Archive for May, 2013

Age of Limits 2013


I am on the train back from the second annual Age of Limits conference at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania. It was the coldest Memorial Day weekend in the Alleghenies in anyone\’s memory, but in spite of the (almost) freezing cold, (which explains the “layered” look of many of the attendees) it went well. This week I will process one of the talks I gave (on lessons we can learn from intentional communities that abide over many generations) into a blog post. In the meantime, here are a few of the photos I took (the ones that turned out the best).

Albert Bates speaking on Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a. the Unabomer)

Guy McPhearson about to set out the case for the near-term extinction (NTE) of the human species
The audience letting Guy\’s message wash over them
Informal discussion at the fire circle
At breakfast
Closing ceremony
The presenters (minus Greer who was busy talking to someone)

Everyone (click to enlarge)

Extraenvironmentalist interview


While the cultural foundations of the United States are unraveling the unconscious programs of American society lay outside of public dialogue. Where there was once an American Dream, a spiritual void remains.  As the framework of consumer society breaks down, will an economic system of inverted totalitarianism reverse become explicit? Why do our elites seem incapable of formulating a rational response to this crisis of civilization?

In Extraenvironmentalist #60 we discuss the current condition of American culture with Chris Hedges and Morris Berman. Chris describes the process of breakdown he’s witnessed in other countries as elites withdraw when they feel their system of control crumbling. Morris reflects the current crisis of capitalism against the breakdown of the feudal system hundreds of years ago to describe a broader historical process. Then, we speak with Dmitry Orlov about his new book: The Five Stages of Collapse. Dmitry talks about the psychological damage created by access to large amounts of money and explains how to think practically about a failing global economic system.

Listen to it here.


There is no post this week because I am too busy shipping out books. All of the US-bound signed, numbered copies went out on May 20. A third of the unsigned US copies went out on May 21; the rest will go out on the 22. The international ones will have to wait until I get back from the Age of Limits next week. I plan to be done with the pre-orders and shipping new orders by the end of May, as promised.

The assembly line

The pick-up point

Look for loopholes to avoid extinction

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Zeger Reyes
A tiny blip in the news media registered the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide has exceeded four hundred parts per million for the first time in the history of the human species, with no sign of slowing down. Among other things, it means that ocean levels will be going up by at least 30 feet, putting most of the world\’s major cities underwater. Almost the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States—the most densely settled strip of land in the country, with the most infrastructure and physical assets—will become uninhabitable. Other countries—Bangladesh, Netherlands, a long list of low-lying island nations—will disappear under the waves entirely.
In other news, the actress Angelina Jolie just had a double mastectomy to make extra-double-sure that she gets to live long and cancer-free. The brave woman has decided to face extinction breastless. I pray that her extinct breasts find peace, if not in this world, then perhaps the next…

Although I am convinced that the environmental predicament is dire, the term “extinction” strikes me as unnecessarily melodramatic. To start with, the fact of its extinction cannot be ascertained by the species going extinct: does the dodo know it\’s extinct? Does the giant sloth or the wooly mammoth? And could they have ever? No, because they ceased to exist before the fact of their nonexistence could have became known to them. The last human alive will have no idea whether other humans may yet exist in some other part of the planet, and so, to contemplate our own extinction is to pretend that we possess God-like omniscience. Extinction is a thought experiment whose outcome we cannot even test. This makes contemplating our own extinction rather pointless. Why don\’t we contemplate our own survival instead?

Focusing on the very serious and undeniably real problem of rising ocean levels, there are as yet no solid predictions as to how fast the waters will rise, but if the history of such predictions is any guide, they have a tendency to double with each revision. What\’s more, the predictions are not even keeping up with reality: not so long ago the talk was of a few inches per century, but then an entire extra foot of water showed up along much of the east coast, and it is now typical to have electrical transformers explode during storm surges, which were supposed to be high and dry but now aren\’t. It is one of those cases where nature has consistently outpaced all our attempts to account for it.

