Ninety Percent of Everything

THE VAST, teeming, and treacherous seas cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but few of us understand the dark depths of the clandestine industry operating across its expansive waters. British journalist Rose George means to cure us of this “sea blindness.” Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate sheds light on the immense, unregulated operation functioning at the expense of shipping employees, marine life, and the environment. Ninety percent of international cargo—cars, computers, coffee, you name it—comes to us by shipping frigates. “Buy your fair-trade coffee beans by all means,” writes George, “but don’t assume fair-trade principles govern the conditions of the men (and they are nearly all men) who fetch it to you.”

Indeed, though the ride she is granted by veteran captain Glenn Wostenholme (on a twenty-story Maersk container ship en route from England to Singapore by way of the Netherlands, the Suez Canal, and the pirate-infested waters of Somalia) is rather dull and decidedly posh by sea standards, George regales us nonetheless with extraordinary stories from within this ubiquitous industry.

At the time George sent her book to press, 544 ship workers were being held hostage by Somali pirates, whose lack of regional vocational prospects compels them to the risky pursuit of ransom cash. Unburdened of their fears by chewing khat, pirates have been known to torture and kill disenfranchised laborers who do not even know what’s in the containers their ships carry. Employees operate in the dark, while ships sail straight through legal loopholes. Of the 17 million containers received in the United States alone, only 5 percent are inspected, high marks relative to European ports. And clerks at international checkpoints infamously accept cigarettes or cash to sign on the line.

Even unmolested by pirates, ship employees live lives that are at once blindingly boring and perched perpetually at the cusp of disaster. Ships sink—two each week. Seafaring laborers die on the job—two thousand each year. Get injured, raped, abused, or stiffed in this stygian realm, and recourse is a fantasy. In an industry in which shell corporations and misleading flag designations distance accountable parties into oblivion, cheap labor is expendable and out of luck. “Who do you complain to,” asks George, “when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, managed by a Cypriot, in international waters?”

Equally at risk are the marine mammals, whose ability to communicate by sonar, according to George, has been diminished in some cases by 90 percent due to the considerable noise pollution of the 100,000 ships active in their waters today. Wildlife also suffers from the Industrial Revolution–era bunker fuel used by ships, inefficient and second only to forest fires in terms of carbon emissions. Worse, ships are granted permission to discharge sewage as close as twelve miles offshore, whether from a modest vessel or a cruise ship of six thousand. And, finally, containers frequently lose their cargo in these wild, utterly unprotected habitats. Two thousand containers are lost annually, with roughly three hundred remaining afloat at sea, leaking thousands of toys, plastic bags, and other alluring detritus for fish to swallow, choke on, or get caught in.

George convincingly shows how the development of petroleum supertankers and containers in the 1960s changed shipping forever by increasing the rate and scale of delivery, diminishing the scope and safety of seafarers’ roles, and facilitating commerce at the expense of the environment and local economies. Captain Glenn, a dying breed—master of the sextant who remembers the early days on tramp steamers and the ethos that went along with them—paints George the real scene: “We are the front line troops who dance forward into the breach at point-blank range to whatever tune is played.”