Sail On, Sail On, Sailor

September 16, 2016



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The following blog post originally appeared on

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step,” said Jeff Bezos, unveiling this week his space travel company Blue Origin’s giant rocket named after Astronaut John Glenn.

Of course there is also billionaire entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace. Dream big, that’s the spirit! The final frontier with limitless possibilities. Our boys and their toys. Great fun!

Most of us sail at a lower orbit of course. Our games, our striving and exploration, our fun, takes place a little closer to earth. My soul is nourished near and on the sea, so boats are my toys of choice. In my middle age, I have largely traded the competitive sailboat racing of my youth for a desire to “mess around” in relatively small, wooden boats in particular – sail and power – luxuriating in their handcrafted and poetic aesthetic.

As I’ve documented previously, large, ocean-going yachts are a whole different kettle of fish, and pose a particularly grotesque challenge to any sense of a responsible carbon footprint, even if money is no object. My “boat toy” desires are far more humble. Until a couple weeks ago, my “yachting” consisted of a high performance paddle board with a bamboo deck – sustainable right? In my future, I see a pretty day sailor, handcrafted in Maine out of local wood (I sold my prior sailboat since the kids preoccupied my free time), and a small motorboat to explore harbors (we call this “toodling around”) and to make occasional short journeys around the southern New England coast where I live.

This summer, I visited the talented craftsman Doug Hylan and his partner Ellery Brown of Hylan & Associates in Brooklin, Maine to continue a conversation we’ve had on and off for over a year about building a small “green” powerboat. Same logic as a car or a house – energy, materials, etc. The challenge of making motorboats fuel-efficient is that it takes much more energy to push a boat through the water than to roll a car down a road. And a boat requires an exponential increment of power to push it faster than what’s called “hull speed” – in other words to make it rise up and plane.

So the design challenge was to find the right shape (long, narrow, and light), but stable enough for offshore conditions (wide and heavy is better) and with a highly efficient engine that would go “just fast enough”. Doug has done some cutting edge work in this arena, with some updated versions of classic designs and power system innovations. But even with Doug’s design ingenuity, latest technology, and lightweight building techniques, he hasn’t yet come up with a way to overcome those pesky laws of physics. Water is heavy and hydrostatic pressure is a bear.

As we were talking over the concept we had in mind, I sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for my vision of the first truly “green” picnic boat, locally crafted, that had the potential to redefine pleasure boating away from the unsustainable fiberglass that ends up on a junk heap, and overwhelm Doug with new orders in the process. That’s when he turned to me and said, “You know John, if you want to enjoy green, responsible boating, just slow down.”

Doug’s truth pierced Maine’s stark summer beauty as we looked across the cove, silently absorbing the implications that ran far beyond boats. All the latest advances in design and technology couldn’t come close to simply riding down the steeply sloped and physics determined energy curves he had showed me (slow down, use exponentially less energy).

I gave up on a new, high tech wooden boat and bought a classic bass boat that has been for sale all summer, built out of wood in 1969, and totally restored in 2009. For a fraction of what a new boat would cost I might add. Reuse, recycle!

And I’ll be the guy going slow, at least most of the time. At hull speed (about 10 miles per hour), I’ll burn less than a gallon of diesel per hour, a quarter of that when just calmly exploring a shoreline with friends in good conversation, going slow, enjoying the quiet. That’s when the experience feeds the soul, and relationships deepen, so it’s not all sacrifice. Going “fast” when we “need to get somewhere” (about 22 miles per hour is tops in this case), I’ll burn 8 gallons per hour with a guilty conscious.

In contrast, a yacht like I wrote about before will burn between 20 and 40 gallons per hour going 10 miles per hour. And a fast offshore fishing boat designed to get out to the shelf for the big fish and back in a day, burns 150 gallons per hour at the high speed necessary to be home for dinner – in other words, a 500 gallon a day toy.

My boat toy fetish makes me complicit, as does the rest of my lifestyle. But it’s mostly the flying I do. As many have pointed out, we sustainability workers sure do fly around a lot. Flying kills a carbon budget fast. Physics again. No doubt we Americans have a big adjustment to make with our living. Much less flying and offshore fishing. More fly fishing. And more sailing, sailor. Not so bad.

Which brings us back to space travel. There certainly are real societal benefits from space exploration, and some interesting space opportunities only these super-human entrepreneurs could ever dream up. But a little research suggests a frightening energy curve – based on those same pesky laws of physics – that we must confront (hopefully with Doug Hylan’s wisdom hovering about).

Aside from the money issue, the amount of fuel for a one day (probably hour or less) zero gravity tourist experience in space you wonder? Well, according to my calculations based on one seemingly reliable source, it’s 64,000 gallons of diesel equivalent.

Some fun. Sail on, Sail on, sailor.

