Global General Average

The Evergiven crisis blocking the Suez canal and it on-rolling second order effects, not to speak of third order and possible longer term effects, will probably echo for month to come. One of the effects has been that the small specialist area of logistics, sea freight, trade routes and related themes, which have been a major thread within our work on the Turnton series of experiential futures, have blundered onto the world stage. The Bloomberg Odd Lots podcast interviewed Ryan Peters from Flexport, one of the largest logistics companies in the world, who until recently has been used to being treated as someone who is never lauded, but only condemned when things do not work perfectly. Suddenly logistics are everywhere, he is being asked to speak to company directors and finance podcasts, and we as a global community are beginning to see the intricate knots that hold our global state together unravel.

The six day delay that the Evergiven caused should have been merely a hiccup. A small hiatus in the ongoing, unstoppable development of international trade and transport. Whether the 90% figure of wares that are taken by sea has gone up or down since it was first analysed, the fact remains that a huge amount of what we do and consume tangentially or directly requires the logistics of getting stuff somewhere at the most affordable rate. Container shipping, like water, money and electricity, is a fungible resource, however like bandwidth and electricity, it only is valuable if you can get it when you need it. I cannot save up a transport or my download capacity to use later, like I can store a bottle of water to have when I need it.

However containers are fungible in the sense that each one is exactly the same as the next, at least as far as the stevedores and longshoremen are concerned. The great benefit of containerisation is that we no longer have to wait for a crane to pull a net full of sacks of grain from the hold of a ship, then reload the cargo net and do it again and again; we now unload a container filled with wheat as easily as one filled with televisions, artworks or a migrating family’s furniture and heirlooms. While a century ago it might have been possible to know what was in a package by looking at it, containers now say little about their contents unless they are refrigerated or some other special form.

Shipping has changed in so many ways over the centuries. Initially the only things worth transporting were luxuries like spices and silks from the far east for the courts of Europe and other goods in return. At some point it became worthwhile to transport wine and then grain, but luxuries stayed vital as the value of the freshest tea leaves can witness with the tea clippers racing from the Orient to London in the late 19th century. Another constant was the ocean. While climate change is making the seas a more dangerous place, it has never been easy to transport or travel over the oceans. Storms are perhaps the most natural of dangers, but piracy, shallows and other dangers lurk as well. In order to ensure a certain degree of fairness, imagine the following scenario. There is a storm. The ship is in trouble, with water washing over the deck and slowly filling the ship. The master of the vessel, in order to save it, must decide which cargoes to jettison in order to gain some buoyancy and keep the ship safe. Standing in front of a collection of boxes and barrels (in 1918), or containers (in 2018), a decision needs to be made. Which cargo will go? If we think too long, the ship will founder anyway and all will be lost. Long ago the cost of indecision was avoided by agreeing that, in such a situation, the crew could jettison whatever was necessary to save the vessel and its crew (as well as the remaining cargo) and that all cargo owners would share the costs of the jettisoned goods. This process is called General Average.

A journey over sea has always been seen as a venture. The ship would not travel without the cargo, the cargo cannot get there without the ship, so there is a collaboration in place. There is evidence that General Average has been used for more than 2800 years (the Lex Rhodia) as a way of dealing with the loss of cargo on ships: “What has been lost for the benefit of all must be made up by the contribution of all.” If a Rhodian captain had to throw the load of grain overboard in a storm to save the ship and the 100 amphora of wine on board, then the wine owners would agree to share the costs for those who had lost their grain delivery. General Average was formalised in modern times in 1890 and has been updated since then. It also applies to damage to ships and piracy. As with the Lore and Law of the sea in general, there is a long tradition of mutualism in seafaring. This is probably something to keep thinking about, but at another time.

Such decisions are hard. An ongoing debate in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles takes an old moral philosophy question to its conclusions by imagining the following (sometimes realistic) situation. You are a train controller at a railway station. A railway wagon of logs has broken loose and is running out of control down the railway line to a small countryside railway station. Schoolchildren are crossing the lines to board a waiting passenger train to return from a day spent at the national park. On the other side of the station an old man is crossing the lines to get to the passenger train. You can flip the railway switch (the junctions in the tracks that allow trains to change which line they are on) that will divert the runaway wagon of logs from hitting the children, but the wagon will then hit the old man. What do you do?

Autonomous vehicles will be confronted with such choices. The algorithms that decide their course of action will decide life and death. But they are then coded into software to be decided on the spot and quickly enough to save (some) lives. In fact we are often confronted with such choices: do we save lives in times of Covid with a lockdown but possible cause more problems from suicide and resulting economic drama? Do I drive too fast to get a victim to hospital and possibly endanger others on the road? Some decisions are made quickly, others take a long time. When time is of the essence, it helps to have a system in place to decide what to do. Ambulances have been given permission to drive too fast but have sirens and lights to warn the general population. Various governments decided various responses to the pandemic, from locking down the Australian borders to pretending Brazil had no issues. Some had thought about it before; too many had not.

In the shipping case, the decision is made in advance : jettison what you need. All the cargo owners on the boat will share the costs. The decision is now a bit easier. Jettison the cargoes that are catching the wind, that have broken free and are battering the ship from the inside, that are heavy and holding the bow down into waves that crash over the ship.

I daresay that one can pay more to have cargo stored lower in the vessel so that the likelihood of being jettisoned is lower. Lumber, on the other hand, is traditionally transported on deck. Should there be an issue, the load can be cut free to float off the vessel and thus save it.

We are in a storm. The world socioeconomic structures are sailing into the storm of climate change with engines on full steam ahead as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. However it is clear to most of us, that some of the socioeconomic cargo we are carrying will be a problem. Education systems are not causing the problems, neither are migrants fleeing from climate chaos. Cheap flights, coal fired power and massive economic inequity are definitely making the chances of surviving the storm lower. There will be losers when we jettison these cargoes, these parts of the good ship Global Civilisation, but we can call General Average and share those burdens proportionally among the owners of those cargoes. So the richest will contribute the most and the poorest the least, and somehow we will save the ship and weather the storm.

It only seems just.

This note is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) a artbased research project from the Institute for Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna und Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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