by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 21
August 2020

Sailing into a low-tech future

A vision of a slower, more considered post-Covid world
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.

Join the discussion

  • The first Census in 1801 revealed that the population of Great Britain was 10.5 million.
    If we wanted to follow horse-drawn ploughs and then harvest our crops with scythes, I’m sure we could feed 10.5 million people.
    Unfortunately, our population is now 68 million. With very intensive agriculture we produce half the food we need. By borrowing, we buy the other half.
    Go back to the pre-industrial idyll by all means. Where do we put all the excess people?

  • A green daydream. Can’t happen, won’t happen. And a clipper under full sail might have been one of the most beautiful forms of transport ever devised by man. But life before the mast was hard, brutal, dangerous and badly paid. Much like life as a pre-industrial agricultural worker.

  • The internet in its social media mode is certainly not enabling people “to live slower, calmer lives”. Quite the contrary. And working from home may be fine for some but is crashing a big section of the economy. Not so good for the people who depend on this for their livelihood.

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