Cargo Ship Conundrum
The Spectator
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 by Jon Burras
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     As I peer out my kitchen window I am forever reminded of how grateful I should be to have an ever-present view of the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day from the shores of Southern California, I have an unobstructed view of Catalina Island. Every day this remarkable view is enough to awaken one's spirit and put one in a peaceful state of mind.

     However, the last few months my glorious view has been hindered by large, ugly and enormous cargo ships. One after the other, I have been besieged by monstrous floating steel transporters of the world's economy. These giant ships, often laden with thousands of containers, are waiting in the back-up line to be unloaded. Today there are around seventy ships anchored outside the harbor waiting their turn. Some days that number grows to over one hundred ships. We have a cargo ship parking lot on our hands.

     The sad truth is that I live over fifty miles from the nearest port. The ports have become so backlogged that ships are now anchored and waiting their turn far off in the distance. This entire episode (and loss of my perfect view) has made me question our entire global economy and how shipping plays a large role in that.

     As if the numerous ships parked offshore obstructing my view were not enough, now all of the beaches are closed due to a large oil spill. It is rumored that a cargo ship dragged its anchor across a forty-year- old crude oil pipeline and slashed a thirteen inch gash in the pipe. Some estimates claim that up to 150,000 gallons of crude oil were released into the ocean, soiling the beaches and killing wildlife. Not to mention the fact that I feel like I am in the middle of an Andromeda Strain movie as hundreds of workers in white hazmat suits comb the beaches looking for oil blobs. They could be looking for alien life for all I know.

    Is this the new normal regarding our dependence on shipping? How many more oil slicks can we expect? Why have we not begun to question the way we shop, transport and live our lives? Maybe now is the time.

     For instance, most people do not realize how much air pollution is created by the shipping industry. One large container ship produces the same amount of pollution as 50 million automobiles. Just fifteen large cargo ships produce more air pollution than all of the cars in the worldócombined. Imagine how much air pollution is created by all the cargo ships traversing across the globe at any one given time.  Even if you got rid of every gas or diesel automobile on the planet and replaced them with an electric vehicle, you would be wasting your time. The shipping industry is a far greater polluter by far than the entire world of fossil fuel driven autos. Why are we in such a rush to convert our transportation industry to an electric vehicle economy when this is only a drop in a bucket of the actual problem?

     There are over 17,000 cargo ships of all shapes and sizes currently operating in the world. There are also 323 cruise ships currently in operation adding to the global air quality disaster. There are also all the pleasure craft and the thousands of military vessels churning out their air pollution on a daily basis as well. The shipping industry is one of the major causes of global warming and we continue to ignore it.

                 To put things in perspective, the California legislature and the Governor (Gavin Newsome) just signed into law a bill banning the sale and use of gas powered generators, leaf blowers and lawnmowers beginning in the year 2024. While some might think this a heroic gesture, others see this as just more California lunacy. This act is like preventing a toddler from urinating in Lake Michigan and feeling good about yourself for saving the world's water supply. Leaf blowers and lawnmowers are not the problem. Enormous shipping vessels are the problem. When do we tackle real issues instead of playing games with politics? When it comes to common sense, politicians must have been missing when God handed out this skill.

                Another important piece of information is that the global shipping industry is responsible for the largest amount of ocean waste ever recorded. On average, nearly 1,400 shipping containers fall off these giant ships every year. Most of these containers end up sinking to the bottom of the ocean never to be seen again. Some years it is even worse. In 2019, over 16,000 containers were lost in the ocean from cargo ships. Most sank to the bottom. If you ever wonder why you still have not received your Nike tennis shoes or your Armani purse, it might be resting three miles beneath the surface of the ocean surrounded by starfish and plankton.

                There is an old seaman's expression that refers to the bottom of the ocean as "Davey Jones' Locker". With tens of thousands of shipping containers filled with a variety of merchandise now lying on the floor of the world's vast oceans, Davey Jones' Locker  has quickly become the world's largest department store warehouse.

