Where’s Dirk Gently When You Need Him?

The Ever Given being towed. (Photo from Suez Canal Authority)

Did you hear? A supersized cargo ship got wedged in the Suez Canal on March 23rd? If you didn’t, you must do pretty well at avoiding the news, social media, and late night TV. But the short of it is: the Ever Given somehow lost control (sandstorm strength winds have been blamed, as have human errors) and crashed into the bank of the canal and lodged itself in.

So what? Is this really news? Or just a sensational story to distract us from the pandemic, which, one might argue, is itself a distraction from the rapid unraveling of Earth’s systems and thus human civilization? Perhaps. But then again perhaps not.

Here’s why this incident is worth understanding:

First, a ship single-bowedly disrupted global trade for six days. It was finally freed on March 29th. However, there is now a backlog of over 300 ships while many ships rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope. The Suez Canal is part of a trade route that carries more than 10 percent of global trade, including 7 percent of the world’s oil. Each day 30 percent of the world’s shipping container freight moves through the canal. Thus it created backlogs in shipping (including some 200,000 live animals who could have overheated or run out of food). It raised the price of oil briefly. It created shortages in factories—not just of parts but of shipping containers. And of course, it felt like a freak occurrence. Last year, of the 18,840 ships that moved through the canal, there were no incidents.

But the main reason is because this is an excellent metaphor on how fragile our entire globalized system has become.

It makes you wonder where Dirk Gently is to help straighten all this out. If you haven’t heard of Gently, he is a holistic detective, who uses “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” to find missing persons (and cats) and solve mysteries. In fact, the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency includes him trying to figure out how a sofa got “irrevocably stuck” halfway up a staircase.

Similar story here: the Ever Given was jammed in tight—though fortunately with the help of the full moon and tides, unstuck without resorting to time travel (which was needed to free the errant sofa). And while the supernatural wasn’t at the root cause of this mishap (unlike the couch), instead of focusing just on the bad luck of a sandstorm (which are not uncommon in Egypt) combined with bad piloting, we should still investigate the root causes at play. So let’s peel back the layers one at a time.

Bigger is better!

At the surface, we might simply say the problem stems from the fact that we keep making bigger container ships. The Ever Given is a quarter mile long (one lap around a track or the height of the Empire State Building). And it weighs 220,000 tons and holds 20,000 containers (each 20-40 feet long). High oil prices (especially 2005-8), combined with cheap debt after the 2008 crash led shipping companies to invest in bigger and bigger ships. The Ever Given holds four times the cargo a ship carried in 2000. In fact, these containers were stacked so high that they acted like a giant sail and caught the intense winds that drove the Ever Given into the banks. So, yes, there’s more risk involved, but it’s cheaper to add more containers. To get as much on there as possible. Sometimes that means losing a load of containers to a storm or other incident (about 1600 containers are lost on average each year). Not to mention the fluke canal accident—not that this was a widely recognized risk. (However, this OECD report from 2015 did raise the challenges of burgeoning cargo ship sizes). But now this threat will need to be considered, including terrorists doing this intentionally to disrupt trade.

That’s one big sofa. (Suez Canal Authority)

Now more concentrated!

But of course, looking holistically, let’s ask why do we even need these big ships? So, peeling another layer, we see that we have concentrated our manufacturing to a few major locations and promoted the consumer culture worldwide so we need to get goods of all types to rich Europeans, we need to get oil to run cars and planes in every country, we need to get livestock to the Middle East to feed this affluent desert population. Our globalized system depends on big old cargo ships. Even this incident is a reflection of our extreme globalization: the ship is owned by a Japanese company; run by a Taiwanese company (Evergreen); piloted by Indians; operating under a Panamanian flag; navigating through an Egyptian waterway, shipping brand name goods from all over the globe, and rescued by a Dutch salvage company. That’s kind of neat—a global Kumbaya moment—or a revelation of just how deeply aligned nations are in converting Earth’s forests, lands, water, and life into the latest in consumer products.

But wait, there’s more!

Peeling another layer, we find that the movement of all these consumer goods is driven by a culture fixated on growth, profit, and consumerism. We move factories to exploit cheaper labor and lax environmental rules; we spend $763 billion a year on advertising to convince people they need a new iPhone or a new car or a trip to wherever; we convert landscapes wholesale into resources; and we panic if our economies don’t grow. We’re trapped in a pursuit of material happiness, manipulated by the admen and politicians, driven now by our addictions to sweets, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, social media, and entertainment, to the point we’re “amusing ourselves to death.” But worse, we’re so amused we hardly even notice the death part any longer.

Speaking of amusing, this is pretty funny.

Free disconnect with every purchase!

And arriving at the inner layers of the onion, we find this: that our disconnection from the Earth is so deep, so profound, so complete, that we no longer even consider the planet in our decisions to manufacture items or ship them or buy them. We think instead about expanding our economies, upsizing our homes, upgrading our cars and phones, even stockpiling toilet paper (which again almost became a thing in the Suez Canal story as wood pulp supplies were potentially delayed). Even as scientists warn of ecological collapse, of cities lost to flooding seas, of regions abandoned due to perpetual drought, to the inevitable violence that all this will cause, to the countless species lost—many of whom we depend on directly for our survival—we focus on making memes, writing essays (guilty), and trying to live slightly-greener-around-the-edges-consumer-lifestyles.

Dealing with this metaphorical couch

One meme to rule them all. (Suez Canal Authority, with a little labelling)

Perhaps that’s why the struggling bulldozer became the source of so many memes. Except the most important one: The bulldozer as the environmental movement and the ship as Consumer Capitalism. Ultimately, trying to free the ship, or even convert it to run on green fuels or the latest in sail technology is treating the superficial layers. Instead, we need to dig deeper (yuk yuk). We need to re-regionalize production; reduce production; degrow our economies, find ways to disincentivize and discourage a consumer lifestyle; or better yet, make it clear that this whole culture of consumerism is suicidal and worse, anti-life, and must go in order to prevent future ship jams or far worse global disruptions. And even deeper, we need to reconnect people to the living Earth to make them understand that every sin against the planet, against other creatures, and against other humans who we exploit, we commit against ourselves. That if we fail to change paths, we will run head first into the proverbial canal wall. And there will be no one to dig us out.

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