I’m obsessed with the dang boat because people like me and you are not really supposed to be aware of what boats like her are up to. You’re not supposed to think about, or even notice, global freight, but the Ever Given has made cartoonishly noticeable some of the crucial infrastructure of global capital, which is usually invisible in most people’s daily life. She has done so with an absolutely sublime visual gag, improved by every new detail about the problems the ship is causing and every new photo of the impotent human measures being undertaken to fix them. Peruse the surrounding waterways on any of the internet’s maritime trackers, and you’ll find the beginnings of a far more significant problem: More than 150 other absolutely huge shipping vessels, transporting everything from live animals to crude oil, are waiting on either side; the barge ran aground at a point where the Suez has only one lane, which means that traffic is blocked in both directions.
Every time I add some new morsel to my stash of stuck-boat information, I’m reminded of those clips I used to love as a kid on America’s Funniest Home Videos, in which some guy gets nailed in the groin by his overly enthusiastic golden retriever. In this case, the guy is a complex web of financiers and shipping magnates and insurance companies, whom the sideways boat will cost approximately one zillion dollars. The Ever Given is standing athwart one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, yelling “Oops!” She is ruining everything, and at least for the moment, she cannot be (un)stopped.
Global shipping is an unglamorous business that has created some extremely glamorous fortunes, but mostly for people you’ve never heard of (unless you’re an art dealer). If you never, ever think about all the big-ass boats out there full of cheap clothes or baby strollers, the industry is working as designed. But a significant majority of your material possessions, including virtually everything you’ve ever bought from Amazon or Best Buy or Target or Walmart, was ferried most of the way from where it was manufactured to where you bought it on a ship similar to the one currently taking an extended smoke break in the Suez.
Containerization, the process that created a need for ships as incongruously huge as the Ever Given, is a relatively modern shipping process developed after World War II. It involves loading goods into big metal boxes the size of tractor-trailer beds and then loading those boxes onto boats in tall stacks that move among major global ports. Its proliferation has made moving large quantities of manufacturing components and consumer goods around the world more efficient and less costly—20 times less expensive by volume, according to one estimate, than traditional bulk shipping—which makes the things you buy less expensive. It also tempts corporations to shuffle their production facilities and the jobs that go along with them around the globe in search of lax labor laws, lower wages, and bigger margins.