Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

  • Rose George
  • Metropolitan Books
  • 304 pp.

A freelance journalist shines a light into the far reaches of the secretive shipping industry.

Rose George is that person at a party you might try to avoid. You’ve overheard her talking with enthusiasm about toilets and the shipping industry, but you’re here to unwind and enjoy a little chitchat. Trust me. Go talk to her.

George, a freelance journalist living in Yorkshire, has brought her keen powers of observation and research to numerous publications. In a previous book, The Big Necessity, she narrates the story of humans’ toileting experience through a study of the cultural, bacteriological and psychological landscape of our body’s production. I haven’t read that one yet, but if her new book is any indicator, it’s time to go to Politics & Prose and grab it, too.

In Ninety Percent of Everything, George deftly outlines a central paradox about shipping: It is everywhere yet remains unnoticed. Preferring to hide behind a cloak of disarming dullness and ubiquity, the shipping industry is increasingly intent on downplaying any outward appearance of swashbuckling, high seas turmoil or excitement. The shipping industry, in fact, purposely tries not to be noticed and pestered by regulators, which has resulted in the mistreatment of workers (including rapes by fellow crewmen), often without legal recourse, and a failed “security” system. For example, U.S. ports receive 17 million containers a year and physically inspect only 5 percent of them. Thus, these Swiss-cheese-like security programs often miss illegal drugs, counterfeit goods and stowaways, who either are trying to attain a better life outside their country or forced into sex trafficking.

George picks an effective way to give her story a personal viewpoint. Tagging along on the Kendal, a “midsize” ship 300 meters long and 40 wide, George offers the reader a real sense of today’s shipping from the viewpoint of the rank-and-file employees who actually do the work. Not surprisingly, shipping is a hard and often monotonous grind. Food ranges from adequate to terrible: On the Kendal the food budget is $7 per person per day. The result is a lot of meals with badly cooked french fries and soup so thin you can see the china pattern at the bottom of the bowl.

And then there are the pirates. While George was writing the introduction to Ninety Percent of Everything, Somali pirates held some 544 seafarers hostage, but these pirates aren’t cute Jack Sparrow types. George claims that too often pirates are portrayed as “lovable rogues, child-friendly buccaneers, swashbucklers.” Instead, she describes pirates as “violent criminals.” Even outside Hollywood, pirates often receive respect: In 2010, for instance, Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the best business model of the year. Disgusted with Harvard’s praise of piracy, George reminds the reader that pirates killed 67 hostages between 1997 and 2010. The crew on board the MV Iceberg, the ship held hostage by pirates the longest, was reduced from 24 to 22 over three years of pirate captivity. At the end of the hellish ordeal, the German shipowners paid each survivor $1,000 to $2,000, depending on seniority. George again shows her disgust both with Harvard and the German shipowners by stating: “I work this out to be about eight dollars for every day of abuse, fear, and loathing. This is not a calculation I have seen done by Harvard economists.” George notes, however, that the German shipowners behaved reasonably well in other respects. They continued to pay the crew during the ordeal and sent supplies and other materials, as they were able.

The flaws in the strategy to thwart pirates aren’t really about tactics or firepower. According to George, the flaws are in the courts. Nations and local authorities generally shy away from prosecuting pirates. The United Kingdom and Portugal, for example, have never prosecuted a pirate. The United States’ record is only a hair better: In 2010 five Somali men became the first pirates since 1820 to be prosecuted under American piracy law. In other countries, there is tacit support of the pirate “industry.” George attributes part of the problem to jurisdictional confusion and badly written laws but directs most of her anger at “state cowardice.”

George also displays some disdain for do-gooder consumers who don’t want to think too hard about what they are buying. She warns the reader: “Buy your fair-trade coffee beans by all means, but don’t assume fair-trade governs the conditions of the men who bring it to you. You would be mistaken.”

Ninety Percent of Everything, however, is not without its flaws. The final quarter of the book drifts off course at points. George too often shifts the narrative from the Kendal and shipping to other maritime topics such as whale watching and rescue, bug collecting (for scientific purposes), aiding distressed ships, and impassionate pleading for merchant marines participating in World War II to be recognized for their service and bravery. While these topics are all worthy subjects, they probably don’t belong in this book. Still, if you ever get the chance to chat with George at a party, walk over and introduce yourself. You’re in for a pretty interesting evening.

Michael Causey, a past president of Washington Independent Writers, received this book via Express Mail, probably delivered by planes and trucks.


comments powered by Disqus