in New Jersey.  Peters Valley gave me the opportunity, and the time, to learn the business, practice my craft, and teach.  It also was a community of like-minded professional potters, weavers, metal workers, and woodworkers that supported one another. 

If we are to learn the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a post carbon world, more places like Peters Valley will be necessary, more experienced craft workers will have to open their shops to apprentices, and more people are going to have to be willing to take the time, resources, and effort to learn.

In future posts I will talk about preserving other skills and tools to serve a post carbon future such as building and restoring water and wind mills, wooden boat building, repair and restoration, artisanal fishing, farming, and “future proof” communities. 

There are schools and apprentice shops for learning large-scale woodworking and metal working skills that are and will be needed for Slow Tech water-driven mills, and wind-driven vessels that will be part of the continuum that supersedes the “blip” of petroleum powered short term thinking and consumption.

The following are some links to the resources, books, skills, and techniques that are needed to adapt to carbon constrained future that is resilient, abundant, and equitable.

Water Mill

Let the following lists of links and books be a starting point – an opportunity to contribute your own favorite sites, books, drawings, and especially experiences with humans with these skills.  Perhaps this list can be the beginning of a Traditional Knowledge Database that will gather and protect historical knowledge and promote innovative practices based on traditional skills.

Please send you ideas, links, and experiences to nfo@postcarbonlogistics.org

 “International Traditional Knowledge Institute” (ITKI) 

Foxfire

WoodenBoat magazine 

The Museum of Old Techniques

Compendium of operating grist mills

Low Tech Magazine

Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

Institute for Traditional Knowledge

Appropedia

Ropes, Knots, and Hitches

Maritime Museums

 Mills restored by Rondout Woodworking

Rocking the Boat

Buffalo Maritime Center

The International Windship Association

The Hudson River Maritime Museum, Riverport Wooden Boat School

The Apprenticeshop

Yestermorrow

Books, please try your independent bookseller first:

  • The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye, Herbert Press
  • How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, A Manual of the Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,   John Muir and Tosh Gregg, Avalon Travel/Perseus Books.
  • The Power of Just Doing Stuff, Rob Hopkins, Transition Books
  • A Museum of Early American Tools, Eric Sloane, Wilfred Funk
  • Why We Make Things and Why it Matters, Peter Korn, David R. Godine
  • The Craftsman, Richard Sennett, Yale University Press
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, Harper Torch
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford, Penguin Press
  • The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, et al, The Whole Earth Truck Store
  • Transportation in a Post-Carbon World, Anthony Perl, Richard Gilbert, Post Carbon Institute
  • Foxfire Series, Eliot Wigginton and Foxfire Fund, Inc. Penguin Random House

As change comes, how will shipping and logistics adapt?

Despite its present dominance, our current logistics system engaged in moving people and goods from place to place is fragile. It is reliant upon carbon-based fuels driving internal combustion engines. It is interwoven into long-distance, globalized world trade. It is designed for Just-In-Time delivery. And it depends upon its present ability to avoid paying for negative externalities such as carbon emissions and environmental pollution, and to avoid being governed by meaningful labor, environmental, health, and other laws. The World Economic Forum determined in 2018 that if shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

There are serious doubts as to the capacity of the current system to adapt to structural changes in the status quo. The political context is changing and, in some regions, unstable. Carbon pricing regimes are likely to arrive in the coming years, which will raise prices for carbon-based fuels and for producing goods.

Warming is undermining agriculture and fishing in many regions, and other economic sectors may be affected. Climate-triggered conflict is already causing mass migration, which is in turn improving the political fortunes of nativist political groups, which is already straining the current world trade model. These trends and unpredictable new shocks are certain to strain the system in the coming years and decades. As an increasing number of sectors act on the need to reduce carbon emissions and an increasing number of policies and strains make carbon prices higher and more volatile, the question is whether local, national, and global economies are prepared.

Better than asking whether we will be prepared is knowing that changes both predicted and unpredicted are happening and more are on the way—and then asking how we should prepare. How can a new approach to transportation logistics be developed that is resilient to the climate emergency and the resulting changes in the economic landscape, one that stands some chance of preserving some of our current standard of living for future generations, one that is also equitable, inclusive, and just in delivering the benefits of the new system and whatever version of shipping and trade is to come for future decades and generations?

To answer these questions, we have created the Center for Post Carbon Logistics (CPCL),  Our approach is to identify new—and old—technologies, skills, economic models, and regulatory and logistics practices that will serve the future.

Our approach will be both global and local. Globally, CPCL will search for examples of effective techniques, both current and historic, that have moved goods and people from place to place. We will consider examples ranging from Renault and Neoline’s partnership  to build a wind-powered ro-ro vessel and cutting edge solar and wind-assist sailing technologies, to existing and in-development trade routes promoted by the International Windship Association and others, to traditional small-scale sail, low-or zero-carbon shipping like Fair Transport, and first and last-mile logistics that have been used for generations and will once again be viable. Hudson Valley contemporary examples are the sail freight vessel Apollonia, and the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s solar electric Coast Guard inspected passenger vessel Solaris.

Locally, CPCL will model, implement, and evaluate the development of these global practices. One aspect of this will be to build partnerships with local governments, businesses, economic and community development organizations, and nonprofits to develop new, resilient “working waterfronts” that will facilitate regional waterborne shipping, connecting goods to low-carbon first and last-mile delivery modes and creating economic opportunity and jobs. CPCL’s local pilot projects in the Hudson Valley will bring direct local benefits while providing insights to be disseminated widely for locally-tailored replication elsewhere.

CPCL will also build a central library and database collecting low- and zero-carbon techniques, skills, and tools for shipbuilding, rigging, ship loading, port operations, warehousing, trading houses, and first and last-mile logistics.

Rigger

Researchers will collect these practices. Existing skills and tools that are at risk of being lost will be preserved. To build a community of practice, CPCL will provide training and apprenticeship programs with participating partners, developing the necessary local workforce and catalyzing job creation. CPCL will also disseminate the knowledge that it creates and preserves, exhibit at and host regional, national, and international conferences on post carbon logistics and sail freight. It will partner with Hudson Valley institutions to host exhibits for the public.

The climate crisis is already here, and even though the exact timing is not yet obvious, it is clear that the contemporary logistics system will have to adapt. In the Hudson Valley, local farmers and food processors, distillers, brewers, and cider makers, are already looking for low carbon ways to move their goods beyond the local market; there are practitioners who are ready and willing to pass on their knowledge; local governments are desperate to find new economic development strategies; and consumers are hungry for lower carbon-footprint goods. These are the challenges and opportunities in which the Center for Post Carbon Logistics will engage.

How to Run the Economy on the Weather

Reprinted from Low Tech Magazine with Permission

Before the Industrial Revolution, people adjusted their energy demand to a variable energy supply. Our global trade and transport system — which relied on sail boats — operated only when the wind blew, as did the mills that supplied our food and powered many manufacturing processes. 

