Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The greed, corruption and the disasters aboard The Outlaw Sea

From The Week of November 25th, 2013

For as much as globalization and the Internet have helped to homogenize human civilization, humanity remains fractured, an assembly of nation states which possess their own ideas, ethics and agendas. Certainly, there are occasions in which these national interests overlap, prompting some of the world's countries to accrete into blocks which act to achieve a common goal, but for the most part the international spirit, not to mention international law, is little more than a glossy veneer for strong nations to impose their values and their desires upon weaker ones, leading to conflict and discord that sometimes takes decades to unravel. For most of us, this is simply the world we live in, a known commodity that we can no more alter than ignore, and yet, this divisiveness causes real damage, a truth made frighteningly apparent in William Langewiesche's excellent work.

Earth is a misnomer. For the surface of our world is more than 75-percent water, an intractable, unfathomable oceanic expanse that is as eternal as it is ever-changing. It is not only a necessity for life on land, serving as the source of both our food and, indirectly, our water, it is, even in the 21st century, the primary means by which humans shift resources around the world. Without the oceans, international trade, the mechanism upon which all our economies rest, would be much more costly and complicated, having to take almost exclusively to the skies.

However, despite the inarguable value of this commonly held resource, the laws and the practices that characterize international waters are a strange mishmash of traditions and might-makes-right mentalities that make traversing it less than ideal. For not only do captains have to be aware of natural hazards that can sink their vessels, they must also combat the threat of piracy which is a profitable trade, particularly for those who come from impoverished countries and backgrounds. These risks, along with the inevitable corporate greed which precludes merchant vessels from being properly maintained, ensures that our oceans will remain a dangerous, alien place for decades to come.

Operating brilliantly at the intersection of nature and human avarice, the Outlaw Sea serves as an excellent primer on the commercial state of our modern oceans. Shaped by two telling sea-born disasters in the last 15 years, the MS Estonia, a passenger ferry, and the Crystal, an aging freighter, it sets out to illustrate the perils and the imbecility that often governs human activity at sea. In this, it is a success, a well-reasoned and carefully methodical takedown of a culture crying out for reform and oversight. For while most of the captains who steer these mammoth vessels may be creatures of honor and respectability, they are in the employ of corporations that not only put their lives at risk by making a sham of inspection processes, they deliberately set out to limit their liabilities for spills and disasters, hiding behind false flags and meaningless registries to obscure the extent of their culpability and responsibility.

And yet, as Mr. Langewiesche details at some length, it is difficult to enforce an international standard of any kind when such a standard is bound to be against the interests of at least some of the nations that make up our world. And given that all nations must trade in order to survive, and that trade over water is essential, then it becomes much easier to subvert and ignore these standards than it is to face the prospect of lost profits. And of course, these are the governments who actually have a sufficient grip over their own affairs to act one way or the other. There are many more failed nations who lack even this minimal amount of control, allowing private interests to run roughshod beneath flags with already tattered reputations.

Mr. Langewiesche is a thorough journalist who clearly cares deeply about his craft and the subjects he investigates. And while this may, at times, cause him to fixate on seemingly small details in the grand pictures he's presenting, this is more than compensated for by his ability to expose and communicate the dirt, the grease and the grime that we have allowed to accumulate upon the gears that make up this great machine we call commerce. If he strikes a somewhat pessimistic tone as a result of this reporting, well, one needs only read his chronicles to understand why. For reform can only flower when powerful interests are properly checked and there seems little hope of that when so much wealth and advantage is at stake.

A chilling and revelatory glimpse of a world we never see... (4/5 Stars)

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