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.
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