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.