The Cautionary Tale of The Ever Given

It’s been a while since I last posted anything here, and, to my few but loyal readers, I apologize. Since the pandemic began, time has little weight; weeks, days, months, they all wave past unnoticed.  

Every now and then, something startles us out of this seemingly-infinite mundanity, pulling our retinas from the usual pandemic-related content, if at least for a moment.

On Tuesday, March 23, the Ever Given, a 400-foot commercial shipping ocean liner (the size of nearly two Titanics), became wedged sideways in the single-lane stretch of the Suez Canal after becoming stuck about 6 kilometers north of the southern entrance near the city of Suez in Egypt.

“We’re gonna need more boats.” AP Photo

Four days passed since the steel behemoth got stuck; even as we speak, it’s sitting there, listed slightly port-side, with thousands of rescue crews in tugs, bulldozers, excavators, with shovels, every possible equipment known to man trying to dislodge it, like a swarm of ants trying to loosen a giant bread crumb. Even now, as of the time of this writing, with more than 300 ships waiting to pass through, the Ever Given won’t budge. The blockage has already taken a toll on the global supply chain, with billions of dollars worth of goods, oil, chemicals, vehicles and other items not going anywhere. Shipping operators, distributors, manufacturers and other entities caught in the incident are running around on fire trying to determine other ways to get around the problem, including adding a 6,000-mile journey around Africa. The blockage is currently costing $400 million per hour in goods.

Now, what gets me about this is that ships get stuck all the time; canals are man-engineered structures that are not without flaws; they are intricate, complicated, and are bound to lead to problems at some point. Same goes for the pilots operating these small-town-sized vessels; a mistake or two is bound to happen, I mean, we are human after all. But why now? Why is the world watching with such passion, such fervor, such interest, if whether or not the Ever Given gives its tiny insect-like overlords a reprieve?

An excavator desperately tries to dig out the Ever Given, which sits perched on a bank of sand underneath. (AP Photo)

Think about it this way – this lone 200,000 ton monster is responsible for halting 13% of the world’s overall trade, so the answer lies in the unmistakable mass consumerism of our society right now. It’s no secret that many of us have succumbed to the temptations of online shopping for things that may, at least for a moment, take our minds off the constricting nature of the pandemic. I too am not immune to this effect, and have purchased things that I would’ve otherwise scoffed at in the past. Yet, it’s much more than that. We live in a society where everything is so easily accessible; all you have to do is wait a few days and a package magically arrives at your door. There’s no hunting for it, no need to build it, and certainly no need to know the journey it made to get to you. Until something like this happens, and suddenly we realize – wait, there are canals and ships carrying this stuff around the world?

Woah.

See, we’ve managed to cheat Terra, our dear planet. Many early explorers gave their lives to chart ocean passages that would connect one part of the world to another by the sea; one such fabled passage was the Northwest Passage, supposedly connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific. It was never found, because it never existed in the first place. So, engineers thought, ‘hah, you think you’re that good, earth? Watch this.’ So, enter the Panama Canal; one of the biggest engineering projects in the world to this day, doing what nature never intended to do; connect the east and west oceans. A similar feat was done with the Suez Canal, which was built as a shortcut between the Arabian Sea in the Middle East, connecting the Mediterranean, Atlantic and everything else. Suddenly, we didn’t need to go around all of Africa to ship stuff.

There was no Northwest Passage… so we made one. Pictured: Panama Canal, Panama (AP Photo)

Now, Terra has the last laugh. It takes one accident of this scale to block either of these shipping lanes on which tens of thousands of ships rely on for critical delivery of goods and fuels, and our world starts trickling into chaos. One waterway, barely a kilometer wide. It’s with this realization that when I look around my apartment I think, wow, it’s pretty amazing I can have these things that were built a whole world away. I also think about that fragility – what it takes for me to have this thing on my table. The cost of human effort, of navigation and calculation, of sleepless nights, of fatigue, inadequate nutrition, hell, even pirates.

“We want your stuff, along with all of your stuff.” (Photo via The Maritime Executive)

It also brings me to a somewhat worrying conclusion, but bear with me. Our world right now is built on the basis of global trade, right? Chances are, 99% of the objects in your house right now are made tens of thousands of kilometers away, including the clothes you wear. With that in mind, another major part of the shipping that travels through these canals is also fuel; whether it is crude oil or liquid gas. Now, let’s not forget: it’s 2021, not 1921. So why is it that we rely on fossil fuels and fuels that have been around for centuries in the 21st century? Doesn’t it seem a bit… 19th century? It doesn’t take a specialist to confirm that we are way behind a lot of things than what our 18th and 19th century futurists predicted.

‘Where’s my fuckin’ flying bat bus?’

And maybe, just maybe, in 300, 500 years when I’m just dust, there will be massive space tankers moving cargo and fuel in-between planets, even galaxies. I get it. Trade and commerce are an essential part of our ongoing existence and sustainability; someone, somewhere, will have something I can’t get or make myself; so I’ll have to pay that person a fee to give it to me or sell it to me. I don’t think that will ever change, but one thing that could change is what it is exactly that I am going out of my way to get. See, the blockage of the Suez Canal won’t just increase delays and possible costs of goods, but also of fuel; we’ve already seen global gas prices spike in a few days time, which may be subject to other causes, but let’s be honest; all those oil tankers floating and waiting around aren’t happy – because they know at the end of the day, this is going to cost someone something; whether it’s the refinery, the distributor or the shmuck refueling his car at the street corner gas station.

Oil tankers, the pride of air pollution. Burn tons of fuel to deliver more fuel to be burned. Also might kill everything, but hey, at least it makes someone, somewhere, very, very rich.

The Ever Given becoming stuck hasn’t made me realize that we are, for the most part, still enslaved to the petrol overlords, no, I‘m well aware of that – it’s that as a civilization, we’re still deeply hooked on mass consumption of every kind; which requires constant mining, logging, crude oil extraction, or other type of extraction from the earth; they all power our cars, our homes, and our very lives. I’m not an engineer, and I’m not a logistics expert. Perhaps the shipping methods we use today are the only viable ways to move massive amounts of cargo globally, and that the canals, as antiquated as they may seem, are the only option.

But I cannot help but ask, as a citizen hoping for a better world, is this the only way? Is the impossible really that impossible? The, “we went to the moon, so we can do anything” is a horse that has been beaten and beaten many times over, but it is one that certainly applies with anything, because we pushed out of our little blue bubble and touched on the moon, touched on up there. Is it unreasonable to take a second look at why there are millions of containers relying every day on a few critical waterways to keep our world going? Especially when global commerce just drives these vessels to become bigger and bigger as years go by?

From rubber duckies to toasters and cars. There’s only one way it all comes to our doorstep. (Bloomberg Photo)

Absolutely not, because we live in a world of easy come, easy go, express shipping this and express shipping that, and frivolous excess. The Ever Given is a cautious reminder of this overall detached sense of what it costs – costs in human lives and health, in the environment and in society, and that our deep desire to consume may someday destroy this world for good.

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