When the massive container ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal last week, the internet generated endless memes about it, while media coverage has focused largely on the economic damage—with some estimates as high as $10 billion—caused by delays from so many other ships backed up at the canal. Part of the narrative running through this coverage has been that the accident demonstrates the fragility of global supply chains and how easily one ship’s miscalculation can disrupt trade all over the world. But is that the story?

According to Charmaine Chua, the author of Logistics Leviathan, a book about supply chains in trans-Pacific trade—and an assistant professor in the Department of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara—the Ever Given incident shows something more: After 40 years of deregulation and offshoring, global trade is stuck in a pattern of low-wage, often exploited laborers churning out products transported by an environmentally destructive shipping industry—the linchpin of the global trade system—through ports, the cost of which leave developing countries mired in debt.


Michael Bluhm: What do you think this whole episode means?

Charmaine Chua: Part of what’s been interesting to people is that the entirety of the global supply chain can be so significantly stopped or interrupted by the simple fact of a boat being stuck in the middle of a channel. The language of the fragility of supply chains is, in part, misleading. Supply chains are not so much fragile as they are incredibly robust and resilient forms that are built across massive global networks—where a single Nike shoe can be designed in Oregon, then engineered in South Korea, produced in a factory in Indonesia, boxed with paper that comes from New Mexico, and so on.

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