A Little Leeway

HISTORY IS FULL of tasks that have been rendered obsolete by technology, but which were in their day so dominant that they left us dozens of metaphors and maxims still in common use. Most Americans, for instance, ride horses rarely, if at all, but we still rein in, spur on, bridle at, saddle up (we may even hold our horses, or get on our high horse, or lead our metaphorical horse to water in the vain hope that she might drink). Sail power, too, left us with all manner of elegant phrases, which we still use even though few of us really know much about their origins. We might try a different tack, or keel over, or batten down the hatches, or learn the ropes. But it’s the old sailor’s concern with leeway that’s been circling my brain ever since the triple disaster in Japan.

When a ship is sailing along a coast and the wind is blowing toward land, that beach is called the lee shore. Since it’s hard to sail into the wind (another metaphor there), there’s always a danger that if the wind really comes up you’ll be pushed inexorably onto the rocks. Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s epic seafaring series will recall hundreds of white-knuckle pages spent trying to keep from crashing into these lee shores. The solution, of course, is to give yourself enough leeway — to leave enough sea between your ship and the shore so that even if the gusts blow you relentlessly toward the coast, you won’t actually slam into it.

Save for recreationalists, this seems an archaic concern in a modern age; with a five-hundred-horsepower (ahem) diesel engine belowdecks, your craft can hug the coast without much hand-wringing, taking the quickest and most efficient route. And indeed, we sometimes think we’ve reduced the risk of almost every human activity with our new technologies. Famine, for instance, averted by the bounty of industrial agriculture to the point where almost none of us need be farmers; disease, eradicated by sanitation and pharmacology to the point where we can cram together without worry.

But I’ve found myself increasingly unnerved over the past year, because it’s beginning to seem as if some of those very same technologies have begun to shrink our margin, reduce our leeway. Not just theoretically, but in real time: burning all the fossil fuel that modernity requires, for example, has raised the temperature of the planet, which has begun to systematically reduce our buffer. Last year, the warmest year on record, we saw drought cut grain supplies in several key regions, most prominently Russia, where the Kremlin reacted by banning all grain exports; as a result stocks shrank dramatically, and grain prices shot up around the planet. But it wasn’t the only cause — fear of more global warming was one reason (albeit a small one, compared to the greed of the ag industry) that America devoted about a third of its corn crop to producing gasoline last year. The corn that fills the tank of an SUV one time could feed a person for an entire year. If we had endless corn, or few people, that wouldn’t matter. But since we have neither, the margin on which our civilization depends shrinks, and a bad harvest blows us closer to shore.

Or take another inevitable consequence of global warming, the increasingly rapid rise of the world’s oceans, which may easily climb a meter or more before the century is out. That’s a lot — it literally pushes the ocean almost sixty meters up the average eastern beach. If your levee had three feet of freeboard at the highest tide, now it has two. And since warmer air seems capable of producing stronger storms, maybe the levee better rise. Not a cheap proposition, and it takes the money you might need for other purposes, but without it, insurance might get hard to come by (already, large portions of the Gulf Coast are essentially redlined by underwriters). And without insurance, it’s hard to take the risks that define our capitalist life.

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan were not caused by humans, of course; they were the kind of random catastrophe that marked even the relatively benign Holocene. But they did serve to illustrate just how close to the wind we’ve become accustomed to sailing. Suddenly, reported the New York Times, container ships were sitting at dock, “wary of unloading tons of pork and steak because of that nation’s fractured electric grid,” because “any break in the ‘cold chain’ of refrigeration can spoil meat.” In Iowa, hog prices plummeted. And around the world, forecasts of economic growth took a dive as well — Goldman Sachs, which had been estimating the U.S. economy would surge at a 4.5 percent annual rate, knocked the number back to under 3 percent as factories closed because they couldn’t get parts from Japan. (The transmission for that new global-warming fighter, the Chevy Volt, was suddenly hard to come by.)

Our instinct, after two hundred years of modernity, is to keep increasing our leeway with more technology. If global warming threatens, pour on the nuclear power, which should theoretically let us keep expanding the size of our human enterprise at the same stupendous rate. But the drama at Fukushima, as we watched units 1, 2, 3, and 4 billow and smoke, reminded us at some visceral level that this approach may not always work; and the anxious maps of spreading radiation plumes reminded us that it comes at real psychological cost.

The other tack, of course, would be to slow down: to sail farther out to sea, away from the lee shore. Certain journeys might take longer, and you might make less money, but you’d be less likely to run aground. So you power your region with wind and sun, cutting the risk of climate change. But turbines and panels don’t give you quite the utter reliability of coal and oil; perhaps sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, and your batteries run low, and you’re able to do less. (In our solar-powered house, the fridge, a few lights, and the internet always keep running.) There’s a cost, but there’s also a gain. As risk goes down, your sense of security goes up. You can do less, but you can do less reliably. And, at least for the rich West, that may be a sensible trade-off; the tragedy, unless we act with both empathy and intelligence, will come in the poorest parts of the world, the places that haven’t had their growth spurt yet and risk being dwarfed forever.

The Holocene, the last ten thousand years of human civilization, has been a time of steady breezes; we’ve been living in the trade winds. But now we’re sailing into the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the shrieking sixties — into the latitudes where anyone with horse sense would shed some sail, keep a weather eye. In rough seas, you need prudence as well as courage, especially since we’ve already begun taking on water. If our leaders seem more like manic Ahabs — well, history will judge us by the cut of our jib.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.


