This article was first published in the volume Fleeing Vesuvius (ordering instructions are at the bottom), and was more recently republished Féasta’s web site.]
Land transport will be costly, difficult and dangerous after the industrial system has broken down. Moving goods and people by water will be a better option even for quite short distances but what sort of boats will be needed and what materials will be available to build them?
Although a complete and instantaneous collapse of global industry doesn’t seem particularly likely just at this very moment, its likelihood begins to approach 100 per cent as we move through the 21st Century. The opposing view – that industrial civilisation can survive this century – comes up rather short of facts to support it and rests on an unshakable faith in technological miracles. In an echo of medieval alchemy, the hopes for technological salvation are pinned on some element or other: yesterday it was hydrogen; today it’s thorium. Fusion reactors are currently out of fashion, cold fusion doubly so, but who knows what new grand proposal tomorrow will bring?
- The inability to supply/afford transport fuels in the amounts needed to run existing transportation networks, construction and industrial equipment. Transport fuels are made almost entirely from oil, and global oil production has probably already entered terminal decline. Since coal and natural gas are set to follow within the next 15 years, they can scarcely provide substitutes. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or biomass either do not provide transportation fuels or provide them in comparatively tiny quantities.
- A lack of the resources required to build new transportation infrastructure due to a permanent and deepening economic depression. Economies that fail to grow, or grow more slowly than the population, would not produce a surplus sufficient to maintain their existing infrastructure and vehicle fleets, never mind investing in ambitious new schemes.
- Shortages of strategic metals and key rare earth elements needed to manufacture high-technology components such as electric vehicle batteries, photovoltaic panels and high-efficiency electric motors.
These are mined predominantly in China and are only available in restricted quantities.
- Social disruptions and political upheavals caused by population pressures in the face of a shrinking economy. These are unpredictable but would predictably result in disruptions to global supply chains, shortages of parts, and project delays and cancellations.
- Disruption of ocean freight once rising ocean levels begin to inundate port facilities. The current authoritative worst-case estimates are for a 1.5 metre sea level rise this century, but it is based on incomplete understanding of global warming effects and dynamics of polar ice cap melt. As knowledge improves, the estimates tend to double every few years, but they have not been keeping up with observed reality. The ultimate sea level rise may be as high as 20 metres.
- “How can we help? What useful technological legacy can we bequeath to future generations?”
- “What if, instead of squandering its remaining resources on lavish parting presents for its ageing rentier class, the current profit-and-growth economic paradigm were to be quietly replaced with the idea that society should serve its children and grandchildren, should any be lucky enough to survive”?
- “What can we usefully accomplish in the time remaining before inescapable resource constraints force industrial life-support systems to stop functioning? What technological heirlooms and key pieces of learning could we convey, in the form of a living tradition, to give future generations a chance at surviving the dystopian future we are now working so hard to construct for them?”
- Current, industrial shipbuilding practices, as well as the vessels themselves, will be of no use without both a functioning industrial economy and the widespread availability of transport fuels.
- Going back to traditional, wood-based shipbuilding techniques will not be possible because logging and deforestation have depleted the supply of the high-quality timber
- Access to the ocean will be in most places become complicated as the rising seas silt up inlets, navigation channels and harbours and wash away waterfronts. Deep-draught ocean vessels will find land access obstructed and difficult due to the eroded shoreline.
In 2006, I put my findings together in an article, The New Age of Sail. At that time I had had very little actual ocean sailing experience, and had to rely almost entirely on second-hand information. I have since purchased a sailboat of the sort I described: a versatile and practical shoal-draught ocean-capable boat. My wife and I sold our flat and moved aboard the boat. We have since spent close to two years sailing the entire length of the eastern coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida, including rivers, canals and long stretches of the open Atlantic. We have encountered some very lively conditions whipped up by tropical storms and hurricanes. In the process, I was able to learn enough about boat-building to improve the design, building a new rudder and making numerous other adjustments and improvements. I also fitted it with solar panels and a wind turbine, a composting toilet, and a rainwater collection system.