They’re out there, thousands of them, mundane steel boxes that remain out of sight and mostly ignored. Stacked high on giant ships, they bring us iPhones and TVs, the coffee we drink, most of the clothes we wear. Quite literally, they keep the global economy running.
In industry jargon, they are known as “TEUs”— 20-foot equivalent unit containers. But however mysterious these TEUs may be, and however integral they are to world commerce, there is, unfortunately, nothing terribly sexy about them. As the journalist and writer Rose George tells us in “Ninety Percent of Everything,” even those who work with containers “think they are boring, opaque, blank. Stuff carrying stuff.”
Such admissions do not inspire much confidence of a rousing story. George’s difficult assignment, in this part-travelogue, part-muckraking investigation, is to make shipping interesting. That she does not quite succeed is not really her fault; but she is certainly game for the effort. To get closer to the largely hidden world of container shipping — “How ironic,” she notes, “that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination” — the author hitches a ride on a ship as a ”supernumerary” (an old-fashioned way of saying that George is not part of the regular crew).
Her voyage on the Maersk Kendal — which is owned by the largest container shipping company in the world (the Danish multinational’s revenue totaled $60.2 billion in 2011) and clocks in at three football fields long – takes George halfway around the world. It is a 9,000-mile journey, from the English port of Felixstow, via Rotterdam, through the wafer-thin Suez Canal and the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa, and onto Singapore.
Along the way, George details how the shipping industry has transformed the economy, and the decline of the once-grand British and American merchant fleets. Today, she argues, shipping is often a mercenary business where cheap labor is prized. Companies register ships to landlocked countries like Mongolia to skirt labor laws. (Kendal is something of rarity — it flies a UK flag.) Container shipping has facilitated the flow of cheap goods to the West — George’s title alludes to just how much arrives on our shores via containers. It has also led to odd economic deformations. For example, it is cheaper to ship Scottish cod to China to be filleted than to do it in Scotland.
Such economies of scale have exacted their cost on crews, who are often exploited, denied wages and other benefits, and the environment. A single ship is greener than, say, a truck, but “shipping is not benign because there is so much of it.” (There are more than 100,000 ships at sea, “carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live.”) Many container ships burn cheap bunker fuel, which is toxic, “horrible stuff.” George also reports the damaging effects of shipping on whale migration patterns, which are disturbed by the noise of engines and wakes.
“Ninety Percent of Everything” is itself a sea of factoids, statistics (we learn that in 2009, the largest 15 ships could be emitting as much in pollutants as 760 million cars), and acronyms — EU-NAVFOR, ITF, MARPOL, SOLAS, ISPS, among others. George details maritime conventions and labor laws, lawsuits and controversy. Shipping can be a lawless enterprise: If you have a problem, “who do you complain to, when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, managed by a Cypriot, in international waters.” Crews today are made up largely of Filipinos, because, as one told her, “we are cheap and we speak good English.”
From one point of view, this is the epitome of globalization run amok; from another, it’s merely the triumph of free enterprise that transcends national borders. George stands somewhere in the middle. She writes with sympathy about the Kendal’s captain, Glenn Wostenholme, whose “accent has the warm tones of the north of England and so does his manner.” At the end of the journey, it is George’s encounters with the people who work on these hulking juggernauts of the sea, rather than the vessels themselves, that give life to this chronicle.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.