The same approach could be very useful today, especially when improved by modern technology. In particular, factories and cargo transportation — such as ships and even trains — could be operated only when renewable energy is available. Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today.

Renewable Energy in Pre-Industrial Times

Before the Industrial Revolution, both industry and transportation were largely dependent on intermittent renewable energy sources. Water mills, windmills and sailing boats have been in use since Antiquity, but the Europeans brought these technologies to full development from the 1400s onwards.

At their peak, right before the Industrial Revolution took off, there were an estimated 200,000 wind powered mills and 500,000 water powered mills in Europe. Initially, water mills and windmills were mainly used for grinding grain, a laborious task that had been done by hand for many centuries, first with the aid of stones and later with a rotary hand mill.

“Een zomers landschap” (“A summer landscape”), a painting by Jan van Os. 

However, soon water and wind powered mills were adapted to industrial processes like sawing wood, polishing glass, making paper, boring pipes, cutting marble, slitting metal, sharpening knives, crushing chalk, grinding mortar, making gunpowder, minting coins, and so on. [1-3] Wind- and water mills also processed a host of agricultural products. They were pressing olives, hulling barley and rice, grinding spices and tobacco, and crushing linseed, rapeseed and hempseed for cooking and lighting.

Even though it relied on intermittent wind sources, international trade was crucial to many European economies before the Industrial Revolution.

So-called ‘industrial water mills’ had been used in Antiquity and were widely adopted in Europe by the fifteenth century, but ‘industrial windmills’ appeared only in the 1600s in the Netherlands, a country that took wind power to the extreme. The Dutch even applied wind power to reclaim land from the sea, and the whole country was kept dry by intermittently operating wind mills until 1850. [1-3]

Abraham Storck: A river landscape with fishermen in rowing boats, 1679.

The use of wind power for transportation – in the form of the sailboat – also boomed from the 1500s onwards, when Europeans ‘discovered’ new lands. Wind powered transportation supported a robust, diverse and ever expanding international trading system in both bulk goods (such as grain, wine, wood, metals, ceramics, and preserved fish), luxury items (such as precious metals, furs, spices, ivory, silks, and medicin) and human slaves. [4]

Even though it relied on intermittent wind sources, international trade was crucial to many European economies. For example, the Dutch shipbuilding industry, which was centred around some 450 wind-powered saw mills, imported virtually all its naval stores from the Baltic: wood, tar, iron, hemp and flax. Even the food supply could depend on wind-powered transportation. Towards the end of the 1500s, the Dutch imported two thousand shiploads of grain per year from Gdansk. [4] Sailboats were also important for fishing.

Dealing with Intermittency in Pre-Industrial Times

Although variable renewable energy sources were critical to European society for some 500 years before fossil fuels took over, there were no chemical batteries, no electric transmission lines, and no balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants to deal with the variable energy output of wind and water power. So, how did our ancestors deal with the large variability of renewable power sources?

To some extent, they were counting on technological solutions to match energy supply to energy demand, just as we do today. The water level in a river depends on the weather and the seasons. Boat mills and bridge mills were among the earliest technological fixes to this problem. They went up and down with the water level, which allowed them to maintain a more predictable operating regime. [1-2]

To some extent, our ancestors were counting on technological solutions to match energy supply to energy demand, just as we do today.

However, water power could also be stored for later use. Starting in the middle ages, dams were built to create mill ponds, a form of energy storage that’s similar to today’s hydropower reservoirs. The storage reservoirs evened out the flow of streams and insured that water was available when it was needed. [2] [5] 

The Horse Mill, a painting by James Herring. Ca. 1850.

But rivers could still dry out or freeze over for prolonged periods, rendering dams and adjustable water wheels useless. Furthermore, when one counted on windmills, no such technological fixes were available. [3] [6-7]

A technological solution to the intermittency of both water and wind power was the ‘beast mill’ or ‘horse mill’. [8] In contrast to wind and water power, horses, donkeys or oxen could be counted on to supply power whenever it was required. However, beast mills were expensive and energy inefficient to operate: feeding a horse required a land area capable of feeding eight humans. [9] Consequently, the use of animal power in large-scale manufacturing processes was rare. Beast mills were mostly used for the milling of grain or as a power source in small workshop settings, using draft animals. [1]

Obviously, beast mills were not a viable backup power source for sailing ships either. In principle, sailing boats could revert to human power when wind was not available. However, a sufficiently large rowing crew needed extra water and food, which would have limited the range of the ship, or its cargo capacity. Therefore, rowing was mainly restricted to battleships and smaller boats.

Adjusting Demand to Supply: Factories

Because of their limited technological options for dealing with the variability of renewable energy sources, our ancestors mainly resorted to a strategy that we have largely forgotten about: they adapted their energy demand to the variable energy supply. In other words, they accepted that renewable energy was not always available and acted accordingly. For example, windmills and sailboats were simply not operated when there was no wind.

Painting: Mills in the Westzijderveld near Zaandam, a painting by Claude Monet.

 In industrial windmills, work was done whenever the wind blew, even if that meant that the miller had to work night and day, taking only short naps. For example, a document reveals that at the Union Mill in Cranbrook, England, the miller once had only three hours sleep during a windy period lasting 60 hours. [3] A 1957 book about windmills, partly based on interviews with the last surviving millers, reveals the urgency of using wind when it was available: 

Often enough when the wind blew in autumn, the miller would work from Sunday midnight to Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning to Thursday night, and Friday morning to Saturday midnight, taking only a few snatches of sleep; and a good windmiller always woke up in bed when the wind rose, getting up in the middle of the night to set the mill going, because the wind was his taskmaster and must be taken advantage of whenever it blew. Many a village has at times gone short of wheaten bread because the local mill was becalmed in a waterless district before the invention of the steam engine; and barley-meal bread or even potato bread had to suffice in the crisis of a windless autumn. [10]

In earlier, more conservative times, the miller was punished for working on Sunday, but he didn’t always care. When a protest against Sunday work was made to Mr. Wade of Wicklewood towermill, Norfolk, he retorted: “If the Lord is good enough to send me wind on a Sunday, I’m going to use it”. [11] On the other hand, when there was no wind, millers did other work, like maintaining their machinery, or took time off. Noah Edwards, the last miller of Arkley tower mill, Hertfordshire, would “sit on the fan stage of a fine evening and play his fiddle”. [11]

Adjusting Demand to Supply: Sailboats

A similar approach existed for overseas travel, using sail boats. When there was no wind, sailors stayed ashore, maintained and repaired their ships, or did other things. They planned their trips according to the seasons, making use of favourable seasonal winds and currents. Winds at sea are not only much stronger than those over land, but also more predictable. 

Sailors planned their trips according to the seasons, making use of favourable seasonal winds and currents. 

