Photo Courtesy of TripAdvisor

Philosophy Friday….

Last winter I spent several weeks in the small Devon town of Salcombe (not far from the first transition town, Totnes, which you saw here yesterday) while I worked on my book about the Pacific crossing. I mostly was in writer-recluse mode, but did occasionally take time out to spend time with friends.

One of those friends was Stevie Smith, author of Pedaling to Hawaii: A Human-Powered Odyssey“, about his human-powered pedalboat voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu with crewmate Jason Lewis. They set out from the Presidio Yacht Club under the Golden Gate Bridge – as did I.

Stevie is now a ferryman, running the tiny passenger ferry across the Salcombe Estuary, 5 minutes each way, backwards and forwards all day long, come rain or shine. As befits a man who had the Dalai Lama write the foreword to his book, this seems an appropriately Buddhist occupation.

Stevie is a great reader and thinker, and I knew our conversation would be stimulating. As we sat at the bar in a centuries-old pub on that dark December evening, enjoying the warmth from the log fire and sipping on dark pints of real ale, I told him about my book-in-progress. I explained that I was weaving my thoughts on sustainability into the tale of the Pacific voyage.

Quite rightly, he challenged me on my sloppy use of the word “sustainable”. Like many people, I had fallen into the trap of using the term to mean “greener than the alternatives” or “environmentally lower impact” rather than truly “sustainable”.

Thinking about it in its literal sense, very little is truly sustainable. According to my MacBook’s dictionary, the term means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” It sounds simple, yet would exclude any material that is mined or drilled – which covers a large proportion of the materials currently used in manufacturing and construction.

Strictly speaking, the word should apply not only to inputs, but to what is left after the object or building has reached the end of its useful life. If you have a form of oil-free plastic that does not biodegrade, it can’t really be said to be sustainable, as it will linger for centuries in a useless after-life.

The basic question is very simple: if everybody did what I am doing, day after day, what would the consequences be in a year? In five years? In a hundred years? In a thousand years? And if the answer is that a resource would run out, or the world would become cluttered with persistent debris, then the practice is not sustainable.

But that is setting the standard very high. Can we ever attain it?

Chastened by Stevie’s question, I gazed thoughtfully into my pint and wondered if even beer could be said to be sustainable. It was from a local Devon brewery, but had surely arrived by oil-dependent road transport. Youngs Brewery in London still uses horse-drawn carts to deliver beer (or at least it did a few years ago – I’m not sure now). But at least beer is closer to being sustainable than a fizzy soda. And so very much nicer on a chilly winter’s evening.

Other Stuff:

Conditions warm and calm today. Progress good. Birds becoming ever more chatty. The dorados are still with me, but for how much longer?

Naomi – wonderful to hear from you! I was thinking about you just the other day, and wondering if you are in Hawaii or NYC now? Thanks for writing to Rosie about me – I agree, that would be great fun. Let’s hope she calls!

Quote for the day: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” (Albert Einstein)

You can see ROZ’S ROUTE here. Each dot links to the blog from that day. Nautical miles still to go: 312

Roz’s latest Podcast, Episode 50, Delicious Mauritius, is now available.

Sponsored Miles: Grateful to the following: Chris Ferreira, Wayne Batzer, Beau Hebert, Deborah Dennis, Cornelia Feller. Numbers higher than Roz will actually be rowing: Terry Jones, Julie West and Tom Cotter (Fresno Solar Tour)


  • Hi Roz, I agree with how you describe sustainability in its purest form. Now let’s translate that simplisticly to sustainable use of coal and oil.

    Positively assume a natural repletion rate of 100 million years, means we can globally sustain 1,000 cars and 2,000 homes. With a bit of good will that’s enough to sustain the market town of Totnes (pop 7444). The rest of us will have to use horse carts. cook our food on horse manure and ignore the wintry chills.

    Back to the Middle Ages where the globe can sustain a population of … you name it.

    However, in reality we will be overtaken by peak oil imminently, and peak coal not long thereafter. We need multiple mega projects to find alternative energy sources, very, very fast.

    Ouch, this is not my day.

  • Great intro to Philosophy Friday. The term sustainability is truly one of the most misused in modern environmental discussions. How can we even talk about true sustainability when we have a planet with 7 billion people? The human waste alone would overwhelm the ecosystems around our cities and towns without high energy input treatment systems. There are so many humans around today that if we all spread out enough so our waste could be assimilated “naturally” there wouldn’t be room for any other species of large mammals.

    We can only hope to create a world in which we use resources in a way that puts more of them into long term use such as substantial housing – housing that lasts for centuries rather than decades. Or, into products that can be easily repaired rather than tossed out and replaced with something new. Maybe we need a resource tax to make new goods cost enough that repairing old ones becomes economical again. Why should I spend $600 to fix a refrigerator when I can by a new one with a 3 year warranty for $800?

