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the outlaw sea

22 August 2005

William Langewiesche's Outlaw Sea is an interesting commentary on the intersections among ecology, economics, technology, and psychology. The ocean covers most of the Earth, is the great highway for the globalized economy, does pretty much what it wants with even our most vaunted technologies, and gives people scope to act outside the rule of law, in a state of savagery that is usually anything but noble.

A thousand years ago, economies were largely local things; you ate and used things that were produced within a few miles of your home, except for a very few luxury goods carried over tenuous overland routes. A hundred years ago, economies were largely local, supplemented by a fair amount of marine commerce of the kind that built the Dutch and British mercantile empires. Nowadays, I'm writing this review surrounded by machines constructed in Malaysia and China, sitting on furniture shipped in bits from Sweden, drinking coffee that claims to be the product of fair trade in Nicaragua, wearing clothes sewn in Guatemala. Only my coffee mug and Langewiesche's own book were manufactured in the USA.

Most of my stuff got to me, at least part of the way, in container ships crewed by mere handfuls of expendable underpaid sailors. The ships themselves vary greatly in seaworthiness. They are subject to almost no law. Flying the flags of Malta or Fiji or Liberia, the ships have probably never seen their home ports. Nor have their owners or managers. Murder at the hands of pirates is a constant risk. When the ships arrive in port, it's almost impossible to tell whether they are carrying components of home electronics or weapons of mass destruction.

That's the main reason why stuff is so cheap in the United States: it's made elsewhere by workers who get a fraction of the pay Americans would, and shipped here at rates that are absurdly low because the entire global shipping industry is run on the flimsiest of shoestrings.

Sailors are not only badly paid; they run frightful risks of sudden death in shipwrecks and slower death from toxic environments. Much of The Outlaw Sea consists of shipwreck stories; in fact about 2/5 of the book is a single narrative of a ferry disaster in the Baltic, the loss of the Estonia in 1994. The wreck of this giant passenger ship, with hundreds of casualties, is typical of present-day conditions that demand speed and overlook problems with design and maintenance of ships. As Langewiesche points out, the reason the Estonia became famous is that middle-class Europeans died; similar disasters befall Third World sailors without a bubble surfacing in the global media.

Langewiesche concludes with a remarkable depiction of the Indian shipbreaking industry, where most of the world's completely unsailable ships are dismantled by small armies of men with hand tools. These workplaces are among the most poisonous on Earth. But Langewiesche isn't entirely in sympathy with first-world activist groups like Greenpeace who want to regulate or even close these hazardous breaking yards. Taking the long view, he sees the swarms of shipbreakers, their lives cheaper than the metal they work with, as almost an organic triumph of the human spirit. They are doing manly work in a world that is inhospitable to human endeavor. By contrast, the Greenpeace activists he interviews come across as shrill and ignorant (and female, perhaps not incidentally). It's a curious element of The Outlaw Sea: in doing so much to raise consciousness in the West of the hideous conditions in our shipborne economy, Langewiesche ultimately is more in sympathy not just with with the workers but even with their rapacious bosses than he is with those Westerners who are working to meliorate conditions.

Langewiesche, William. The Outlaw Sea: A world of freedom, chaos, and crime. 2004. New York: North Point Press, 2005.