The lower atmosphere of the planet is encircled by six major wind belts, three in each hemisphere. From Equator to poles these ‘prevailing winds’ are the trade winds, the westerlies, and the easterlies. The six wind belts move north in the northern summer and south in the northern winter. Five major sea current gyres are correlated with the dominant wind flows. 

The Maas at Dordrecht, a painting by Aelbert Cuyp, 1660.

Gradually, European sailors deciphered the global pattern of winds and currents and took full advantage of them to establish new sea routes all over the world. By the 1500s, Christopher Columbus had figured out that the combination of trade winds and westerlies enabled a round-trip route for sailing ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The trade winds reach their northernmost latitude at or after the end of the northern summer, bringing them in reach of Spain and Portugal. These summer trade winds made it easy to sail from Southern Europe to the Caribbean and South America, because the wind was blowing in that direction along the route.

Wind map of the Atlantic, September 9, 2017. Source: Windy

Taking the same route back would be nearly impossible. However, Iberian sailors first sailed north to catch the westerlies, which reach their southernmost location at or after the end of winter and carried the sailors straight back to Southern Europe. In the 1560s, Basque explorer Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a similar round-trip route in the Pacific Ocean. [12]

The use of favourable winds made travel times of sailboats relatively reliable. The fastest Atlantic crossing was 21 days, the slowest 29 days.

The use of favourable winds made the travel times of sailboats relatively predictable. Ocean Passages for the Worldmentions that typical passage times from New York to the English Channel for a mid-19th to early 20th century sailing vessel was 25 to 30 days. From 1818 to 1832, the fastest crossing was 21 days, the slowest 29 days. [13]

The journey from the English Channel to New York took 35-40 days in winter and 40-50 days in summer. To Cape Town, Melbourne, and Calcutta took 50-60 days, 80-90 days, and 100-120 days, respectively. [13] These travel times are double to triple those of today’s container ships, which vary their speed based on oil prices and economic demand

Old Approach, New Technology

As a strategy to deal with variable energy sources, adjusting energy demand to renewable energy supply is just as valuable a solution today as it was in pre-industrial times. However, this does not mean that we need to go back to pre-industrial means. We have better technology available, which makes it much easier to synchronise the economic demands with the vagaries of the weather. 

Shipping in a calm, a painting by Charles Brooking, first half 18th century.

In the following paragraphs, I investigate in more detail how industry and transportation could be operated on variable energy sources alone, and demonstrate how new technologies open new possibilities. I then conclude by analysing the effects on consumers, workers, and economic growth.

Industrial Manufacturing

On a global scale, industrial manufacturing accounts for nearly half of all energy end use. Many mechanical processes that were run by windmills are still important today, such as sawing, cutting, boring, drilling, crushing, hammering, sharpening, polishing, milling, turning, and so on. All these production processes can be run with an intermittent power supply. 

The same goes for food production processes (mincing, grinding or hulling grains, pressing olives and seeds), mining and excavation (picking and shovelling, rock and ore crushing), or textile production (fulling cloth, preparing fibres, knitting and weaving). In all these examples, intermittent energy input does not affect the quality of the production process, only the production speed.

Many production processes are not strongly disadvantaged by an intermittent power supply.

Running these processes on variable power sources has become a lot easier than it was in earlier times. For one thing, wind power plants are now completely automated, while the traditional windmill required constant attention. [14]

Image: “Travailler au moulin / Werken met molens”, Jean Bruggeman, 1996.

However, not only are wind turbines (and water turbines) more practical and powerful than in earlier times, we can now make use of solar energy to produce mechanical energy. This is usually done with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight into electricity to run an electric motor. 

Consequently, a factory that requires mechanical energy can be run on a combination of wind and solar power, which increases the chances that there’s sufficient energy to run its machinery. The ability to harvest solar energy is important because it’s by far the most widely available renewable power source. Most of the potential capacity for water power is already taken. [15] 

Thermal Energy

Another crucial difference with pre-industrial times is that we can apply the same strategy to basic industrial processes that require thermal energy instead of mechanical energy. Heat dominates industrial energy use, for instance, in the making of chemicals or microchips, or in the smelting of metals.

In pre-industrial times, manufacturing processes that required thermal energy were powered by the burning of biomass, peat and/or coal. The use of these energy sources caused grave problems, such as large-scale deforestation, loss of land, and air pollution. Although solar energy was used in earlier times, for instance, to evaporate salt along seashores, to dry crops for preservation, or to sunbake clay bricks, its use was limited to processes that required relatively low temperatures.

We can apply the same strategy to basic industrial processes that require thermal energy instead of mechanical energy, which was not possible before the Industrial Revolution.

Today, renewable energy other than biomass can be used to produce thermal energy in two ways. First, we can use wind turbines, water turbines or solar PV panels to produce electricity, which can then be used to produce heat by electrical resistance. This was not possible in pre-industrial times, because there was no electricity.

Augustin Mouchot’s solar powered printing press, 1882. 

Second, we can apply solar heat directly, using water-based flat plate collectors or evacuated tube collectors, which collect solar radiation from all directions and can reach temperatures of 120 degrees celsius. We also have solar concentrator collectors, which track the sun, concentrate its radiation, and can generate temperatures high enough to melt metals or produce microchips and solar cells. These solar technologies only became available in the late 19th century, following advances in the manufacturing of glass and mirrors.

Limited Energy Storage

Running factories on variable power sources doesn’t exclude the use of energy storage or a backup of dispatchable power plants. Adjusting demand to supply should take priority, but other strategies can play a supportive role. First, energy storage or backup power generation capacity could be useful for critical production processes that can’t be halted for prolonged periods, such as food production.

Second, short-term energy storage is also useful to run production processes that are disadvantaged by an intermittent power supply. [16] Third, short-term energy storage is crucial for computer-controlled manufacturing processes, allowing these to continue operating during short interruptions in the power supply, and to shut down safely in case of longer power cuts. [17]

Binnenshaven Rotterdam, a painting by Jongkind Johan Berthold (1857)

Compared to pre-industrial times, we now have more and better energy storage options available. For example, we can use biomass as a backup power source for mechanical energy production, something pre-industrial millers could not do – before the arrival of the steam engine, there was no way of converting biomass into mechanical energy.

Before the arrival of the steam engine, there was no way of converting biomass into mechanical energy.

We also have chemical batteries, and we have low-tech systems like flywheels, compressed air storage, hydraulic accumulators, and pumped storage plants. Heat energy can be stored in well-insulated water reservoirs (up to 100 degrees) or in salt, oil or ceramics (for much higher temperatures). All these storage solutions would fail for some reason or another if they were tasked with storing a large share of renewable energy production. However, they can be very useful on a smaller scale in support of demand adjustment.

The New Age of Sail

Cargo transportation is another candidate for using renewable power when it’s available. This is most obvious for shipping. Ships still carry about 90 percent of the world’s trade, and although shipping is the most energy efficient way of transportation per tonne-kilometre, total energy use is high and today’s oil powered vessels are extremely polluting. 

