What is the ship-blockage at the Suez canal teaching us?
Are We Resilient Enough to Handle Adverse Events?
The recent running aground of the ultra-large container ship the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, which has been obstructing hundreds of merchant vessels and delaying delivery of goods valued in the tens of billions, has given us pause for thought.
A sandstorm is usually no match for a 200,000 ton mega-vessel, but when navigating a narrow waterway that was designed 150 years ago, it has the potential of wreaking havoc and affecting thousands of businesses and millions of consumers.
Economies of scale have for decades driven the need for cost-saving measures, leading to the impressive technological wonders such as ultra-large container vessels which have almost become the norm these days. What is alarming is that the infrastructure was never designed to handle such enormous vessels. The Suez Canal blockage illustrates quite vividly how technology has progressed but infrastructure (and nature) has remained relatively unchanged.
The ramifications of the Suez Canal blockage of course pale in comparison to the Covid-19 Pandemic but is eerily similar: in spite of spectacular medical advances this past century, the world stood powerless in the wake of a single virus that paralyzed the entire planet, crippling major industries and costing the global economy tens of trillions of dollars.
It is high time governments and corporations begin examining just how susceptible we are these days to hiccups of this nature, because these are bound to increase in number. While the Covid-19 pandemic and the running aground of the Ever Given can be seen as rare, isolated incidents, humankind is far more vulnerable in this day and age due to being more interconnected than ever before. As technological advances are beginning to converge and enable us to accomplish even more astounding feats of engineering, we need to be wary of the fact that a chain is never stronger than its weakest link. Due attention has not been given to what can, and probably will, at some point, go wrong, and how devastating the ripple effect can be.
In the agricultural industry, resilience is key, and we should let this ”beached whale” in the Suez serve as a potent reminder that we are far from invulnerable and often at the mercy of sometimes centuries-old infrastructure.
Innovations like CRISPR and ultra-violet LEDs are great, but if we can’t get a hold of basic inputs for growing our crops because of a locust invasion or dispute somewhere in the world, these innovations are all for naught. There needs to be an equilibrium between what technology can do and what the forces of nature can cause. When an innocuous sandstorm can cause front page news over the whole world, and the current uptick in sudden-onset weather events, it is evident that there is a severe disequilibrium. The economies of scale that we have built up, may therefore pose more of a threat than an asset. As the old proverb goes, ”The bigger the tree, the harder she falls.”
By Adrian Rosio