  1. Enjoyed this article – as a fair-weather sailor, I often think about the way we once adapted ourselves to the environment, trimming sails or heaving-to as necessary – rather than using brute force to overpower the natural order. Language tells us so much about our society, whether terms from farming or sailing or hunting – dead metaphors today, they remind us that there are other ways of being.

  2. I was thinking of this tonight, watching the news regarding the incredible heat wave a huge portion of this country has been experiencing – over a month of 3 digit high temps. And the amount of electricity this requires, for AC, refrigeration, just to keep so-called civilization in that region keeping on. And what if it fails? I can imagine, you can too. And this is what we’re heading for, more than likely for more for more of the time. Even where temps aren’t this oppressive and deadly, other changes are in store, none good and we will have to figure out how to cope. I only wish we’d start now, so we’ll be more prepared.

  3. It is HOT in Oklahoma and a couple more people are even talking of global warming and cutting carbon.I am not dealing with the heat very well//til I decided to embrace it..Still it is scary Instead of attending the demo against the Ketone xl in DC I am buying a couple of solar panels an will do what I can to stop the monster locally

  4. McKibben depresses me. He’s obviously very well intentioned and intelligent, but unlike Derrick Jensen, he just doesn’t seem to get it. There’s always an underlying assumption in his writing that the current system can somehow be reformed. It can’t. It’s heart is black and hollow and it will kill and destroy everything it can before it implodes.

    The only reason that a few people can run their homes on solar power, is that there is a deadly industrial system out there mining, raping, and killing to make those solar panels, light bulbs, and computers. They don’t grow on trees.

  5. First off Bill…thanks for avoiding mallapropisms like “ChOmping at the bit, and taking a “different tacT.” I hear those about once a week, at least, and they drive me to distraction.
    (But, who knows that it is blind man’s “buff?” Very few, but we might as well throw that in here, to be comprehensive.)

    Secondly, but primarily, I think you speak a great deal of sense. My #1 response to climate change deniers is: Change because it makes sense too on so many other levels.


  6. James, “McKibben depresses me.”

    Depression is a natural response to the truth about our situation and prospects.

  7. There is no way back to the Garden of Eden, back to nature, and no chance of becoming the gods we appear to think we are now. We neither would want to overcome nature nor would we want to go back to nature. There is at least one more option: to find balance with nature. This could be a sensible, alternate path to the future and a goal to be reached with all deliberate speed for the sake of the children. After all, we are borrowing this world from our children. Surely we will not continue mortgaging the children’s future and ruining the planet all of us inhabit here now to the point Earth cannot be fruitfully inhabited by them and coming generations. Certainly not on our watch!

    Responsible people will have to stop colluding in elective mutism and ignoring the best available scientific evidence of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth. The time remaining for us elders to secure a good enough future for the children is fairly short, I suppose. We cannot effectively address any global challenge if we do not allow ourselves to understand from whence it orginates. If people cannot see that an actual threat exists for which the human species bears great responsibility, that itself is a problem to be understood and confronted forcefully. Fortunately many of us in the Orion community can see that the family of humanity has a human-driven global predicament before us that has not been adequately acknowledged, let alone begun to meaningfully address and actively overcome by the human family.

    Some people say that we have too many challenges to confront now; that we have to deny how certain global ecological challenges are themselves posed to humankind by the skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers. Unfortunately the human community appears not to have space-time available to much longer avoid facing the question of why looming threats to future human wellbeing and environmental health are occurring with such vengeance in our time. Please consider that we cannot wait “until tomorrow” to respond ably to such ominous threats as appear to be emanating from the colossal scale and unbridled global growth of human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities. Please take time to reflect upon the untapped potential of the human species. Within the human family there is the capability to deal with the formidable ecological challenges that are already visible on the horizon. Despite the pathetic ways we are behaving, we can do better than we are doing now much better than ostriches when it comes to choosing a posture suitable for seeing the world in which we live. Look up, look ahead!

    Human beings may be acting in our time as if we are more stupid than ostriches when we place our heads firmly in the sand while proclaiming we see what is happening. But the human species embodies so many more gifts from God than the ostriches, even though many too many of us with our heads in the sand follow leaders who take pride and engage in unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that make our stupidity plain to see. How much longer will knowledgeable members of the human community with splendid gifts such as only human beings possess silently stand by and, by so doing, condone the incredible greed, the pathological arrogance, the extreme foolhardiness of a tiny minority of the family of humanity, that is not only ruling the world absolutely in our time but threatening to destroy life as we know it and the Earth as a fit place for the children to inhabit? A remarkably small group of self-proclaimed masters of the universe hold the ‘destiny’ of all in their hands. This elite international group appears to be operating behind the scenes these days and “growing” the global political economy to such a colossal scale that it could soon become patently unsustainable on a planet with the relatively small size, make-up and environs of Earth. Although we are presented with a virtual blizzard of propaganda to the contrary, our planetary home is not, definitely not “too big to fail.”

    Earth is bounded and finite; its ecology is frangible. It cannot be sensibly compared to a maternal presence, in the sense of it being like a mother’s teat at which humankind can forever suckle. Neither a mother’s teat nor the Earth is actually inexhaustible, despite the children’s fantasy and adults’ belief that either one is an eternal source of sustenance. The human family ignores human biological limits and Earth’s physical limitations to support life as we know it at our peril.

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