“Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game,” writes Rose George in her perceptive 2013 book about cargo ships. “A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller.”
George’s game was to take quick stock of a stranger's visible possessions, and then estimate how many of those possessions had made their way from factory to consumer via container ships. In her game, it's a good strategy to guess high: The title of her book, which refers to the proportion of consumer goods that are transported on ships, is Ninety Percent of Everything.
Shipping has been in the news recently because of a protracted labor dispute affecting nearly 30 ports on the West Coast. An uneasy, nine-month-long negotiation—between the organizations representing 14,000 workers who unload containers from ships and the large companies who own those ships—has tentatively ended, and last Saturday, full port operations resumed. For the next few months, the industry will power through a backlog of ships in need of unloading, and then shipping—whose importance to the American economy too often goes unremarked—will become invisible again.
“The shipping industry laments that it is only noticed when disaster happens. Usually that’s a Costa Concordia or an oil spill,” Rose George says. “The dispute…highlights all sorts of aspects of shipping which usually remain out of sight on the seas, [perhaps] because we don’t like to think about where our stuff comes from, or about the people who bring it.” As shipping recedes from the national conversation, so too will the hopes of any meaningful conversation about its working conditions and its effects on the environment.