    I like the idea that the transition town movement represents. But we need to keep in mind the primary goal of the movement: address the problems communities will face when oil becomes too expensive to power themselves. There are lots of ways to replace our current dependance on oil for energy. However, we still need land to produce food (I know we may soon be able to produce food calories without farms but will those calories come with all of the micronutrients found in real food?) and that is going to be the real challenge as the idea takes hold. How will these places, that are sure to become popular places to live, going to preserve their agricultural base while handling new growth. Are people going to accept the seasonality of fresh foods or is a transition town going to need to build in enough excess energy infrastructure to provide for green houses to produce tomatoes in January in Alaska?   

    My quote for the day: To a Brit a hundred miles is a long ways. To an Yank a hundred years is a long time. I have no idea of the source

  • Roz,

    Great to see you are still making progress. I am still getting my mind tweeked every time I read your blog. Keep them coming. I hope to make real contact with you sometime early next year at one of your stops. I’m looking for ways to get you to the PNW again.

    Keep up the good work and Row on Roz.

  • Terrific post, and so happy to see you’re having warm, calm weather lately.  Maybe your little craft’s namesake is at long last getting the notion that you have been sufficiently tested and worthy of the honor. May she give you nothing but beautiful sunshine and calm starry nights for the rest of your journey!

  • I was intrigued by your comment about the sustainability of beer vs. soda so I checked with to see what the water aspect of beer and soda looked like. It turned out that soda takes between 170 and 320 liters of water to make 0.5 liter of soda depending on the source and type of sweetener. With sweetener from Europe and the US it is between 170 and 200 Liters per half liter of soda. For beer they give a figure of 150 liters of water per half liter of beer – most going to produce the barley in the beer. Just for fun I added wine to my search. The result  was that it takes about 420 liters of water to produce a half liter of wine. Again most of the water is used to grow the grapes.

    At least from the water standpoint there is not a whole lot of difference between beer and soda in the US and Europe. It is reall a function of how much of each you drink.

  • Great log Roz,  Thank you.

    Happy Autumnal Equinox everyone!

       Have you heard of an Architect named Palo Soleri?

         He designs mega cities that people live in that preserve open ground around them.
          Speaking of beer and pubs here is a link to Hopworks in Portland, Oregon USA.  Looks like they make sustainable organic beer and have a “bike” bar (Pub) (not to be confused with “biker” bar) that you ride your bicycle to.  The photo shows lots of bicycle racks in front.  Also a link to a local public radio station that they named one of their brews after.
    Fancy a pint love?  You can ride your bicycle there or even get pretty close in Sedna by rowing up the Columbia river.  Take a right turn at the Willamette river and go south a few miles to Portland.
          Cheers,      Stephen

  • I believe that we should aim for a balance on the approach to sustainability instead of faltering and stumbling trying to set-up a goal post.

    In the spirit of this multi-cultural, trans-oceanic, cathedral of a “dinner party” I respectfully add my two pence.

    I have had discussions and arguements with people who have responded with the akin of  “Why don’t we all just move into teepees and grind corn with rocks and sing Kumbaya while holding hands around a campfire, would that make you happy?”

    Because it just does not work that way. It would be similar to telling someone very sedentary (or someone just out of surgery) to run a marathon. Even if they somehow managed to do it, they would probably lose all enthusiasm and never do it again. Furthermore, good luck in trying to have a decent conversation with that individual. 

    My suggestion is to individually take small steps to your own version of “sustainability”. All the cliche’s of “It’s the journey, not the destination.” fit perfectly here. By doing so, we build an accumulation of energies all moving in the right direction, the same direction. The other way, a battle ground of competitive interest only serves for nay-sayers to divide and conquer. My version has cooperation and understanding as a focus. Center to that is why we are doing it, so that generations after us will know that we were trying to be the intelligent people they expected us to be. 

    Begin with small changes in your own personal habit. Although good story fodder, cold turkey only works for an elite few. Diminish or altogether stop the consumption of single use permanents and toxic tumbleweeds, drive less if you can walk more. Hug children more than admonishing them. And invite a friend to dinner rather than sulking about not having friends on your own. Help Roz by signing a petition. Share her story with your friends.

    Heck, in my version of utopia even the plants and the zoo-plankton would be applauding our generosity and selflessness as well as our great-great-great-grand children.

    Now you have me singing “Don’t pay the Ferryman” by Chirs De Burgh, mericlessly, endlessly… 

    Just kidding…. well maybe,

    ~Just sayin-


  • Dear Roz,
    Greetings from Devon! Nice to see the Vicky Inn on your blog, and yes, the coffee shop and muffins still is as was! Becky and I are now onto a nicely nasty circuits routine – during which we are too out of puff to manage to tell any jokes!
    Was just wanting to wish you a very, very safe and speedy return to land. Also to say that this has seemed to be a rather arduous voyage and I’ve been very impressed by your fortitude, and a bit worried for you at times. Hope the last leg of your journey is pleasantly uneventful!
    Love and best wishes, Sylvia

  • I too was thinking about sustainability. I was thinking about how crofters in Scotland grew food in their lazy beds when I was a child. But in thinking of the number of unemployed, particularly youth, I believe having a sustainable earth means that everyone brings in more than they spend so that their lifestyle is sustainable. From David Copperfield, Charles Dickens –  My other piece of advice, Copperfield, said Mr. Micawber, you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, andand, in short, you are for ever floored. As I am!   (Source:

  • As I read these comments, I go back to a pensive thought (is that redundant?) that Roz wrote: “I gazed thoughtfully into my pint and wondered if even beer could be said to be sustainable.”

