Almost everything you own and consume came to you via a container ship, but we know almost nothing about the industry. Rose George, author of the new book Ninety Percent of Everything, on what keeps the world running.
Let’s play a game. I’m sitting at my desk, drinking mint tea and eating toffees. In front of me is my laptop. Around me are files, folders, books, office chaos. And as I chew, I begin to play a game: I count the ships. I count the ships behind the laptop and its components; and the one behind the toffees, made in Germany, sent by ship. The bottom of my coffee mug says it was fired in Northamptonshire, England, but still, behind the pretty patterned roses I see the ships that fetched the ink that painted them. I see the Grete Maersk coming from Bremerhaven with my toffee; the Cscl Africa arriving from Guangdong with my logic board; the MV Bravery leaving Russia, forcing itself through the awful, nauseating Barents Sea in winter with the Murmansk timber that became my books. The only thing I can’t play the game with is the mint tea: the water came from Yorkshire and the mint came out of my garden. Everything else probably came by ship because nearly everything does. Ninety percent of world trade travels by sea even now when we travel mostly by car or plane, so that the sea—the working sea—is a blue blank on a moving inflight map, or somewhere to sail yachts on or to swim in.
We think of ships as historical artifacts now. I don’t mean yachts or ferries, but proper working ships: cargo and container and bulk and gas and oil, the ones we no longer see. Who in Britain or Western Europe or America now knows a working seafarer? The seafaring population in all these places has almost disappeared since the Second World War, when ships won the Battle of the Atlantic and merchant seamen died in greater numbers, proportionately, than any branch of the armed services. A tanker captain I met once in Glasgow said that when he is offered a career choice in online drop-down menus, and he picks shipping, he is given two options: Fedex or UPS? It is an astonishing thing that the more our globalized, interdependent world relies on ships and seafarers, the more their place in our imagination has shrunk.
There are reasons for this: when the container became popular in the 1970s, the cost of transporting goods dropped dramatically. Ships could transport more and faster. They got bigger, and new harbors had to be built, away from the city docks of Manhattan or London, to vast container ports in far-away areas of Port Elizabeth or Tilbury or Long Beach. After 9/11, ports were gated and secured. It is harder now to wander into the world of shipping, to stroll to a port, to visit a working dock. And if you did, what would you see? A fast, intensive industry of boxes and cranes and trucks, but hardly any humans in sight. The efficiencies of the container have been so fundamental that Maersk Kendal, a container ship I travelled on for five summer weeks, can be unloaded in 24 hours, and run by a crew of 19. Maersk, a company with the revenues of Microsoft but none of the name-recognition, has now launched the Triple-E, an epic ship that can carry 18,000 containers (Kendal carried 6,000), and can be crewed by 13 men. They will be men: only 2 percent of seafarers are women. The most common seafarer you will see, should you look, will be Asian and exhausted. Asian, because a quarter of the world’s seafarers are supplied by the Philippines, and Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan supply plenty too. Exhausted, because 24 hour port calls leave little time ashore and the modern working ship gives little solace for men at sea either: only a third have access to the internet. They are grown men deprived of connectivity a three-year-old can now legitimately demand: when seafarers joke that their career is “prison with a salary,” they are not joking.
Still, at least they can pass the time wondering what’s in the boxes, if they had the energy. In truth, no captain or senior officer wants to read through endless pages of manifests. “I get them from A to B,” my captain told me, and that’s that. There is too much to take in, when twenty million containers criss-cross our world, bringing our stuff, seeming so solid and secure, although only 10% are physically inspected (any more and trade would halt), and the industry relies on the lyrical legal phrase of “said to contain” inside their mundane corrugated walls, they could be carrying fakes (counterfeiters send $2 billion of goods in containers); arms (small weapons go by ship like anything else); people (human traffickers, bafflingly, sometimes send their clients in freezing or sweltering containers). They could be carrying 90 percent of anything. The only certainty is that they will keep coming, these giant ships with their stacks of stuff, bringing my toffee and my Murmansk timber, keeping the world going, out of sight and unthanked.