By Mark Cardwell
Rose George says she was struck by the magnitude of the shipping industry’s impact on the world as a result of the volcanic eruption that hit in Iceland in 2010, disrupting international air travel due to the clouds of ash. “There were countless headlines about how people were stuck in countries and couldn’t travel, and how dreadful a blow it was that aviation had been stopped,” the British freelance journalist and author wrote in an email to Canadian Sailings. “I waited for someone from the International Chamber of Shipping or elsewhere to say, hey, the supermarket shelves are still stocked and that’s because shipping is still working, but no-one did. It was such a missed opportunity to convey that shipping is a modern, fundamental, cutting-edge industry.”
George’s makes up for that – and does much, much more – in her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate. Published by Metropolitan Books on August 13, the non-fiction tome is billed as an “eye-opening and compelling” look at the “overlooked world of freight shipping”, and based on research and George’s personal observations from a month spent onboard the Maersk Kendal, a Danish-flagged container ship.
It is the Oxford grad’s third book. Her first was a look at refugees. Her second – The Big Necessity – examined human waste and how people and society deals with it.
George decided to tackle the shipping industry, which she called “a topic as hidden and fundamental as sanitation,” after thinking back to a Transatlantic trip she’d taken during the winter a decade earlier on another container ship called the Canmar Pride (now the Mississauga Express). “Me and 22 Indians, a lot of water, and breaking the ice all the way down the St. Lawrence,” she wrote in her email. “It was a captivating experience because life at sea on a working ship was like nothing else I had experienced. “When I started doing some basic research and learned the figures – such as the fact that 90 per cent of world trade is carried by ships at some point, or that 70 per cent of ships now flag out, or that 500 or so seafarers were being held hostage by Somali pirates, but were never in the mainstream news – I realized this was the topic I wanted to write about. Also, I wanted to go back to sea.”
Unlike Maersk, which George lauded for accommodating her as part of an effort to help “the general public understand the fundamental role shipping plays,” she said the industry is mostly inward-looking – but shouldn’t be. Of course, shipping is a B-to-B industry and does not really need public applause,” she wrote. “(But) when there are faults in the industry that need addressing, such as its environmental impact, or welfare conditions, then more transparency is definitely a good thing.”
In her analysis of the shipping industry, George notably identifies the twist lock as a key building block in the globalization of the world economy. “Without the intermodal shipping container, transport costs would still be 25 per cent of the cost of goods, and that cheap TV or
T-shirt would simply cost too much to transport from Asia to Europe or wherever,” she wrote on a ship-transported MacBook Air from her home office in Yorkshire, England. In addition to the shipping container, she said outsourcing, cheap labour and intermodal efficiencies have also fuelled the growth of shipping. “Also by flagging out, shipowners and charterers are not restricted by labour or wage restrictions (and) can have lower tax rates and run ships more cheaply, “wrote George. “That has its downsides in questionable shipping practices such as double-book-keeping, blacklisting and abandonment.”
George’s take on the impact of shipping on the environment is equally circumspect. “Shipping is definitely the greenest method of transport,” she wrote. “When you compare its emissions of C02 per tonne per mile, it is 11g, a tenth of what trucks produce. Aviation produces 1,193g per tonne per mile.” She warned, however, that shipping is far from benign. “Because of its vastness, the 3.5-4 percent of global emissions it produces should be addressed,” wrote George. Industry stakeholders, she added, “can do what they are now doing better, which is talk about it.”
An excerpt from the introduction of her book:
‘Trade carried by sea has grown fourfold since 1970 and is still growing. In 2011, the 360 commercial ports of the United States took in international goods worth $1.73 trillion, or eighty times the value of all U.S. trade in 1960. There are more than one hundred thousand ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids, and gases that we need to live. Only six thousand are container vessels like Kendal, but they make up for this small proportion by their dizzying capacity. The biggest container ship can carry fifteen thousand boxes. It can hold 746 million bananas, one for every European on one ship. If the containers of Maersk alone were lined up, they would stretch eleven thousand miles or nearly halfway around the planet. If they were stacked instead, they would be fifteen hundred miles high, 7,530 Eiffel Towers. If Kendal discharged her containers onto trucks, the line of traffic would be sixty miles long.
Trade has always traveled and the world has always traded. Ours, though, is the era of extreme interdependence. Hardly any nation is now self-sufficient. In 2011, the United Kingdom shipped in half of its gas. The United States relies on ships to bring in two-thirds of its oil supplies. Every day, 38 million tonnes of crude oil sets off by sea somewhere, although you may not notice it. As in Los Angeles, New York, and other port cities, London has moved its working docks out of the city, away from residents. Ships are bigger now and need deeper harbors, so they call at Newark or Tilbury or Felixstowe, not Liverpool or South Street. Security concerns have hidden ports further, behind barbed wire and badge-wearing and ‘keep out’ signs. To reach this quayside in Felixstowe, I had to pass through several gatekeepers and passport controllers, and past radiation-detecting gates often triggered by naturally radioactive cargo such as cat litter and broccoli.
It is harder to wander into the world of shipping now, so people don’t. The chief of the British navy – who is known as the First Sea Lord, although the army chief is not a Land Lord – says we suffer from "sea blindness" now. We travel by cheap flights, not ocean liners. The sea is a distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between takeoff and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving flight map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work. Perhaps we believe that everything travels by air, or magically and instantaneously like information (which is actually anchored by cables on the seabed), not by hefty ships that travel more slowly than senior citizens drive.
You could trace the flight of the ocean from our consciousness in the pages of great newspapers. Fifty years ago, the shipping news was news. Cargo departures were reported daily. Now the most necessary business on the planet has mostly been shunted into the pages of specialized trade papers such as Lloyd’s List and the Journal of Commerce, fine publications but out of the reach of most, when an annual subscription to Lloyd’s List costs more than $2,000 a year. In 1965, shipping was so central to daily life in London that when Winston Churchill’s funeral barge left Tower Pier to travel up the Thames, it embarked in front of dock cranes that dipped their jibs, movingly, with respect. The cranes are gone now or immobile, garden furniture for wharves that house costly apartments or indifferent restaurants.
Humans have sent goods by water for four thousand years. In the fifteenth century B.C., Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a fleet to the Land of Punt and brought back panther skins and ebony, frankincense and dancing pygmies. Perhaps Hatshepsut counts as the first shipping tycoon, before the Romans, Phoenicians, and Greeks took over (she was certainly the only Egyptian queen who preferred to be called king). Shipping history is full of such treats and treasures. Cardamom, silk, ginger, and gold, ivory and saffron. The Routes of Spice, Tea, and Salt, of Amber and Incense. There were trade winds, sailor towns and sails, chaos and color. Now there are freight routes, turnarounds, and boxes, and the cool mechanics of modern industry, but there is still intrigue and fortune. Maersk ships travel regular routes named Boomerang and Yo Yo (from Australia and Yokohama), or the Bossa Nova and Samba around South America. There are wealthy tycoons still, Norse, Greek, and Danish, belonging to family companies who maintain a level of privacy that makes a Swiss banker seem verbose. Publicly listed shipping companies are still a minority. Even shipping people admit that their industry is clubby, insular, difficult. In this business, it is considered normal that the official Greek shipowners’ association refuses to say how many members it has, because it can.’