by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 21
August 2020
Spotted
07:00

Sailing into a low-tech future

by Aris Roussinos
The De Gallant ship will be repurposed as a cargo ship

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:

Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.
- Paul Kingsnorth, Orion Magazine

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.

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  • September 2, 2020
    I must say I find it ridiculous that so many today take an easy option of: let's say- driving 500m or 4km to work instead of walking or riding. They then pay for gym memberships (that they don't use), fast and easy meals and for doctors to fix their knees that are broken in some way because they... Read more

  • August 25, 2020
    This comment assumes that the purpose of 'going green' is to find a different way of providing our society with the same level of profligate energy use. It isn't. And that profligate energy use did not exist even a few decades back, when quality of life, taken in the round, was often measurably... Read more

  • August 24, 2020
    I agree, and yes, it's great that he's getting a workout in (and perhaps other people using the mechanized option may prefer to get their workout another way anyway.) What I was most interested in was Chris' intimations that the old version was just as efficient - in terms of time (rather than... Read more

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