Monday, December 23, 2013

Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George

Shipping is an industry that largely takes place out of sight. The surfaces of the world's oceans can be empty, isolated places. When a cargo ship berths in a port--now farther away from cities, since these ships need deeper harbors--tens of thousands of containers are unloaded in less than a day, then the ship is ready to depart on the next leg of its voyage. It's quite unlike the way shipping worked five or six decades ago, when teams of men worked for weeks to unload significantly smaller ships. Rose George calls shipping the "invisible industry," but until I read Ninety Percent of Everything, I didn't realize how appropriate a descriptor "invisible" is. More than not knowing how many goods are actually transported via cargo ship, shipping is invisible in other, less obvious ways. "How ironic," writes George, "that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination."

There are many mind-boggling stats in George's Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (for example, "The biggest container ship can carry fifteen thousand boxes. It can hold 746 million bananas, one for every European on one ship" and "Add shipping to the list of polluting countries and it comes in sixth. Ships create more pollution than Germany."), but George is more concerned with the personal. I read a couple of reviews by readers who were expecting something more technical and logistical, and yes, if that is your interest, you may be disappointed. But I found the book illuminating and extremely relevant, giving readers a glimpse at a world we rarely stop to think about.

Over the course of five weeks, George travels on a cargo ship from England to Singapore. As her journey of more than 9,000 nautical miles progresses, George touches on several topics, threading together conversations with the ship's officers and crew, explanations of how shipping has transformed in the past fifty or so years, and firsthand accounts of those of others connected the shipping industry. These accounts, from both past and present, come from a priest working at a Seafarer's Centre in England, a ransom negotiator who deals with pirates, and scientists researching the effects of shipping on whales, make the book feel even more immediate.

Because, returning to the topic of invisibility, George doesn't gloss over the treatment of the men and women--but mostly men--who work on cargo ships, their work conditions (as the priest says, "People get outraged about sweatshops, but they don't realize that once the stuff is loaded on a ship, that can be another sweatshop"), or the danger they face. There may be laws and regulations on the books regarding piracy and safety and compensation, but in practice they are rarely enforced. Moreover, when accidents happen, when two thousand seafarers die at sea every year, the general public rarely hears about it. "It seems to me it's such a a casual thing that they expect so many people to die on ships. If it had been airplane safety, something would have been done about it," says a man whose brother died at sea.

George recently gave a TED talk about shipping, which will give you a good introduction to her book.

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