Image by Arne List [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 12

A common high-tech idea is to install wind turbines off-shore, convert the electricity they generate into hydrogen, and then use that hydrogen to power seagoing vessels. However, it’s much more practical and energy efficient to use wind to power ships directly, like we have done for thousands of years. Furthermore, oil powered cargo ships often float idle for days or even weeks before they can enter a port or leave it, which makes the relative unpredictability of sailboats less problematic.

It’s much more practical and energy efficient to use wind to power ships directly.

As with industrial manufacturing, we now have much better technology and knowledge available to base a worldwide shipping industry on wind power alone. We have new materials to build better and longer-lasting ships and sails, we have more accurate navigation and communication instruments, we have more predictable weather forecasts, we can make use of solar panels for backup engine power, and we have more detailed knowledge about winds and currents. 

Thomas W. Lawson was a seven-masted, stell-hulled schooner built in 1902 for the Pacific trade. It had a crew of 18.

In fact, the global wind and current patterns were only fully understood when the age of sail was almost over. Between 1842 and 1861, American navigator Matthew Fontaine Maury collected an extensive array of ship logs which enabled him to chart prevailing winds and sea currents, as well as their seasonal variations. [18]

Maury’s work enabled seafarers to shorten sailing time considerably, by simply taking better advantage of prevailing winds and sea currents. For instance, a journey from New York to Rio de Janeiro was reduced from 55 to 23 days, while the duration of a trip from Melbourne to Liverpool was halved, from 126 to 63 days. [18]

More recently, yacht racing has generated many innovations that have never been applied to commercial shipping. For example, in the 2017 America’s Cup, the Emirates Team New Zealand introduced stationary bikes instead of hand cranks to power the hydraulic system that steers the boat. Because our legs are stronger than our arms, pedal powered ‘grinding’ allows for quicker tacking and gybing in a race, but it could also be useful to reduce the required manpower for commercial sailing ships. [19]

Speed sailing records are also telling. The fastest sailboat in 1972 did not even reach 50 km/h, while the current record holder — the Vestas Sailrocket 2 — sailed at 121 km/h in 2012. While these types of ships are not practical to carry cargo, they could inspire other designs that are.

Wind & Solar Powered Trains

We could follow a similar approach for land-based transportation, in the form of wind and solar powered trains. Like sailing boats, trains could be running whenever there is renewable energy available. Not by putting sails on trains, of course, but by running them on electricity made by solar PV panels or wind turbines along the tracks. This would be an entirely new application of a centuries-old strategy to deal with variable energy sources, only made possible by the invention of electricity.

Wind and solar powered trains would be an entirely new application of a centuries-old strategy to deal with variable energy sources.

Running cargo trains on renewable energy is a great use of intermittent wind power because they are usually operated at night, when wind power is often at its best and energy demand is at its lowest. Furthermore, just like cargo ships, cargo trains already have unreliable schedules because they often sit stationary in train-yards for days, waiting to become fully loaded.

Cardiff Docks, a painting by Lionel Walden, 1894 15

Even the speed of the trains could be regulated by the amount of renewable energy that is available, just as the wind speed determines the speed of a sailing ship. A similar approach could also work with other electrical transportation systems, such as trolleytruckstrolleyboats or aerial ropeways.

Combining solar and wind powered cargo trains with solar and wind powered factories creates extra possibilities. For example, at first sight, solar or wind powered passenger trains appear to be impossible, because people are less flexible than goods. If a solar powered train is not running or is running too slow, an appointment may have to be rescheduled at the last minute. Likewise, on cloudy days, few people would make it to the office. 

Solar PV panels cover a railway in Belgium, 2016. Image: Infrabel.

However, this could be solved by using the same renewable power sources for factories and passenger trains. Solar panels along the railway lines could be sized for cloudy days, and thus guarantee a minimum level of energy for a minimum service of passenger trains (but no industrial production). During sunny days, the extra solar power could be used to run the factories along the railway line, or to run extra passenger (or cargo) trains.

Consequences for Society: Consumption & Production

As we’ve seen, if industrial production and cargo transportation became dependent on the availability of renewable energy, we would still be able to produce a diverse range of consumer goods, and transport them all over the globe. However, not all products would be available all the time. If I want to buy new shoes, I might have to wait for the right season to get them manufactured and delivered.

Production and consumption would depend on the weather and the seasons. Solar powered factories would have higher production rates in the summer months, while wind powered factories would have higher production rates in the winter months. Sailing seasons also need to be taken into account. 

If I want to buy new shoes, I might have to wait for the right season to get them manufactured and delivered.

But running an economy on the rhythms of the weather doesn’t necessarily mean that production and consumption rates would go down. If factories and cargo transportation adjust their energy use to the weather, they can use the full annual power production of wind turbines and solar panels.

A Windmill at Zaandam, a painting by Claude Monet, 1871. 

Manufacturers could counter seasonal production shortages by producing items ‘in season’ and then stocking it close to consumers for sale during low energy periods. In fact, the products themselves would become ‘energy storage’ in this scenario. Instead of storing energy to manufacture products in the future, we would manufacture products whenever there is energy available, and store the products for later sale instead.

However, seasonal production may well lead to lower production and consumption rates. Overproducing in high energy times requires large production facilities and warehouses, which would be underused for the rest of the year. To produce cost-efficiently, manufacturers will need to make compromises. From time to time, these compromises will lead to product shortages, which in turn could encourage people to consider other solutions, such as repair and re-use of existing products, crafted products, DIY, or exchanging and sharing goods.

Consequences for the Workforce

Adjusting energy demand to energy supply also implies that the workforce adapts to the weather. If a factory runs on solar power, then the availability of power corresponds very well with human rhythms. The only downside is that workers would be free from work especially in winter and on cloudy days.

However, if a factory or a cargo train runs on wind power, then people will also have to work during the night, which is considered unhealthy. The upside is that they would have holidays in summer and on good weather days.

Nachtelijk werk in de dokken (Night work at the docks), a painting by Henri Adolphe Schaep, 1856. 

If a factory or a transportation system is operated by wind or solar energy alone, workers would also have to deal with uncertainty about their work schedules. Although we have much better weather forecasts than in pre-industrial times, it remains difficult to make accurate predictions more than a few days ahead. 

However, it is not only renewable power plants that are now completely automated. The same goes for factories. The last century has seen increasing automation of production processes, based on computers and robots. So-called “dark factories” are already completely automated (they need no lights because there is nobody there).

It’s not only renewable power plants that are now completely automated. The same goes for factories.

If a factory has no workers, it doesn’t matter when it’s running. Furthermore, many factories already run for 24 hours per day, partly operated by millions of night shift workers. In these cases, night work would actually decrease because these factories will only run through the night if it’s windy.

Finally, we could also limit the main share of industrial manufacturing and railway transportation to normal working hours, and curtail the oversupply during the night. In this scenario, we would simply have less material goods and more holidays. On the other hand, there would be an increased need for other types of jobs, like craftsmanship and sailing.

