Like everyone else, the Covid experience caused me to reflect carefully on the fragility of supply chains and on the vast and fragile web of trading connections which we all rely upon. Like everyone else, too, the experience of this enforced “time out” from the world — a time, at the pandemic’s peak, when all work fell away and the sound of a jet passing overhead would cause you to look up at the sky in wonder — came as an unexpected release from the accelerating hustle and pressure of 21st century life.
So I was pleased to read in my local paper this week that, soon, a vision of a slower, more considered future will sail into my home port in the shape of De Gallant, a 1916 fishing lugger repurposed as a cargo ship. Part of the nascent revival of sailing ships as cargo haulers, the Gallant is transporting olive oil, barrels of olives and sacks of rice and salt from small producers in Portugal and France to ports around England, touching UK shores in Ramsgate first before heading on to Penzance, Bristol, London, Newhaven and Great Yarmouth.
There is a growing awareness, due to the increasing threat of climate change, of the value of wind power for carbon-neutral transport, and sailing ships like De Gallant are just one romantic part of the wider ethical movement towards sail cargo. Consider the numbers: while sea cargo makes up less than 3% of total carbon emissions, it’s still responsible for a staggering 700 million tons of fossil fuels burnt every year. For a country like the UK, where 90% of all goods consumed are brought here by sea, the opportunity to rebalance our patterns of trade and consumption in a more sustainable way seems an open goal.
The 21st century revival of sail is just one aspect of a growing low-tech subculture, which in the words of the pioneering Low Tech Institute aims to “bring nonindustrial subsistence technology to (over)developed societies” by testing “ancient and contemporary nonindustrial technologies appropriate for use in modern, small-scale, self-sustaining infrastructure.” While much of this is making virtue of necessity — after all, we may soon have no alternative — a new appreciation of the low-tech may also be a moral virtue in itself.
Who doesn’t feel alienated by the increasing acceleration of life, the “liquid modernity” of endless, constant change, which rarely seems to solve the problems it claims to fix but instead brings new problems in its wake? I’m reminded here of the visionary essay on scything by England’s greatest living writer, Paul Kingsnorth. Comparing the scythe, the “ancient piece of technology; tried and tested, improved and honed, literally and metaphorically, over centuries,” with its unsatisfactory replacement the brushcutter, noisy, thirsty for oil and inefficient, “more cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster, and far less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced,” Kingsnorth lands on an essential truth:
For better or worse, Covid provided a brief glimpse of a different world, an earlier world and perhaps our future one. The machine stopped: and in the silence it left behind we could hear, as if for the first time, streets without cars, birdsong in the trees and the wind rustling through the leaves and furrowing the waves on the sea. When De Gallant comes to shore next month it won’t just be carrying wine and olives in its hold but also a vision of a simpler, slower way of life.