Sunday, May 4, 2014

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

My bestie in New Mexico doesn’t typically recommend nonfiction books, so when she recommended that I read Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, I knew it must be good, and it was. The title tells you exactly why this book is interesting and why you should care about the shipping industry. We should care because 90% of everything we touch and consume comes to us on gigantic yet virtually invisible cargo ships, dramatically impacting the global economy.  This frequently quoted passage from the book illustrates the financial issues at stake. Shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent 10,000 miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters. 

Ninety Percent of Everything is a well-written and intriguing chronicle of the obscure, yet curious world of maritime transportation as told by 20-something-year-old journalist, Rose George, who was a 5-week passenger on a Danish cargo ship. For example, a vast majority of the people who work on cargo ships are Filipinos because they will work for almost nothing, accept being with their families just a few weeks out of the year, and they speak English. And then there’s the “flag of convenience rule” which allows ships to register under the flag of countries with notoriously lax shipping safety and security regulations.

If you’ve seen Tom Hanks latest, “Captain Phillips” you have a pretty clear idea of what modern-day piracy looks like, and George (pictured) deals with this topic as well, when she spends a week with the Portuguese Navy patrolling for pirates. Her accounts however, are even more bloodcurdling, as she sheds more light on the frequency and brutality.

I found it ironic that although about 2,000 seafarers die each year and two cargo-ships go missing each week, we never hear about it. Is it the lawless nature of the business that allows these issues to be swept under the oceanic carpet, the “cheapness” of the lives of the crews, the millions of dollars at stake, or all of the above?

I remember in 1968 when it was reported Jacqueline Kennedy was marrying a shipping magnate, Aristotle Socrates Onassis. Why in the world would our former First Lady get involved with a Greek in the shipping business, I wondered? Well, I understand now. Shipping is very big busine$$. And it is an intriguing business, especially as told by Rose George.

So, yes, I recommend you read Ninety Percent of Everything.  And by the way, I’ve heard her other book, The Big Necessity The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, and which is on my bedside table waiting to be cracked, is equally fascinating.

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