What About the Internet?

In conclusion, industrial manufacturing and cargo transportation — both over land and over sea — could be run almost entirely on variable renewable power sources, with little need for energy storage, transmission networks, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants. In contrast, the modern high-tech approach of matching energy supply to energy demand at all times requires a lot of extra infrastructure which makes renewable power production a complex, slow, expensive and unsustainable undertaking.

Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today. There would be no curtailment of energy, and no storage and transmission losses. All the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be used on the spot and nothing would go to waste. 

Marina, a painting by Carol Popp de Szathmary, 1800s. 19

Admittedly, adjusting energy demand to energy supply can be less straightforward in other sectors. Although the internet could be entirely operated on variable power sources — using asynchronous networks and delay-tolerant software — many newer internet applications would then disappear.

At home, we probably can’t expect people to sit in the dark or not to cook meals when there is no renewable energy. Likewise, people will not come to hospitals only on sunny days. In such instances, there is a larger need for energy storage or other measures to counter an intermittent power supply. That’s for a next post.

Kris De Decker. Edited by Jenna Collett.

Part of the research for this article happened during a fellowship at the Demand Centre, Lancaster, UK.


Sources: 

[1] Lucas, Adam. Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology. Vol. 8. Brill, 2006.

[2] Reynolds, Terry S. Stronger than a hundred men: a history of the vertical water wheel. Vol. 7. JHU Press, 2002.

[3] Hills, Richard Leslie. Power from wind: a history of windmill technology. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[4] Paine, Lincoln. The sea and civilization: a maritime history of the world. Atlantic Books Ltd, 2014.

[5] One of the earliest large hydropower dams was the Cento dam in Italy (1450), which was 71 m long and almost 6 m high. By the 18th century, the largest dams were up to 260 m long and 25 m high, with power canals leading to dozens of water wheels. [2]

[6] Although windmills had all kinds of internal mechanisms to adapt to sudden changes in wind speed and wind direction, wind power had no counterpart for the dam in water power.

[7] This explains why windmills became especially important in regions with dry climates, in flat countries, or in very cold areas, where water power was not available. In countries with good water resources, windmills only appeared when the increased demand for power created a crisis because the best waterpower sites were already occupied.

[8] Tide mills were technically similar to water mills, but they were more reliable because the sea is less prone to dry out, freeze over, or change its water level than a river.

[9] Sieferle, Rolf Peter, and Michael P. Osman. The subterranean forest: energy systems and the industrial revolution. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2001.

[10] Freese, Stanley. Windmills and millwrighting. Cambridge University Press, 1957

[11] Wailes, Rex. The English windmill. London, Routledge & K. Paul, 1954

[12] The global wind pattern is complemented by regional wind patterns, such as land and sea breezes. The Northern Indian Ocean has semi-annually reversing Monsoon winds. These blow from the southwest from June to November, and from the northeast from December to May. Maritime trade in the Indian Ocean started earlier than in other seas, and the established trade routes were entirely dependent on the season. 

[13] Jenkins, H. L. C. “Ocean passages for the world.” The Royal Navy, Somerset (1973).

[14] Windmillers had to be alert to keep the gap between the stones constant however choppy the wind, and before the days of the centrifugal governor this was done by hand. The miller had to watch the power of the wind, to judge how much sail cloth to spread, and to be prepared  to stop the mill under sail and either take in or let out more cloth, for there were no patent sails. And before the fantail came into use, he had to watch the direction of the wind as well and keep the sails square into the wind’s eye. [11]

[15] Apart from electricity, the Industrial Revolution also brought us compressed air, water under pressure, and improved mechanical power transmission, which can all be valuable alternatives for electricity in certain applications. 

[16] A similar distinction was made in the old days. For example, when spinning cloth, a constant speed was required to avoid gearwheels hunting and causing the machines to deliver thick and thin parts in rovings or yarns. [3] That’s why spinning was only mechanised using water power, which could be stored to guarantee a more regular power supply, and not wind power. Wind power was also unsuited for processes like papermaking, mine haulage, or operating blast furnace bellows in ironworks.

[17] Very short-term energy storage is required for many mechanical production processes running on variable power sources, in order to smooth out small and sudden variations in energy supply. Such mechanical systems were already used in pre-industrial windmills. 

[18] Leighly, J. (ed) (1963) The Physical Geography of the Sea and its Meteorology by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 8th Edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Cited by Knowles, R.D. (2006) “Transport shaping space: the differential collapse of time/space”, Journal of Transport Geography, 14(6), pp. 407-425.

[19] Rival teams rejected pedal power because they feared radical change, says Team New Zealand designer. The Telegraph, May 24, 2017.


The 19th Century Solar Engines of Augustin Mouchot, Abel Pifre, and John Ericsson

February 29, 2012 , In Solar Power, with permission from LANDGENERATOR

The history of renewable energy is fascinating. We posted a while back about early efforts to harness the power of waves. You may also be interested to learn more about the 19th century work of Mouchot and Ericsson, early pioneers of solar thermal concentrators (CSP solar thermal power).

Early schematics of Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator.

Augustin Mouchot taught secondary school mathematics from 1852-1871, during which time he embarked on a series of experiments in the conversion of solar energy into useful work. His proof-of-concept designs were so successful that he obtained support from the French government to pursue the research full-time. His work was inspired and informed by that of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure(who had constructed the first successful solar oven in 1767) and Claude Pouillet (who invented the Pyrheliometer in 1838).

Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, 1878.


Mouchot worked on his most ambitious device in the sunny conditions of French Algeria and brought it back for demonstration at the Universal Exhibition in Paris of 1878. There he won the Gold Medal, impressing the judges with the production of ice from the power of the sun.

Unfortunately, the falling price of coal, driven by efficiencies of transport and free trade agreements with Britain, meant that Mouchot’s work would soon be deemed unnecessary and his funding was cut soon after his triumph at the Universal Exhibition.

Abel Pifre and his solar powered printing press. Image from Scientific American, May 1882.

His assistant, Abel Pifre, would continue his work, however, and demonstrated a solar powered printing press in the Jardin des Tuileries in 1882. Despite cloudy conditions that day, the machine printed 500 copies per hour of Le Journal du Soleil, a newspaper written specially for the demonstration.

John Ericsson’s Solar Engines

Meanwhile, the great inventor and engineer John Ericsson had decided to devote the last years of his life to similar pursuits. His work on solar engines spanned the 1870s and 1880s. Instead of relying on steam, he utilized his version of the heat engine, a device that would prove very commercially successful when powered with more conventional fuel sources such as gas.

From Paul Collins’ 2002 essay The Beautiful Possibility:

“You will probably be surprised when I say that the sun-motor is nearer perfection than the steam-engine,” [Ericsson] wrote one friend, “but until coal mines are exhausted its value will not be fully acknowledged.” He calculated that solar power cost about ten times as much as coal, so that until coal began to run out, solar power would not be economically feasible. But this, to him, was not a sign of failure—there was no question that fossil fuels would indeed run out someday.

