Illustration by Isabel Ríos

Trouble on the Suez: How Complex Systems Can Fail Spectacularly

The severe disruptions to global trade caused by the brief blockage of the Suez Canal showcase the perils of our current model based on just-in-time global trade and infinite economic growth. The future only stands to make these events more common.

Apr 10, 2021

A single container ship became wedged in a canal for nearly a week. No big deal, right? Wrong — about 12 percent of the entire world’s trade was blocked resulting in the disruption of global supply chains. Even as the blockage was dislodged far faster than the worst-case scenario predicted, commodities from furniture to coffee to gasoline stand to face price hikes and shortages throughout the world. Ships detoured through a much longer and riskier route around the Cape of Good Hope during the blockage which cost 400 million U.S. dollars in trade per hour.
If a quickly resolved disruption of one route can have such a ripple effect on the entire world market — creating a chain of economic impacts far beyond the goods it transports — does that mean our capitalist system has failed? Today the causes of these events might be as memeable as the errors of the Ever Given’s captain, but tomorrow it might be damage caused by a disaster supercharged by the climate crisis. With an increasingly globalizing world and interconnected supply chains, who is not to say that we will have many more Ever Given-like crises?
Globalization is the grand propagation of free trade and unfettered libertarian capitalism. But it is also the work of individuals who produce, ship and consume goods and services — and they are just as integral to supply chains as large corporations are. Supply chain disruptions, when they become severe enough, are not absurd events that hurt only the wealthy but genuine disruptions to the livelihoods of everyday people. The Ever Given could have run aground a few miles down on rockier banks, or during a busier shipping period, or during high fog and low visibility — any of these situations would have worsened the disruption. Dislodging the ship as it ran aground in our timeline required a coordinated effort by an entire fleet of tugboats, dredgers and salvage crews around the clock where any setback would have been deadly.
The biggest container ship in the world in 2007 carried only 8,000 containers; the Ever Given holds 20,000 and it is not even the largest ship in the world. These ships increasingly carry everything we buy through routes like the Suez Canal, which handles shipments from Asia to Europe. We have come to enjoy the cheap and rapid home delivery of goods from the other side of the world, but we fail to consider how perilous the arrangements that allow for this are. Taking them for granted leaves us with no contingency plan when things go wrong, as they are bound to, time and time again.
These systems that have come to define our world are as important as the human circulatory system. Like the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood around the body to maintain cellular respiration, global trade rests on ships being able to pass through every crucial route without any blockages. And the arteries are not very healthy as of now. The pursuit of more capital has led the world to neglect self-sufficiency and the maintenance of basic infrastructure, only prompting such action in a crisis.
This neglect does not always look like a system physically falling apart — with the Ever Given it is making ships larger and larger while failing to account for the consequences of one getting stuck. It can also look like the Panama Canal going a long time without any upgrades or the U.S. failing to maintain crucial Mississippi River dams. When action is finally taken it is just enough to keep the system functional until the next crisis occurs.
Some scholars, such as political scientist Laleh Khallili, hope that this disaster will lead to a reckoning of sorts for our globalized system and the inherent risks it creates. The large ships that pass through the Suez Canal are very efficient in minimizing labor costs, employing only 30 to 35 highly skilled workers, and maximizing output with limited resources. But what will this lead to in the future?
The 21st century end game seems to be a highly automated world where everything hangs by a thread — minimizing costs, inefficiencies and redundancies that reduce profits. But this can not occur infinitely, especially in a world where the climate crisis will increase the number of bizarre events that can leave important routes blocked and severely damage cities.
It is easy to think of the Suez Canal blockage as a simple tale of what happens when ships become too large. But so many systems in our world are becoming incredibly large and centralized — “too big to fail” without causing severe consequences. We skimp out on redundancies at our own peril. Imagine if 4 minutes and 37 seconds had led the Texas energy grid to total collapse. Imagine a superstorm taking a major world port offline or a similar blockage in the Panama Canal. We won’t have to imagine when the next major disaster occurs — failure to invest now is at our own peril.
Ethan Fulton is Columns Editor. Email him at
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