               We just accept this as the normal part of doing business. Shipping companies seldom report the loss of cargo so we never really know where these metal containers end up. There is no law that says a shipping company must report how many metal containers were lost in an ocean crossing or where these containers might have ended up. It is rumored that a week or so ago,  a United States nuclear powered submarine ran into a large metal object on the ocean floor in the South China Sea injuring a dozen sailors.  Could this be a metal cargo container filled with perfume that had left China and never made it to the shores of America? Somehow we just accept this as normal and go on with our lives.

    There are many fingers to point in blame for the backlog of cargo container ships outside our ports. For instance, sixty percent of America's cargo enters the country from one large port on the West Coast called Los Angeles/Long Beach. On October 13th the Longshoreman's union struck a deal with the White House and the President to ramp up staffing and keep the port working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This is a fifty percent increase in how many hours the port had previously been opened and working.

     Why were the unions keeping the country hostage for so long and not ramping up staffing and training to alleviate a backlog like the one we are in?  If this were a country like China that was not subject to the demands of a union, the port would have been open non-stop a long time ago. As unions have become entrenched in politics and act as tiny nations themselves, we have seen how communities have become strangled by union activity. Just look how the teacher's union acted during the pandemic. Children's welfare was certainly not the first priority as kids were forced out of schools to the detriment of their mental health. Many people were furious that the ports were not previously open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to clear this back log. The union would not allow it.

     We also hear that there are not enough truckers to transport the cargo where it needs to go. I guarantee you that if you paid a trucker a decent wage you would find plenty of truck drivers. The average salary for a truck driver in California is $45,000 per year. The average salary for a member of the Longshoreman's union is $64,000 per year. If you gave truck driver's a fifty percent wage increase you would not have a difficult time finding drivers.

     Shipping companies complain that they would not be able to make a decent living if they had to pay truck drivers more. The irony is that two years a go a shipping container cost around $3,000 to transport goods from China to America. Now that same container cost closer to $20,000. Shipping companies still seem to be doing business despite this enormous increase.

     Next we need to examine why America has sent so much of its industries to other countries. Shame on us. The manufacturing industries like apparel, shoe, appliance, car, computer, smart phone and many others have no one to blame besides themselves. When you live by the unpredictability of the global economy you will also die by it as well. If we manufactured more of our products close to home we would not be in such a pickle. I think the CEO's of many companies missed out on the logic gift just like politicians did.


     It is very simple. Why do we need to transport so many products from far away. We need to bring our industries back home. I would rather pay a little bit more for a product that was made in America than a cheapened product made on foreign soil. Incentives should be in place to help begin this process. Two-hundred percent tariffs on products arriving on ships would certainly change the playing field. You could call it a "carbon tax". The shipping industry should be held accountable for its massive pollution problem. This tax would also help pay for the ocean cleanup from so many shipping containers lost at sea.

    Placing enormous taxes on ships and imports would be a great place to start. Why are we punishing people who drive gasoline powered cars by forcing them off the road into electric vehicles when this is hardly the problem at all? When will politicians and the general public wake up?

    Also, why not develop massive industries in Mexico and Central America that could replace China. Many people in these areas need work. They would not have to try to illegally sneak into this country if they had a good paying job in their own home country. We could keep manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere and closer to home.

    We could also develop an advanced electrified railroad system where we could transport containers on box cars up through Mexico and into the Untied States. This would eliminate much of the shipping industry and its waste and pollution. This system could use alternative energy sources like solar or wind to generate the electricity needed to power the trains. It would be environmentally friendly and very efficient.

     In the meantime we will be stuck with global backlogs, oil spills, massive environmental pollution and thousands more shipping containers being lost at sea. In the past you might have gone into a large box store and asked the clerk which aisle you might find a size thirteen beach sandal. In today's environment you might find that same sandal somewhere between Japan and Hawaii in the dark crevices of the ocean floor. Maybe it will become a nice home for a family of groper fish. Perhaps something good will come from this shipping crisis after all.