Rather than being isolated events, such incidents are an indication of what will become a constant drumbeat in people\’s lives—most people\’s lives, since most people live along coasts. Suburban neighborhoods will wink out of existence one after another as they flood, losing electricity, water and sewage, and are recognized as a total loss, not worth rebuilding given that the next storm will no doubt cause even greater damage. Some of the environmental refugees will be resettled a bit further inland, in areas not destroyed yet, but washed out roads, collapsed bridges and flooded highway tunnels will derail many such evacuation plans. Desperate people will no doubt attempt to flee to some supposedly better place in another part of the world—to farm the banana belts of Siberia, perhaps, or to raise camels in the Canadian Arctic—but by then cheap airline travel will be a thing of the past, while seaports will be underwater and unusable.
Nature\’s prescription for those who ruin their habitat is extinction, and it will be your fate too, unless you adapt to life in the new environment. In the new, permanently disrupted habitat, conventional housing is clearly maladaptive. On the other hand, the Dutch, who are accustomed to life in a flood zone and resigned to what\’s coming, have been building houses on barges for a long time now, tethering them to pilings so that they float up during storm surges. Some further adaptations are obvious: a house in a flood zone is a terrible idea, unless it floats, generates a bit of its own electricity, captures rainwater for drinking and washing, and has a means of propulsion when it\’s time to take advantage of high water and move to very slightly higher ground. And if it does all these things, then a flood zone is where you\’d want to live, because land that is in the process of becoming water is generally free, and there will be more and more of it with each passing hurricane season.
It\’s about time we started experimenting with such ideas, but unfortunately many of us live in places dominated by various planning nazis and zoning nazis and code nazis, who are supposed to keep us safe (but not from 400ppm+ CO2, which will eventually kill off most of us). And so we have to look for loopholes. Here\’s one: according to a recent US Supreme Court decision, a houseboat with no independent means of propulsion is no longer a boat but a house, meaning that if you take a trailer (which is not considered real estate) and put it on a barge (which is not considered real estate either) then what you get is real estate. But if you put an outboard motor on the barge and take it for a little cruise around the harbor, it becomes a motor vehicle again.

Now that\’s a loophole! You can drive a double-wide right through that sucker. And I hope you do. Better yet—wait a few years, and you\’ll be able to sail it up the Potomac and all the way to the steps of the Supreme Court. You could let your goats graze on the shrubbery there, like the pilgrims used to do on the ruins of the Roman Forum while visiting the graves of the martyrs.

I hope you find some loopholes of your own, and take advantage of them, because it is already clear what the planning board has planned for you and your children: extinction.

Interview on North Shore Community Radio


North shore of Lake Superior, that is. Last week I was in Grand Marais, Minnesota, just across the border from Thunder Bay, Ontario, where I taught a couple of seminars and gave a talk at the North House Folk School, which is a very cool place. While there, I went over to WTIP 90.7FM, the local radio station, for an interview. Buck, who interviewed me, asked good questions. Please have a listen.