  • M. Johnson


    Lovely story about relating the joy of the “slow life” on the water, and nice to add the note of the experiment/comparison of offsetting at the end of your post. That last idea, of offsetting carbon intense actions with neutral or negative activities, is interesting. To your point about jet-setting sustainability workers, is the “best” way to make up for the necessary(?) evils of carbon intense activities to invest (either time, energy, or capital) into carbon offsetting options and activities? I am not asking you to justify/rationalize your diesel exhaust, but want to understand what you think about positive ways to “break even” through off-setting, or if that is a legitimate and useful tool in the first place.

    Always a joy to read thoughts from you and the Capital Institute.

    • John Fullerton

      Great question!
      I have mixed and confused feelings about offsets. Sort of similar to ESG with respect to stock portfolios. On one level, of course offsets are good and we should encourage their use. Raises our awareness, and begins the process of applying “true costs”. But here’s the problem(s) as I see it:
      1. the smug risk: I’m pure because I bought offsets or moved my money to an ESG mutual fund (while rome burns). In the process we become complacent about the big priorities that demand our attention.
      2. the “externality” delusion – some externalities are costs that can be fixed with money (or internalized) such as paying more for a T shirt so a slave wage becomes a living wage. But what is the “price” of your fist glass of water of the day if you have no access? Or the “price” of destroying the planet via burning fossil fuels. These are not costs that can be fixed with money, but wrongs that can’t be fixed. They are “priceless” and live outside the economic paradigm. An offset may encourage intellectual laziness, and confuses us about what is really going on.
      3. I also question all the energy we pour into measuring stuff and complying. We’ve measured ESG and carbon footprints for decades now, with too little real change. Are we not avoiding the hard questions with all our measuring?

      When someone, regardless of their character and intellect has a chance to be President of the United States and thinks climate change is a hoax being perpetrated by the Chinese, we should put down our slide rules and measuring tapes and DO SOMETHING!

      But to repeat, I’m in favor of offsets. But to be honest, my personal choice has been not to spend a lot of time (or money) on them.

  • ProsperityForRI

    I try to fly less than once a year and my boat is a kayak. In facxt i rarely go farther from home than I can walk. But I live in a city, 1.5 miles from the Statehouse, so I can still raise hell with the criiminals trying to destroy the planet and give all our money to the rich.

    No more fossil fuel infrastructure.

    Vote Green in 2016

    • John Fullerton

      I do debate with myself whether my flying is worth it. I admire your choices!

  • HI John,

    Enjoyed your writing as always, and largely agree.

    In an hour or so I will be attending a meeting of scientists involved in rock lobster management. I will be using the internet, rather than driving and flying. Most meetings more than 10 minutes drive away I now attend by remote – I get to see and hear them, they get to see and hear me, saves both travel time and carbon footprint.

    I too have had my share of powerboats (and sailboats), and was a keen pilot. I have about 500 hours of pilot time as well as several thousand hours of passenger time in aircraft.

    And we can develop technologies that can make us carbon neutral – but the profit available from oil is just too much for many to give up (particularly with Saudi oil costing under 50c per barrel FOB).

    When we get serious about getting people into space, we will build long linear motors, solar powered, that start deep in the earth and emerge at mount tops with enough velocity to reach orbit. Chemical rockets are just too wasteful of energy, most of the energy goes into accelerating fuel, rather than actual payload.

    If our goal is to prolong life then we have to acknowledge that using the scarcity based value measure of markets in a context of the abundance available from fully automated systems is not appropriate.

    Human nature contains both cooperative and competitive strategic sets, and which gets expressed depends on the context.

    In contexts where there is enough for all, cooperative behaviours always give greater benefits to all than competitive behaviours. (Provided there are adequate sets of attendant strategies to prevent invasion of the cooperative by cheating strategies.)

    Markets (and their derivative measure money, and their derivative system of thought economics) are scarcity based, and as such impose a context that incentivises competitive behaviour from individuals. In contexts of actual abundance competitive behaviours always deliver sub optimal outcomes (and in a context which includes the possibility of weapons of mass destruction, such behavioural modalities actually imposed significant existential risk upon everyone).

    In the context of full automation, markets are an existential threat – when viewed from a strategic perspective. For me, that is clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

    So from the strategic perspective of longevity, it is markets and economics that is the threat.

    We don’t have a resource problem, our exponential expansion of knowledge means we can do more with less far faster than our population is expanding. We are not short of either energy or mass. The sun puts out enough energy that every person currently alive could have more than humanity as a whole currently uses. Energy isn’t a problem.
    Nor is mass – we live on a huge ball of it with another huge ball of it in nearby space, and most people only need a few tens of tons to meet their reasonable needs.