    Floating around in my mind is … is beer sustainable? and “one sip at a time.” hehehe … bear with me a sec … like Roz rowing, which is sustainable one stroke at a time. In each example, if one rows until tired, and then takes a break — and if one drinks until satiated, and then takes a break —  then one can do it almost forever :)) well, at least what seems to be an eternity to the one doing the rowing … or imbibing … ;-D) 

    As Roz can’t take one giant pull and be in Mauritius, one should not think of chugging an entire beer … sustainable rowing and sustainable beer imbibing is one sip or stroke at a time … 

    Ok, so where am I going with this (having imbibed nothing but an unsweetened iced green tea, seriously!)? We tend to leverage ourselves, buying more on our credit card than we actually have cash in our wallet or checking account. It seems that leveraging has gotten Wall Street and the entire economy in serious trouble. And we leverage our energy by burning fossil fuels 1,000,000 times faster than they were created through photosynthesis and sequestered as organic matter produced from algae, ferns, shrubs, trees, etc. over 350,000,000 years … we’ve burned half of all that organic material as oil, coal and gas in just about 100 years … that is huge “leverage” … somehow, I am coming around to the concepts I heard at the Slow Living Summit I attended in Vermont last June …

    Here is a taste: “Why Slow Living? This simple phrase expresses the fundamental paradigm shift that is underway in this age. “Slow” encodes the transformative change from faster and cheaper to slower and better—where quality, community and the future matter. It’s about slowing down and becoming more mindful of our basic connection with land, place and people, taking the long view that builds a healthy, fulfilling way of life for the generations to come. It is about common good taking precedence over private gain.”

    “Slow Living builds economies and puts people to work by focusing on the socially-responsible and sustainable enterprises and community relationships that will matter in the future, rather than on the environmentally and socially destructive practices of the past. It grows from the strengths, people, resources and history of the region. It is about basing life on the wellbeing of nature and community, where wealth and money can recirculate locally, combining with innovation and entrepreneurship, to create jobs.

    “Row slow, Roz!

  • What a small world. I was in Durham, NC watching a public viewing of the film – the power of community. Came home to enjoy Isabel Carlisle’s guest blog post, Totnes, Devon, UK. Then followed the links and enjoyed the –  website. What a wonderful workable solution to the local community challenges we all face – in the present moment. Thanks again for a wonderful and warm educational moment.

  • One of the best, easiest to understand, science based definitions of sustainability for human society (and that’s what we’re talking about as nature gets along just fine without us) that I’ve come across is The Natural Step, developed by Dr Karl Henrik Robert of Sweden.

    Stated as “System Conditions” there are four conditions for achieving sustainability. The conditions are
    stated in the negative to create the constraints within which creativity
    can flourish. They are:

    In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

    1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust2. Concentrations of substances produced by society3. Degradation by physical meansand 4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

    Lots more information on the system conditions and a framework for applying them can be found on the TNS web site:

  • Quite often I bring up your voyages, Roz, in conversation; never fails to make one point or another. Thank you for making one point after another for us to connect to.

    So glad you are closing in on your destination.

  • Did you see #UARS as it came down to earth? From @NASA #UARS Update: Satellite confirmed to have penetrated the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. Precise time & location not yet known.
    4 hours ago
    @NASA We can now confirm that #UARS is down! Debris fell to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23, and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24.

  • IMO sustainability is a pretty straightforward concept, and you are guilty of making the problem arbitrarily and unnecessarily hard by loading the term with your own baggage –barring “persistent debris” and conflating the usage of natural resources with depletion of natural resources.

    Both persistent debris and natural resource consumption can be managed sustainably for the foreseeable future.  Insisting on zero persistent debris and natural resource usage is just an example of reductio ad absurdum.

    The technology of sustainability is here now.  We just have to make using it a priority–starting with birth control.  Birth rates are the primary driver of the sustainability problem and could just as easily be the primary solution if those rates were reduced.

    Frank– Mega projects to find new alternative energy sources are not a precondition of sustainability.  If we wasted less, e.g. by driving fuel efficient cars that have already been invented, we could get by with alternative energy sources that have already been invented.  There’s infinite room for improvement, yes, but there’s no good reason (IMO) not to start the transition now.

    Not everyone is in a position to use them individually, of course, but name-brand 230W solar panels have come down to less than US$400 nowadays, and one can even finance them if one lacks the cash.  There are superior utility-scale alternatives, but even individually owned panels have a reasonable timeline to breakeven.

  • Maybe not exactly “sustainable”, but using our existing suppies of thorium instead of uranium for all electrical energy should last the planet for 1000 years!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *