From laptops to clothes and almost everything in-between, how do the goods needed to power the world get from one place to another? Even in our modern, speed-driven and globalized economy, 90 percent of everything still travels as it did almost 500 years ago: by ship. The shipping industry carries necessities like food and clothing all over the world, and yet it’s an industry that goes largely ignored by people outside of it. Hoping to break the barrier between shipping and the outside world, author Rose George spent several weeks aboard the container ship Maersk Kendal, sailing 9,288 nautical miles from England to Singapore. What resulted was her book Ninety Percent of Everything, a sweeping glimpse inside all aspects of the shipping industry, from the isolation of a shipping crew to the complicated business of flags of convenience. George spoke with Smithsonian.com about what compelled her to take the journey on the boat, why shipping goes unnoticed and why she thinks that no matter what the future holds, the world will always need shipping.
What compelled you to write a book about the shipping industry? When did you first have the idea?
My last book was about sanitation and toilets, The Big Necessity, and it came out in 2008 and it did pretty well getting attention – I spent about 18 months talking and giving lectures. The point being, it was a really fascinating topic to – excuse the pun – fall in to. And so when it came to writing another book, I was a bit stuck. I’d taken a trip in 1999, a ten-day trip in a container ship across the Atlantic in mid-winter with 21 Indians. And we’d gone down the St. Lawrence River breaking the ice all the way down to Montreal, and I remembered that as being the most alien environment that I had ever really encountered, even though I’ve traveled a lot. And I don’t mean alien in that it was unpleasant or the crew was unfriendly – I just mean it was so outside anything I’d ever experienced, and so outside of most people’s experiences, and so I thought, “Well, that’s just one ship.” And then I found out there are about 100,000 ships and I thought, “I’m going to go back to sea.”
The title of the book is Ninety Percent of Everything. How do you put the magnitude of the shipping industry – its sheer size – into terms that the public can understand?
I tell them to guess what percentage of world trade travels by sea, and no one ever gets it. They usually think maybe 40, 50%. I think most people in industrialized countries, where we’ve become less nations of producers and more nations of consumers, don’t really think about it that much. When they do think about it, they might think that it comes from a sweatshop somewhere, but you’d be surprised at how many people think that everything comes by plane, which it doesn’t because it’s so expensive. Even a freight plane can carry an absolute fraction of what a ship can carry. My understanding is that people think that shipping and ships are old-fashioned, and it’s kind of the docks with their longshoremen, and their crazy colorful world, and they just don’t think it’s what it is, which is a vibrant, vital and in a way cutthroat industry.
I notice a lot of tension in the book between old and new – this very old tradition of sailing trying to maintain footing in a postindustrial world. What do you make of this tension?
Shipping is a very, very modern industry. It has to be to keep up with the pace and efficiency of containerization. Go onto a ship, and you go onto the bridge, and you won’t see any brass or a wooden wheel – it’s all beeps and machines and electronic charts. But at the same time, a ship has to be controlled by a very old fashioned thing: a human being. And you can’t get away from that, so no matter how modern a ship becomes, it always has to rely on a human being. Sea faring has always been a very dangerous life. You’ve got weather; you’ve got all sorts of hazards, and there’s not a lot that modernity can do to alleviate that. We can do everything we can to make our ships safer, but they still sink at the rate of two per week. So you’ve got seafarers who, in this strange world that is at the same time quite technologically advanced, have the second most dangerous job in the world.
Another thing that struck me was the contrast between the technology of the industry – these huge boats, super-efficient containers – and the technology allowed to the people on board. You mention that even though the ship you were on was only four years old, the seafarers weren’t allowed Internet access of any kind. How do you explain this divide?
Well it’s very simply a question of cost. The economic margins in shipping are very tight and obviously a ship owner is going to try to keep costs as low as possible. And satellite Internet access, which is what you have on a ship, is very expensive. Seafarers are on these incredibly advanced machines, living in sort of preindustrial, pre modern communications conditions. Kendal, which is what I was on, does now have Internet access for its seafarers, and there are a few more ports, which now supply free Wi-Fi. When I say a few, really a few—fewer than half a dozen.
One thing I found so interesting was the lives of the men aboard the ship -- it really seems like for all their experiences, and for the entire world they’ve seen, they are still really limited. You talk about a seafarer, Marius, who had been through treacherous storms and sailed around the world, yet felt completely out of place in Le Havre.