We got up in the morning around 8 feeling much restored after 10 hours in the horizontal position and made our way out into streaming sunshine on the cafe deck for a morning coffee. What a difference a night’s sleep makes! While being on a boat made it different — so that we didn’t get that full refreshing sense of freedom that you reach already that first morning out on a motorcycle trip — there was still a pleasant sense of a clean break having been made from our life back home.
The boat had an interesting meal arrangement in which an extended “brunch” was served from 9:30 to 1 in the afternoon, which you could re-enter as you pleased. We elected, like many, to dive in at 9:30 for a late breakfast, then return just before 1 for lunch. Two meals for the price of one, though it was not particularly cheap nevertheless. We wouldn’t arrive in Germany before 10:30pm Finnish time so we’d have to make it some time before another proper meal.
All in our group but us were planning to bravely sally forth and ride 200 kilometers straight off the boat, allowing themselves to make it all the way to Austria with a single, big 800km day after that. Päivi and I, especially with her 500cc bike, lacked the appetite for this. We’d check straight in to a local hotel on the first night, then do the ride to Austria in two 500-600 km days. We’d miss the first day of riding in the Alps, but hey, we’d be on our motorcycles anyway, so who cared? Besides that I’d noticed that a certain town by the name of Bayreuth happened to lie around halfway along our route. I booked us a hotel within walking distance of the famed Festspielhaus where the Wagner festival was and has been held since the great composer’s own time. I was still deciding myself whether I wanted to embark on the 10-year wait to get tickets to see the Ring in its original birthplace some summer, in German without subtitles and all, but in any case the chance to walk on those hallowed grounds where great art held the highest place was an unexpected bonus to this trip.
The brunch on the boat was a tremendously rich feast by any standard. Here is but a partial list of all that was on the tables:
- Salmon caught off Norway and served uncooked, fileted and salted
- Thin-sliced roasted game from Germany
- Yoghurts of various thicknesses made by collecting milk from cows, probably in Finland, then fermenting it
- Carrots grown in the earth, pulled up, cleaned, and grated
- Seeds harvested from oat grass, collected, dried, and then sliced to flakes, and finally boiled in water with salt
- Other seeds harvested from wheat grass, ground up and baked with microorganisms that give off gas to provide a fluffy consistency
- Sausages made from the meat of animals brought into existence and raised on our behalf, probably in Europe, and then killed to give up their flesh
- A brown beverage made by passing hot water at a certain rate through beans harvested on the other side of the globe, shipped, roasted, and ground
- Sugar produced from cane also on the other side of the planet and shipped across the oceans
I could go on to describe the origins of the materials of the chairs we sat on, or the fact that they were painted just such and such a color chosen to be pleasing to our eyes in combination with the colors of the sea outside, and what the highly developed chemistry of the paint was, and so on. But I have made my point. Mankind has reached lofty heights indeed. Moreover I have weeks of leisure ahead of me, all earned by me sitting inside a glass-walled, tiered building tapping little squares of plastic that move up and down in a grid while staring at a glowing screen displaying quasi-repeating patterns of light and dark. Even science fiction authors in the middle part of the 20th century could not have imagined this. And yet.
We could lose all of this before another hundred years has gone by. Even now we are engaged in a race against death although we are barely conscious of it. Death, not of individuals, but of civilization itself. Everything we have built is dependent on fossil fuels we extract from the earth. These ships by which we trade and project goods across the sea, the tractors that groom the fields so that a few people can grow vast quantities of food, the machinery by which we construct our buildings, pave our roads, and ourselves travel to the places where our mental capabilities can best be put to use — all depend on fossil fuels. The vast bulk of the electricity that lights our homes and breathes life into our entertainment and data systems and our very networks of communication, depend on fossil fuels. If a man had to deliver the same amount of work we extract from a single barrel of oil, it would take an entire year of hard physical labor.
And yet the supply of oil, gas, and coal is limited, and we will exhaust it within the next century and perhaps much sooner. Awareness is there, but not in all parts of the ship, and it is a very big ship indeed that we must steer, with the direction it should be steered in not even fully known. We must develop technologies for extracting and transforming energy from more challenging and diffuse sources like sun and wind than the concentrated chemical energy found in fossil fuels.
The book A Canticle for Leibowitz is the best description I’ve ever come across of what might happen if our civilization collapsed. It was written in the late 1950’s and so the nuclear apocalypse which was our greatest fear at the time served as the trigger, but what happened in the aftermath could equally well apply after a failure of the primary engine of our civilization. The story describes a land that is but sparsely populated. Most people are subsistence farmers growing barely more than enough to live off the land. Here and there there is enough extra to support an enclave of monks who do not farm but devote their lives to attempting to preserve what light remains from that past civilization. They spend their days copying books, by hand, bringing the precious contents of their pages before they decay, letter by letter, to new parchment. Parchment which itself eventually degrades and must be copied anew. They do not even understand the texts that they copy, abstruse treatises on engineering and science, except that they know they held the keys to the soaring structures and networks we once built. They are monks, because returning to that better time is seen as bringing man closer to God.
The book follows generations of the monks, over the course of hundreds of years, as things slowly improved. In the end civilization was rebuilt. Not necessarily from the contents of the books, but undeniably from the faith in man’s capabilities and destiny that they inspired. And just as we have in some ways grown wiser since the excesses of the Greco-Roman civilization that preceded our own, the reader got the sense that this new civilization built on the ashes of the old was more humble and less headstrong than its predecessor, and likely to avoid the same doom.
It may be that this will be our own path. We have made it further than the Greeks and Romans, but we won’t quite win the race against declining oil reserves, and that will make all the difference. The period we live in now will be looked back upon as the height and the glory of human achievement, a bright white light shining forward in time to a darker tableau. Let us not take it for granted, which means both to enjoy it and to work to preserve it against what can be foreseen.
The boat arrived in due course at 10:30pm Finnish, 9:30pm German time. We rode smoothly off the boat and had a short 3km introductory ride in Germany to our hotel. It was in the midst of a surprisingly rural area despite the proximity to the harbor.
“The air smells different here,” Päivi remarked as we got off the bikes. I had to agree with her.