The great engineer maintained an unshakeable belief in the future of solar power to his last breath; he had set up a large engine in his backyard and was still perfecting it when he collapsed in early 1889. Though his doctor made him rest, Ericsson could not sleep at night: he complained that he could not stop thinking about his work yet to be done.

Both Mouchot and Ericsson were driven by the prescient understanding that access to coal, the predominant fossil fuel of the time, would eventually run out. And while, new discoveries of petroleum and natural gas have extended our inexpensive access to energy, we are finally now, 140 years later, reaching a time when their predictions are coming true. For the wisdom behind the premise is still as valid today as it was then—nothing that is finite can last forever. These inventors were so far ahead of their time, it is almost scary.

Captain Erikson’s Equation

Originally posted on the Archdruid Report now https://www.ecosophia.net/  by John Michael Greer, March 2014. Reprinted with permission of the author.

I have yet to hear anyone in the peak oil blogosphere mention the name of Captain Gustaf Erikson of the Åland Islands and his fleet of windjammers.  For all I know, he’s been completely forgotten now, his name and accomplishments packed away in the same dustbin of forgotten history as solar steam-engine pioneer Augustin Mouchot, his near contemporary. If so, it’s high time that his footsteps sounded again on the quarterdeck of our collective imagination, because his story—and the core insight that committed him to his lifelong struggle—both have plenty to teach about the realities framing the future of technology in the wake of today’s era of fossil-fueled abundance.

Erikson, born in 1872, grew up in a seafaring family and went to sea as a ship’s boy at the age of nine. At 19 he was the skipper of a coastal freighter working the Baltic and North Sea ports; two years later he shipped out as mate on a windjammer for deepwater runs to Chile and Australia, and eight years after that he was captain again, sailing three- and four-masted cargo ships to the far reaches of the planet. A bad fall from the rigging in 1913 left his right leg crippled, and he left the sea to become a ship owner instead, buying the first of what would become the 20th century’s last major fleet of wind powered commercial cargo vessels.

It’s too rarely remembered these days that the arrival of steam power didn’t make commercial sailing vessels obsolete across the board. The ability to chug along at eight knots or so without benefit of wind was a major advantage in some contexts—naval vessels and passenger transport, for example—but coal was never cheap, and the long stretches between coaling stations on some of the world’s most important trade routes meant that a significant fraction of a steamship’s total tonnage had to be devoted to coal, cutting into the capacity to haul paying cargoes. For bulk cargoes over long distances, in particular, sailing ships were a good deal more economical all through the second half of the 19th century, and some runs remained a paying proposition for sail well into the 20th.

That was the niche that the windjammers of the era exploited. They were huge—up to 400 feet from stem to stern—square-sided, steel-hulled ships, fitted out with more than an acre of canvas and miles of steel-wire rigging.  They could be crewed by a few dozen sailors, and hauled prodigious cargoes:  up to 8,000 tons of Australian grain, Chilean nitrate—or, for that matter, coal; it was among the ironies of the age that the coaling stations that allowed steamships to refuel on long voyages were very often kept stocked by tall ships, which could do the job more economically than steamships themselves could. The markets where wind could outbid steam were lucrative enough that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still thousands of working windjammers hauling cargoes across the world’s oceans.

That didn’t change until bunker oil refined from petroleum ousted coal as the standard fuel for powered ships. Petroleum products carry much more energy per pound than even the best grade of coal, and the better grades of coal were beginning to run short and rise accordingly in price well before the heyday of the windjammers was over. A diesel-powered vessel had to refuel less often, devote less of its tonnage to fuel, and cost much less to operate than its coal-fired equivalent. That’s why Winston Churchill, as head of Britain’s Admiralty, ordered the entire British Navy converted from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, and why coal-burning steamships became hard to find anywhere on the seven seas once the petroleum revolution took place. That’s also why most windjammers went out of use around the same time; they could compete against coal, but not against dirt-cheap diesel fuel.

Gustav Erikson went into business as a ship owner just as that transformation was getting under way. The rush to diesel power allowed him to buy up windjammers at a fraction of their former price—his first ship, a 1,500-ton bark, cost him less than $10,000, and the pride of his fleet, the four-masted  Herzogin Cecilie, set him back only $20,000.  A tight rein on operating expenses and a careful eye on which routes were profitable kept his firm solidly in the black. The bread and butter of his business came from shipping wheat from southern Australia to Europe; Erikson’s fleet and the few other windjammers still in the running would leave European ports in the northern hemisphere’s autumn and sail for Spencer Gulf on Australia’s southern coast, load up with thousands of tons of wheat, and then race each other home, arriving in the spring—a good skipper with a good crew could make the return trip in less than 100 days, hitting speeds upwards of 15 knots when the winds were right.

There was money to be made that way, but Erikson’s commitment to the windjammers wasn’t just a matter of profit. A sentimental attachment to tall ships was arguably part of the equation, but there was another factor as well. In his latter years, Erikson was fond of telling anyone who would listen that a new golden age for sailing ships was on the horizon:  sooner or later, he insisted, the world’s supply of coal and oil would run out, steam and diesel engines would become so many lumps of metal fit only for salvage, and those who still knew how to haul freight across the ocean with only the wind for power would have the seas, and the world’s cargoes, all to themselves.

Those few books that mention Erikson at all like to portray him as the last holdout of a departed age, a man born after his time. On the contrary, he was born before his time, and lived too soon. When he died in 1947, the industrial world’s first round of energy crises were still a quarter century away, and only a few lonely prophets had begun to grasp the absurdity of trying to build an enduring civilization on the ever-accelerating consumption of a finite and irreplaceable fuel supply. He had hoped that his sons would keep the windjammers running, and finish the task of getting the traditions and technology of the tall ships through the age of fossil fuels and into the hands of the seafarers of the future. I’m sorry to say that that didn’t happen; the profits to be made from modern freighters were too tempting, and once the old man was gone, his heirs sold off the windjammers and replaced them with diesel-powered craft.

Erikson’s story is worth remembering, though, and not simply because he was an early prophet of what we now call peak oil. He was also one of the very first people in our age to see past the mythology of technological progress that dominated the collective imagination of his time and ours, and glimpse the potentials of one of the core strategies this blog has been advocating for the last eight years.

We can use the example that would have been dearest to his heart, the old technology of windpowered maritime cargo transport, to explore those potentials. To begin with, it’s crucial to remember that the only thing that made tall ships obsolete as a transport technology was cheap abundant petroleum. The age of coal-powered steamships left plenty of market niches in which windjammers were economically more viable than steamers.  The difference, as already noted, was a matter of energy density—that’s the technical term for how much energy you get out of each pound of fuel; the best grades of coal have only about half the energy density of petroleum distillates, and as you go down the scale of coal grades, energy density drops steadily.  The brown coal that’s commonly used for fuel these days provides, per pound, rather less than a quarter the heat energy you get from a comparable weight of bunker oil.