    The real issue for those of us committed to longevity is the modes of thought, beliefs, truths – call them what you will, that exist in the population. My experience of being diagnosed terminal cancer 6 years ago, curing myself, then having others come to me to see how I did it, has proven to me very clearly that most people would rather die that do whatever it takes to change their habits and beliefs.

    Economics as a system imposes so many drags on creativity, so many incentives to continue using technologies that are proven to be dangerous, but involve sunk capital – that the dimensions of risk are terrifying when you actually start to clearly see them.
    But most people seem to be far too invested in money as a concept to even be able to look.

    • John Fullerton

      Thanks Ted. I have absorbed your thoughts and will think more about the challenge of the role of markets in a regenerative economic system. Markets are only a tool after all, and I do believe a very useful tool. For example, we need to use markets to mobilize our shift off fossil fuels, even if it’s just a near term (decades) pathway to some more evolved economic system yet to unfold. Our error has been to confuse this means with an end. I am quite familiar with “alternative” approaches to “curing cancer” that involved serious lifestyle changes that address root causes (and delighted you have proven the case!). I agree it provides an important metaphor for the challenge we are confronting. As always, thanks for the intellectual poke!

      • Hi John,

        If what you said were true, then I could agree with you, but is it?

        When we have laws in existence that require directors to optimise the value of investor funds, while we have no similar laws requiring directors to be reasonably cognisant of the long term impacts of their decisions on everyone who is affected – are they really just tools? Or have they stepped over a boundary into something else?

        Isn’t it really true to say that in our present systems, the short term needs of profit dominate over the long term needs of people?

        Can that ever be ethical?
        In any dimension?

        I argue that not only can it never be ethical, it can never actually be safe either (if one is willing to explore long term trends and outcome probabilities across strategic domains). To me it is, clearly, always the high risk low reward (in the long term) option – however profitable it may seem in the short term (and therein lies the great failure of our current systems, we do not hold people accountable for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of actions in the longer term – criminality at a higher order than our legal systems acknowledge). And I admit that is a largely intuitive evaluation across domains that I cannot easily communicate to anyone.

        For me, having been in this enquiry for over 40 years, I have no shadow of reasonable doubt remaining that our current systems are heavily weighted to deliver profit over valuing human life (each and every human life).

        Yes I am poking.
        Actually pushing quite firmly.
        And, as is your freedom, you choose your own path.
        I fully accept that.

        We are on very different paths (in all dimensions), and we can communicate, at least to the degree that we do.

        I respect you.
        I respect the journey you are on, the paths you have chosen. They are not my paths, and they are possible paths with high ethical standards I can respect.

        And I am actually nudging you quite firmly towards a path you seem resistant to explore. And in a very real sense, I can understand that resistance, it isn’t a comfortable path, and if I didn’t think you capable of walking it, and if I didn’t see value for you in it, I wouldn’t be doing this.

        And it is your choice, just as my path is my choice.

  • Mark Phillips

    I had a similar experience with clothing recently. I found myself salivating over Patagonia’s sweaters and imagining how socially responsible and ecological it would be to wear one. I almost bought one, but at some point looked down and realized I was wearing a perfectly fine, albeit less sexy, low-performance fleece that performs more or less the same functions.

    This tendency to look for something new to acquire or build to satisfy our needs, rather than work with what we have and adjust our expectations, is so deeply embedded within our cultures. I think this is one of the dangers of green capitalism, or the socially responsible business movement. That we can buy our way out of our social/ecological crises without making transformation changes in our lifestyles.

    Does a regenerative civilization require us to develop regenerative human cultures, too? In addition to being conscious consumers, how do we also become personal producers? Do we buy organic salad or learn grow it ourselves? I do what I can to support businesses like Patagonia and the important economic change the movement strives, but at some point we have to change the behavior and cultural norms from which our present crises emerged.

    • John Fullerton

      Well said. And I can assure you Yvon agrees with you too! But I’m also convinced that there is a way to transcend the seeming impossible yet false choice. The answer may be we need to “fall back” to a more “primitive” way of living. But I remain hopeful that there is vast unseen potential in the regenerative ethos. My simple example of gleaning greater joy from going slow that speeding around means a win win (provided we can solve the 1 gallon per hour challenge. But that feels eminently doable (algae based fuel for example), in contrast with the 64,000 gallon for a “joy ride in space” for a growing list of the global elite challenge.

      • Mark Phillips

        Thanks for your response. I agree that there is great satisfaction to be found in the cultivation of simple (and less carbon intensive) joys. This is a direction we must nurture.

        I like what Satish Kumar has to say about the idea of simplicity:

        “Although sometimes people think simplicity means a kind of ‘hair-shirt’ lifestyle, that is not my view. Simplicity is a positive quality; when things are simple they are well-made, they last indefinitely, they are made with pleasure and they give pleasure when used. It was E. F. Schumacher who said, “Any fool can make things complicated, but it requires a genius to make things simple.”