What\'s new in Square Boats

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I. Y. Repin
Barge Haulers on the Volga
Long-time readers of this blog probably know that there are such things in the world as square boats, and that they tend to do all that intricately modeled boats do, better and for a lot less money, plus they have a host of other advantages. But such knowledge is rare, even among sailors. I speak from experience, having recently spent a fair amount of time working on a square boat—my old Hogfish, which I have sold, and which is hauled out in a boatyard, being readied for her next tour of duty in the Caribbean and then, via the Canal, the Pacific. As I worked, various types of boaty/yachty people would come up to me and ask me questions. The typical question was “What is this thing?” usually followed by a comment, such as “It looks really unusual.”
Well, such boats were quite usual before, and I think that they will be usual once more. Their advantages are just too numerous. To start with, square, flat-bottom boats go aground really well. The typical yachty/boaty person would inevitably inquire, “How well does it go to windward?” (windward ability being the sine qua non of any self-respecting windship in spite of the fact that the entire planet was explored and colonized by windships that could do no better than 60º to windward). As a matter of fact, Hogfish goes to windward very well. But there is a far more important question to ask: “How well does it go aground?”
The typical keelboat-runs-aground scenario goes like this. Keelboat sails along, heeled over, and the keel scrapes the bottom. This causes the boat to slow down and as it does so it heels less, causing the keel to dig in even deeper, and get stuck. The boat is then at the mercy of the tides, and if the tide goes out, then the boat flops over on its side and bangs around in the surf. This is unsafe, uncomfortable and unnecessary.
On the other hand, the typical square boat, be it a sharpy or a sailing barge/scow, with its perfectly flat bottom, sails along, heeled, over, and its centerboard scrapes the bottom. This causes the centerboard to bounce up, ideally waking up the skipper, who then does something to avoid running aground. But if the skipper remains fast asleep and the boat does run aground, the part of it that hits first is the chine—the corner between the bottom and one of the topsides. This causes the boat to slow down, and as it does so it heels less, causing it to draw less water, and hence to free up and continue floating. If the skipper continues to doze, or simply doesn\’t care, it will eventually run aground, rocking to and fro like a gigantic rocking chair. When the tide goes out, it will continue to simply sit there, and when the tide comes back in, it will float off again. If waves push it onto the beach, it can still be refloated later by rolling it over logs.
And so it stands to reason that if what you have is a keelboat, then you really don\’t want to ever run aground, because if you do, it\’s likely to end badly for you and the boat. Whereas if you are in a square boat, then, why the heck not? You might even do it on purpose—to scrape the seafood off the bottom, and, if you time the tides just right, maybe even to paint it; or just to get a good night\’s sleep without all the incessant rocking; or maybe you are keen on making some astronomical observations and need a stable platform on which to mount your telescope; or maybe you have some goods to load or unload off a beach, and want porters to be able walk right up to your boat at low tide; or maybe your boat is a floating clinic and you don\’t want it to move while you are performing an appendectomy or a root canal. You see, the reasons for wanting to run aground are virtually endless, and being able to do so with relative impunity is a major advantage, while, on the other hand, at any given time any given boatyard is likely to have a few keel boats in it that have run aground, and aren\’t in good shape as a result: destroyed rudders, bent rudder posts, sprung keel bolts and holed topsides are not uncommon.
In addition to shoal draft (not needing much water to float) and the ability to go aground in safety, comfort and style, square boats are also quite cheap to build. A square boat can be made out of five pieces of flat stock (plywood, sheet metal, etc.) joined along the edges: bottom, two sides, transom and deck. Boats of this type used to be built all up and down the East Coast, by the people who sailed them. A fisherman and his son would spend maybe a week knocking one together right on the beach, then launch it and go fishing. Ceres, which is a fairly serious cargo craft, not a fishing smack, seems pretty far along after less than 200 person-hours of work.
And yet square boats are a rarity. There are several Philip Bolger sharpie designs around. There is Matt Leyden\’s “Paradox,” which is a tiny, trailerable yet ocean-capable cruising boat that has a bit of a cult following, and there are many specimens of it floating about. There is Chris Morejohn\’s “Hogfish” and “Hogfish Maximus,” plus one more, called “Jubilee,” exactly one of each is in existence. There is Dave Zeiger, who has been cruising Alaska in a “Triloboat,” sailing scow. If I am missing someone, please let me know. Based on my recent experience in selling Hogfish, I feel confident in saying that at this point many more people want to own a square boat than there are square boats available. Square boats get snapped up as soon as they appear on the market, while perfectly adequate keelboats (except in the “going aground” department) sit on the market for years, unwanted and unloved.
And so I am happy to report that there is about to be an addition to the family: Erik Adrus and crew are building Ceres, a cargo sailing scow, inspired by Dave\’s work. It will be used to deliver produce from the banana belt of Vermont (along lake Champlain) to New York City via the Champlain Canal and Hudson River. It is a very practical project, and it is generating quite a bit of excitement. I contributed to it a little bit along the way. The design you see on was done by me and my friend Matt Harter. I also pitched the idea during an interview on RT.
I hope that the Vermont Sail Freight Project does well. I also hope that the concept will be refined and extended to coastal and ocean trade. Both Phil Boger and Chris Morejohn have demonstrated quite conclusively that square boats make perfectly adequate blue water vessels. Square sailboats are well-adapted to a future of continuously rising ocean levels, increasing coastal erosion and silting up of waterways. We should be building more of them. In the meantime, I will be sailing around in a keelboat, nervously keeping an eye the depth sounder, dreaming of the day when I will once again be able to run aground with impunity.