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.
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)