        Simplicity requires less ego and more imagination, less complication and more creativity, less glamour and more gratitude, less attention to appearance and more attention to essence.”


  • Doc Hall

    John, you have the privilege of even deciding what kind of boat you want. If we had an economy that was focused on all (or most) of us living OK — not high style — while reducing the load on the planet, it would have to have very different from drivers from the economy of today. That implies a huge shift in beliefs, in what is considered socially acceptable wants and needs.

    There is a huge gap between various ideological views of “the economy” and the reality of how people fare in it. Take the real, contemporary case of a nineteen-year old lad in Indiana, Jimmy, who literally screwed up toward the end of high school. He now is married, has one child with a second on the way. He’s a 1099 with two jobs, and optimistically might net $12,000 a year. He’s not eligible for any state assistance.

    Jimmy is rapidly learning how to think, and how to do more to provide for the family. Got a trailer for free; needs a little fixing. He’s learned to fix. To cut the food bill he’s learning how to garden. But he still can’t move into the trailer. The State says that he must have a septic system and hook onto the water system. Total tab: about $8000, and no one is going to loan money for this. Move in and make the best of it, and the state will evict him. The whole set up is not “marketable,” not collateral for any loan or mortgage.

    Ask yourself: 150 years ago, what would a guy like Jimmy have done? Or might he and his bride have been “normal” for most people of the time?

    At the other end of the age scale, my wife now has two artificial knees at about $35K a pop. For almost 20 years she’s been on a medication costing about $400 a week, sticker price, or over $20K per year for basic maintenance, before all other medical costs. Without these, she would probably no longer be alive, or if she was, be a total, miserable invalid.

    We grew up not far apart. None of this was available then. The same country doctor made house calls for both of us. Anything the doctor could do (not much), he pulled out of his black bag at $6 a visit, which was 40% of my mother’s weekly earnings. She only summoned him twice during my childhood. She had to think and do a lot of doctoring herself, misguided as some of it might have been.

    Both these little vignettes illustrate the huge increase in consumption that we now deem necessary for basic living — before considering the Trump-scale extravagance to which we might aspire. And before considering the overload on the capacity of the earth that such standards of living bring on. The economy, including all its marketing, regulating, and financing, evolved to stimulate consumption. Changing that is a shift in human values difficult for us to contemplate, and perhaps we can’t unless dire circumstances force us to.

    That is, we can scarce imagine the depth of human values change needed to learn to enjoy a quality of life using few natural resources and without polluting the environment with the detritus of a throwaway society. However, perhaps we should put much more effort into imagining such a change. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t do it. We will continue to make little adjustments that never add up to enough to make a real difference.

    • John Fullerton

      Indeed. A hopeful sign is all the efforts we see that are doing just this, imagining a different way and boldly and bravely working to make them a reality. We offer the regenerative framework to guide this work, always adapted to unique local context. These stories help us to “see” in a new way, and I hope, stimulate our collective imagination. I had a mini “awakening” around my “need” for responsible boating – indeed a first class problem as you point out. But I think a useful analog for many other “needs” we all have. Medical well-being advances like you describe should be a top priority, but of course our medical costs are grossly distorted from what they need to be, beginning with a “treat the symptoms rather than the cause” mindset to begin with… To state the obvious, we have our work cut out!

  • SuzanneTaylor

    I just caught up with this and appreciate the comments and also that John Fullerton so thoughtfully engages them. I think right here is a clue to the future that works. The self-interest that prevails has experts talking to students and audiences and not to each other. Witness conferences, where brilliant people come to deliver addresses and come and go without talking to one another.

    Something else regarding how to get from here to there is to perhaps end-run around all the dealings written about here. Everything is held in place by the worldview we entertain, and a different worldview would get different results. If you hold the idea that the good of the whole is as important as personal gain, you do everything differently. So, perhaps it would be fruitful to talk about what might capture the imagination of humanity to create a sea-change in how we relate to one another. In that pursuit, just for an example, I got intrigued by evidence that we’re not making crop circles. If we knew we were not the only intelligence in the universe, which the crop circle phenomenon points to, we would be humbled as one humanity in relation “the other,” and, as someone in the documentary I made says, “That could be what saves this civilization.”

    • John Fullerton

      Agree. Even the science tells us that effective “communication” is essential. Happens all the time at the cellular level in our bodies. I see that as part of the principle of “right relationship” – one of our 8 principles. can’t be in right relationship if not communicating continuously, and finding mutually beneficial exchanges (not just charity for example)…

      I’ll have to read up on crop circles! But for sure we are in search of the new narrative. This is why we have invested so much in our story telling effort via our Field Guide. Trying to tease out such a new narrative. Very much aligned with Dana Meadows “leverage points” on how to change a system. Highest leverage point is the “paradigm (world view) within which the system exists”… easier said than done!