Rudder on the Left; Perspectives on Slowing Down as we Turn

Canoeing has long been a favorite pastime for me.  Until 2012, when I retired from my job as Chief Naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, I led public canoe trips into the tidal marshes near Washington, D.C.   As part of these trips, I gave paddling lessons and tips to participants. It occurred to me one day, after a preventable spill, how negotiating a stream on a canoe has its lessons for everyday life . . .


“Rudder on the left . . . rudder on the left!” I called out.  But it was to no avail – the canoe slammed into the stream bank and its occupants slid unceremoniously off their seats.   I winced and uttered “ouch!” under my breath.  The boat had been headed perpendicular to the rest of the group, straight for the shore, and the captain and bowman tried frantically to correct their course by paddling faster and faster.

There are at least two ways to avoid running a canoe into an obstacle.  One is to paddle hard on the side opposite that you wish to go.  This works well if you are some distance from the object, for the craft will turn smoothly and reliably in a wide arc.  If, however, you are within a canoe length or two from the obstacle, especially if it is a big, wide barrier – like the entire stream bank – the best thing to do is to slow down and turn at the same time.  Ruddering accomplishes these simultaneously, reducing velocity and changing direction.

As a canoe trip leader, I found that no matter how much the usefulness of ruddering is stressed, the advice often falls on deaf ears. Or, at least, the admonition is powerfully overridden by the desire to go faster, to affect quick and seemingly assertive change.  Beginners are certainly prone to taking the “paddle faster, maybe we’ll make it” approach.  This is understandable.  There is a subtleness to using the rudder effectively that takes some time to master.  And besides, one usually thinks of going out paddling, not ruddering.

Even among more experienced paddlers, however, there are many who are prone to plow headlong into the shore or some other object – those whose mindset is hurried.  Whether it is because they are racing with someone, racing against their own expectations, or simply that they are “high strung,” hurried boaters seem to have a mental block against ruddering.  Their arms seem to move on their own, with choppier and messier strokes, as they speed ever faster towards their fate.  Some maintain the faith in their technique right to the end, with a look of actual surprise on their faces as they crash!  Some canoers, perhaps with a flash of insight, try to rudder right at the last possible moment.  They still collide with that large, immovable object, but with a slight twist at the end.

Canoeing, like so many other things in Life, is a delicate balance.  It is a balancing of one’s center of gravity, of speed and slowness, of energy and rest.  And there are lessons in the delicate balance of canoeing that speak to many things in our lives, including how modern society as a whole navigates life.  As an avid canoeist, a naturalist, and as someone fascinated with the interrelatedness of all things in Life, I ask your indulgence in this analogy. . .

Like a canoeist gliding along the water, societies travel through time.  Both the boater and the entire society are propelled by some sort of energy – muscle-power moves the canoer; everything from muscle power to nuclear power runs societies.  And, both canoers and entire societies face – and ostensibly try to avoid – a range of obstacles.  In place of logs, shorelines and waterfalls, societies face obstacles such as food shortages, moral decay, invasions from hostile forces and others.  And these obstacles, of course, vary widely in their potential for catastrophe.  A canoer oblivious to a log in the water might suffer a bump or, at worst, a spill; one who was oblivious to a large waterfall ahead might paddle right out of this life and into the next.  In the same way, there are many avoidable societal pitfalls that simply make life a bit uncomfortable, whereas others can result in death and destruction.

Are you with me so far?  It is here, at this point of what canoers and entire societies do in the face of obstacles and challenges that the analogy becomes really interesting.   Should a society rudder or paddle harder when it senses an obstacle?  If that obstacle was an attacking force, then most people would say that the response of a nation should be “give it everything we’ve got.”  Maybe even “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”  But what if the obstacle is more like the shoreline in our canoeing scenario . . . a large, immovable phenomenon limiting our movement?  Then perhaps “rudder on the left” might be more appropriate than “full speed ahead.”

Our society is facing just such an obstacle in the form of the limits to our growth – which we are approaching at breakneck speed.  Tangibly, we are running headlong into limited supplies of energy, the fuel for this growth.  Some imaginary, magical, unlimited fuel source would only hurl us ever faster at other serious limits – of arable land, fertilizer for farming, other resources, and the sterilization of our of living world on which we depend.  We are clearly surging towards these immovable shores.  Right now, though, our societal response is, in effect, to paddle faster and faster.   We race for more and more energy, drilling, fracking, and exploring the reinvigoration of nuclear power.  We must develop, mine and manufacture at ever-increasing rates, for the imperative of growth demands it!  In the midst of this, there are voices calling out “Rudder on the left! Rudder on the left!” “Slow down while you turn!!”

Instead of plunging headlong into great peril, we could, in fact, slow down, assess the situation and correct our direction.  For instance, much more attention could be paid to energy conservation.  This is not just a personal virtue, it could be one big way that our society can buy time to make the turn.  With existing technologies and modest planning, we could save more energy than the current annual increase in energy that we must work so hard to acquire.  With just a bit of insight we could snap out of our collective drive for more and faster.   A new way of life, based on minimal energy inputs and maximum ingenuity would be healthier, more enjoyable and more creative than what we have now.  And, to get there, we can insist on a transition to steady state economics in which human success is not equated and geared to perpetual growth.  There are so many ways to slow down and make the turn!   It is possible . . .

“Rudder on the left!  Rudder on the left!”  Ah – that canoer executed the move like a charm!  His canoe swung gracefully back into the current and moves with the flow of the stream.  He and the bowman are chatting contentedly about something or another.  It’s a beautiful day.  It’s a beautiful world.  Let’s not go messing all of that up by slamming headlong into large, immovable objects!   I recommend the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy ( as an example of the kind of “societal rudder” we need to start exploring.