As the world’s petroleum reserves keep sliding down the remorseless curve of depletion, in turn, the price of bunker oil—like that of all other petroleum products—will continue to move raggedly upward. If Erikson’s tall ships were still in service, it’s quite possible that they would already be expanding their market share; as it is, it’s going to be a while yet before rising fuel costs will make it economical for shipping firms to start investing in the construction of a new generation of windjammers.  Nonetheless, as the price of bunker oil keeps rising, it’s eventually going to cross the line at which sail becomes the more profitable option, and when that happens, those firms that invest in tall ships will profit at the expense of their old-fahioned, oil-burning rivals.

Yes, I’m aware that this last claim flies in the face of one of the most pervasive superstitions of our time, the faith-based insistence that whatever technology we happen to use today must always and forever be better, in every sense but a purely sentimental one, than whatever technology it replaced. The fact remains that what made diesel-powered maritime transport standard across the world’s oceans was not some abstract superiority of bunker oil over wind and canvas, but the simple reality that for a  while, during the heyday of cheap abundant petroleum, diesel-powered freighters were more profitable to operate than any of the other options.  It was always a matter of economics, and as petroleum depletion tilts the playing field the other way, the economics will change accordingly.

All else being equal, if a shipping company can make larger profits moving cargoes by sailing ships than by diesel freighters, coal-burning steamships, or some other option, the sailing ships will get the business and the other options will be left to rust in port. It really is that simple. The point at which sailing vessels become economically viable, in turn, is determined partly by fuel prices and partly by the cost of building and outfitting a new generation of sailing ships. Erikson’s plan was to do an end run around the second half of that equation, by keeping a working fleet of windjammers in operation on niche routes until rising fuel prices made it profitable to expand into other markets. Since that didn’t happen, the lag time will be significantly longer, and bunker fuel may have to price itself entirely out of certain markets—causing significant disruptions to maritime trade and to national and regional economies—before it makes economic sense to start building windjammers again.

It’s a source of wry amusement to me that when the prospect of sail transport gets raised, even in the greenest of peak oil circles, the immediate reaction from most people is to try to find some way to smuggle engines back onto the tall ships. Here again, though, the issue that matters is economics, not our current superstitious reverence for loud metal objects. There were plenty of ships in the 19th century that combined steam engines and sails in various combinations, and plenty of ships in the early 20th century that combined diesel engines and sails the same way.  Windjammers powered by sails alone were more economical than either of these for long-range bulk transport, because engines and their fuel supplies cost money, they take up tonnage that can otherwise be used for paying cargo, and their fuel costs cut substantially into profits as well.

For that matter, I’ve speculated in posts here about the possibility that Augustin Mouchot’s solar steam engines, or something like them, could be used as a backup power source for the windjammers of the de-industrial future. It’s interesting to note that the use of renewable energy sources for shipping in Erikson’s time wasn’t limited to the motive power provided by sails; coastal freighters of the kind Erikson skippered when he was nineteen were called “onkers” in Baltic Sea slang, because their windmill-powered deck pumps made a repetitive “onk-urrr, onk-urrr” noise. Still, the same rule applies; enticing as it might be to imagine sailors on a becalmed windjammer hauling the wooden cover off a solar steam generator, expanding the folding reflector, and sending steam down belowdecks to drive a propeller, whether such a technology came into use would depend on whether the cost of buying and installing a solar steam engine, and the lost earning capacity due to hold space being taken up by the engine, was less than the profit to be made by getting to port a few days sooner.

Are there applications where engines are worth having despite their drawbacks? Of course. Unless the price of biodiesel ends up at astronomical levels, or the disruptions ahead along the curve of the Long Descent cause diesel technology to be lost entirely, tugboats will probably have diesel engines for the imaginable future, and so will naval vessels; the number of major naval battles won or lost in the days of sail because the wind blew one way or another will doubtless be on the minds of many as the age of petroleum winds down. Barring a complete collapse in technology, in turn, naval vessels will no doubt still be made of steel—once cannons started firing explosive shells instead of solid shot, wooden ships became deathtraps in naval combat—but most others won’t be; large-scale steel production requires ample supplies of coke, which is produced by roasting coal, and depletion of coal supplies in a postpetroleum future guarantees that steel will be much more expensive compared to other materials than it is today, or than it was during the heyday of the windjammers.

Note that here again, the limits to technology and resource use are far more likely to be economic than technical. In purely technical terms, a maritime nation could put much of its arable land into oil crops and use that to keep its merchant marine fueled with biodiesel. In economic terms, that’s a nonstarter, since the advantages to be gained by it are much smaller than the social and financial costs that would be imposed by the increase in costs for food, animal fodder, and all other agricultural products. In the same way, the technical ability to build an all-steel merchant fleet will likely still exist straight through the de-industrial  future; what won’t exist is the ability to do so without facing prompt bankruptcy. That’s what happens when you have to live on the product of each year’s sunlight, rather than drawing down half a billion years of fossil photosynthesis:  there are hard economic limits to how much of anything you can produce, and increasing production of one thing pretty consistently requires cutting production of something else. People in today’s industrial world don’t have to think like that, but their descendants in the de-industrial  world will either learn how to do so or perish.

This point deserves careful study, as it’s almost always missed by people trying to think their way through the technological consequences of the de-industrial  future. One reader of mine who objected to talk about abandoned technologies in a previous post quoted with approval the claim, made on another website, that if a de-industrial  society can make one gallon of biodiesel, it can make as many thousands or millions of gallons as it wants.  Technically, maybe; economically, not a chance.  It’s as though you made $500 a week and someone claimed you could buy as many bottles of $100-a-bottle scotch as you wanted; in any given week, your ability to buy expensive scotch would be limited by your need to meet other expenses such as food and rent, and some purchase plans would be out of reach even if you ignored all those other expenses and spent your entire paycheck at the liquor store. The same rule applies to societies that don’t have the windfall of fossil fuels at their disposal—and once we finish burning through the fossil fuels we can afford to extract, every human society for the rest of our species’ time on earth will be effectively described in those terms.

The one readily available way around the harsh economic impacts of fossil fuel depletion is the one that Gunnar Erikson tried, but did not live to complete—the strategy of keeping an older technology in use, or bringing a defunct technology back into service, while there’s still enough wealth sloshing across the decks of the industrial economy to make it relatively easy to do so.  I’ve suggested above that if his firm had kept the windjammers sailing, scraping out a living on whatever narrow market niche they could find, the rising cost of bunker oil might already have made it profitable to expand into new niches; there wouldn’t have been the additional challenge of finding the money to build new windjammers from the keel up, train crews to sail them, and get ships and crews through the learning curve that’s inevitably a part of bringing an unfamiliar technology on line.

