The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.
“Not a lot?”
The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship. The beads around the woman’s neck; the man’s iPhone and Japanese-made headphones. Her Sri Lanka–made skirt and blouse; his printed-in-China book. I can always go wider, deeper, and in any direction. The fabric of the seats. The rolling stock. The fuel powering the train. The conductor’s uniform; the coffee in my cup; the fruit in my bag. Definitely the fruit, so frequently shipped in refrigerated containers that it has been given its own temperature. Two degrees Celsius is “chill” but 13 degrees is “banana.”
—From Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George
Fun facts about the shipping industry
from Ninety Percent of Everything:
Trade carried by sea has grown fourfold since 1970 and is still growing. In 2011, the 360 commercial ports of the United States took in international goods worth $1.73 trillion, or eighty times the value of all U.S. trade in 1960. There are more than one hundred thousand ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids, and gases that we need to live. Only six thousand are container vessels like Kendal, but they make up for this small proportion by their dizzying capacity. The biggest container ship can carry fifteen thousand boxes.
Explore a container ship
from D-Deck to fo'c'sle
It can hold 746 million bananas, one for every European on one ship.
If the containers of Maersk alone were lined up, they would stretch eleven thousand miles or nearly halfway around the planet.
If they were stacked instead, they would be fifteen hundred miles high, 7,530 Eiffel Towers.
If Kendal discharged her containers onto trucks, the line of traffic would be sixty miles long.
All sorts of criminals like ships. Counterfeiters ship two hundred billion dollars’ worth of fake goods in them, or more than the GDP of one hundred and fifty countries.
In 2010, 544 seafarers were held hostage by Somali pirates. Today, the number held captive is around 100 seafarers.
Attack rates on seafarers exceed violent assaults in South Africa, the country with the highest level of crime in the world: 697.5 per 100,000 for seafarers, 576 for South Africa. (2012)
Life at Sea:
Only twelve percent of ship crews have freely available Internet access at sea. Two thirds have no access at all.
Two thousand seafarers die at sea every year. More than two ships are lost every week.
Filipinos make up more than a third of all crews worldwide. A quarter of a million of them are at sea.
In 2011, the 360 commercial ports of the United States took in international goods worth $1.73 trillion, or eighty times the value of all U.S. trade in 1960
Shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants than to pay Scottish filleters.
About the Book
On ship-tracking websites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy. We buy, so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work.
Freight shipping has been no less revolutionary than the printing press or the Internet, yet it is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, shipping revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of “flags of convenience.” Infesting our waters, poisoning our air, and a prime culprit of acoustic pollution, shipping is environmentally indefensible. And then there are the pirates.
Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates fishing trawlers and the harm they are inflicting on endangered whales.
Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization.
Read an Excerpt from Ninety Percent of Everything
Praise for Ninety Percent of Everything
“Rose George beautifully captures the surprising nuances of this little-known world: beauty and privation, pathos and greed, tragedy and hilarity. Her strong, spare, gleaming prose steams along, powered by curiosity, compassion, outrage. As a writer, a reporter, and a human being, George is—stand by for nautical term—First Rate.”
—Mary Roach, author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
“For a modern seafaring adventure, there couldn’t be a better guide than Rose George. Her intelligence, curiosity, and compassion shine through on every page to reveal a fascinating world that no one knows about, though it is fundamental to our economy and way of life.”
—Chris Anderson, Curator, TED
“The two greatest stories are supposed to be ‘A man goes on a journey’ and ‘A stranger comes to town.’ In this enthralling book, Rose George tells both: she goes on a voyage that few other journalists have accomplished, and she unveils the unknown seafarers who bring us all the world’s goods. Her sympathetic, deeply reported, and unexpectedly poignant account reveals the private, prickly, brave tribe on which much of our daily lives depends.”
—Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA
“To the classic incredible journeys—Moby Dick, Two Years Before the Mast—Rose George adds another, her voyage round the world aboard a container ship, revealing what happens before the big bang of merchandise explodes from the high seas into civilization.”
—Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer, coauthor of Flotsametrics and the Floating World
“The best books make you think about our world in a new way and Ninety Percent of Everything is definiyely one of those books. In this smart, lucid, and often beautiful investigation of the little-known world of freight shipping, Rose George finds new ways to illuminate our impact on the planet and explore that restless sense of motion that so often defines who we are.”
—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
“Rose George, with her precise and beautiful clarity of prose, has fired a brilliant star shell over the wine-dark sea and the ships that pass in its night, illuminating the invisible ocean industry that is essential to all of us.”
—Simon Winchester, author of Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
“Engrossing and revelatory... George not only explores a little-known world of commerce but also introduces readers to the many people who make shipping possible. That she does so with great empathy and self-effacing humor, much like Mary Roach, makes her subjects especially appealing.… George’s book is packed with telling anecdotes and detailed accounts, some funny, some shocking. If there’s a downside to her seafaring, it’s that it comes to an end too soon.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A fascinating account of the international ocean shipping industry and the arena it operates in, the largely ungoverned open seas.”
—The Seattle Times
“Mind-blowing... With its wide scope, voice of intellectual curiosity, and inter-ocean adventure, the book is reminiscent of Donovan Hohn’s popular Moby Duck.”
“Worth comparing to John McPhee’s Looking for a Ship... Offers a fascinating look at an anonymous industry affecting our daily lives, and gives a personal face to those working in that industry.”
—The Daily News (Galveston)
“Consistently illuminating in-depth analysis... An eye-opening maritime exposé.”