Suez-Maxed Out

At 07:40  on 23 March 2021, one of the largest containerships in the world, the Ever Given (400 x 59 x 21m) , was passing through the Suez Canal. After losing the ability to steer because of high winds the ship became stuck and blocked the canal, creating an economic choke-point. As many as 360 containerships piled up behind the Ever Given waiting to pass the canal. The blockade lasted for 6 days but the ripple effect is believed to continue for many months to come. We’re reminded of the words of science journalist Debora MacKenzie“It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down. To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity.” It seems that a big ship and a long canal, both intended to tackle the complex puzzle of an Ever Increasing consumer demand, have lived up to that analysis.

Since the beginning of containerization in the mid-1950s the capacity of containerships increased by some 4000%, from about 500 Twenty-foot equivalent units to over 21.000 TUEs today. The Ever Given is a ship in the so-called Suezmax category, a naval architecture term for the largest ship measurements capable of transiting the Suez Canal in a laden condition, and specifically designed to make maximum usage of the canal’s depth and width. The economies of scale continue to incite the use of the largest container ships possible while a shrinking number of harbours and canals are able to handle these colossal ships. They’ve simply outgrown the infrastructure leading to what is called a diseconomy of scale where higher output leads to increasing prices. Still, there are are even larger ship designs on the drawing boards, such as the Malaccamax class that is designed to just squeeze through the Strait of Malacca and could carry up to 30.000 TEUs. The question is if this will add to, rather than solve, the problems facing us. Perhaps we should ask the livestock, trapped on the Ever Given, how they feel about it.