That same principle has been central to quite a few of this blog’s projects. One small example is the encouragement I’ve tried to give to the rediscovery of the slide rule as an effective calculating device. There are still plenty of people alive today who know how to use slide rules, plenty of books that teach how to crunch numbers with a slipstick, and plenty of slide rules around. A century down the line, when slide rules will almost certainly be much more economically viable than pocket calculators, those helpful conditions might not be in place—but if people take up slide rules now for much the same reasons that Erikson kept the tall ships sailing, and make an effort to pass skills and slipsticks on to another generation, no one will have to revive or reinvent a dead technology in order to have quick accurate calculations for practical tasks such as engineering, salvage, and renewable energy technology.

The collection of sustainable-living skills I somewhat jocularly termed “green wizardry,” which I learned back in the heyday of the appropriate tech movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, passed on to the readers of this blog in a series of posts a couple of years ago, and have now explored in book form as well, is another case in point. Some of that knowledge, more of the attitudes that undergirded it, and nearly all the small-scale, hands-on, basement-workshop sensibility of the movement in question has vanished from our collective consciousness in the years since the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution foreclosed any hope of a viable future for the industrial world. There are still enough books on appropriate tech gathering dust in used book shops, and enough in the way of living memory among those of us who were there, to make it possible to recover those things; another generation and that hope would have gone out the window.

There are plenty of other possibilities along the same lines. For that matter, it’s by no means unreasonable to plan on investing in technologies that may not be able to survive all the way through the decline and fall of the industrial age, if those technologies can help cushion the way down. Whether or not it will still be possible to manufacture PV cells at the bottom of the de-industrial dark ages, as I’ve been pointing out since the earliest days of this blog, getting them in place now on a home or local community scale is likely to pay off handsomely when grid-based electricity becomes unreliable, as it will.  The modest amounts of electricity you can expect to get from this and other renewable sources can provide critical services (for example, refrigeration and long-distance communication) that will be worth having as the Long Descent unwinds.

That said, all such strategies depend on having enough economic surplus on hand to get useful technologies in place before the darkness closes in. As things stand right now, as many of my readers will have had opportunity to notice already, that surplus is trickling away. Those of us who want to help make a contribution to the future along those lines had better get a move on.

The Center for Post Carbon Logistics

Melding 19th and 21st Century Technologies for Waterborne Freight and Passenger Transport

Our world is now convulsed by three great converging crises: climate change, global economic instability, and peak everything. Add to these principal threats the risks of wars over natural resources, climate migration, the total failure of aging and over stressed infrastructure, and the erosion of traditional community values.  Each of these crises presents particularly thorny problems for the New York City Metropolitan area and the Hudson Valley Bio-region.

Our region is at a crossroads.  Looking forward rationally at all the indicators, the “business as usual” choice takes us down a road to cataclysmic energy shortages and infrastructure failure, to inundation from sea level rise, to financial meltdown and its attendant social disarray.

There are four possible response strategies:

Today the far-flung international trade network that once pumped vibrant economic life into the region threatens to collapse as imported natural resources, pollution from shipping, and the fossil fuels needed to transport goods will soon become increasingly scarce and expensive. Higher petroleum costs, and turmoil in countries in which much of our imported goods are made could snap that lifeline. The present system is unsustainable.

The rivers, bays, canals, and coasts of the Hudson Valley, NY Harbor, and Mid-Atlantic continue to be a marine highway, but one that is limited to deeply dredged channels leading to container ports and fossil fuel and chemical tank farms.  Traffic consists of the movement of consumer goods, automobiles, and spirits from around the world on large ocean going fossil fueled container ships to ports where the containers are loaded onto trucks for delivery to warehouses for distribution in a “just in time” logistics system. 

Moving goods and people from place to place in a carbon constrained future will be dependent on sailing vessels, hybrid/fossil free electric ships, and people, bicycle, and animal powered transport for first and last mile logistics.  These methods of transport will meld 19th and 21st Century Technology. Ships will be (re)built locally from locally sourced or recycled materials and will be crewed by locally trained seafarers.  The ships will provide a carbon neutral trading link,  will be a laboratory for innovation and competitiveness, will be commercially competitive with conventional fossil fuel transport in certain markets, will operate on reliable schedules (dependent on tide, wind, and weather), and offer competitive freight rates on appropriate routes.

This executive summary of a monologue in support of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics (The Center) includes a plan for Hudson Valley/Mid-Atlantic river bay, coastal, and ocean shipping of fair trade cargo. The time is right and an opportunity exists now to reinvent and profit from low carbon cargo delivery.  Post carbon ships have many advantages over larger oil powered cargo ships.  Sailing and alternative fuel freighters can locally promote:

  • job creation in farming, logistics, ship building and maintenance among others
  • Revitalization of waterfront communities by preserving the working waterfront and commercial enterprises, while providing more public access, and recreation.
  •  Food production and distribution, and connecting producers to buyers

The mission of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics is to provide the pragmatic means to survive the decades ahead and to provide the tools to transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world. The Center will do so by providing individuals and communities with no-nonsense methods of transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels for transporting goods and passengers.  The Center will research and assist in the implementation of appropriate or Slow Technology[1] needed to respond to the inevitable equity, economic, ecological, and energy crises of the 21st century.

 The idea of Slow Technology or “Slow Tech” has its roots in the ideological movement called “appropriate technology,” a term coined by E.F. Schumacher in his book  Small is Beautiful,  first published in 1973.  Slow  Tech should be thoughtful  about how devices shape our relationships to time, emotion,  energy, and bioregional environment.

  • The Center will house a widely accessible traditional knowledge data base, library, and a pre/post carbon tool, technology, and machinery collection.
  • The Center will promote Slow Technology
  • The Center will be an advocate for existing and emerging low carbon shipping and post carbon transportation businesses..
  • The Center will provide educational opportunities and creative, implementable, real world solutions to the environmental, economic, and social crises we are likely to face in the near and mid-term future.
  • The Center will enable people to work locally to transition our communities and bioregion away from a fossil fuel-based economy to a “restorative economy,” one that is human-scaled, embraces alternative locally based energy, and that is less extractive.
  • The Center will host regional, national, and international conferences on post carbon logistics and sail freight and will be an advocate for working waterfronts throughout the Canals, the Hudson Valley, NY Harbor, and the Atlantic Coast.
  • The Center will partner with other enterprises and organizations to provide a physical place where professional practitioners and apprentices can participate in theory and practice workshops for preserving the skills of the past to serve the future.
  • The Center will advocate for a Transition that people will embrace it as a collective adventure, as a common journey, as something positive, and how communities can feel alive, positive and included in this process of societal transformation. Paraphrasing the title of Transition Town Rob Hopkins’ book, The Center for Post Carbon Logistics will be the embodiment of the “Power of Just Doing Stuff.”

Kingston, NY as well as, every community along the Canals, the Hudson River, NY Harbor and the North East US Coast will have to engage its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present.

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