There are hundred reasons why people start blogs; mine is unease. Unease with the current state of shipping, and unease with the lack of critical discussion on it. Shipping is essential to world trade and the well-being of nations, which seems to have made it immune to fundamental questions.
Questions such as: Do we always need more trade and more shipping; is shipping not actually too cheap, because all kinds of external effects are not taken into account? Is it logical to promote shipping as a clean transport mode when its exhaust gases are thousand times more toxic than of cars? Why subsidise a sector that only seems to be shredding jobs rather than creating them? Is it normal that ports crawl to every whim of shipping lines, but remain insensitive to local firms, population and the public interest? Does it make sense to throw public money at ports without coordination and then be surprised that some of them are empty?
These questions need answers. Answers that go beyond the regular shipping mantras, such as “the crucial importance of shipping to world trade”. We know this, we recognise this, but we need to address the essential questions that come with shipping, even if these are painful.
This is not taking place. The way shipping and ports are treated in the public debate is simply unsatisfactory.
The specialised maritime press identifies highly with the sector: some stay alive by organising conferences (sponsored by the industry), some sell data and services to the industry, and others have writers that come from the industry. So, more of a mouthpiece than a gadfly, in most cases. In all fairness, there are exceptions to the rule. The Journal of Commerce does not shy away from criticising US ports. And one cannot but admire the attempts of Splash 24/7 and The Loadstar to develop a more independent and critical shipping press.
The mainstream media usually do not follow shipping on a regular basis. This often results in barely disguised naivety and awe for the just discovered industry: wow, this ship is huge, this port is enormous! Understanding the sector takes some time and most reporters have other assignments before asking the tough questions – and being able to ask them again and again. Of course there are also exceptions here. The NYT ran a series of critical articles just recently. The main financial newspapers and agencies such as FT, Bloomberg, Reuters, have dedicated shipping reporters, although part of their information sources come from “industry experts” wanting to buy or sell shares of shipping companies. A commendable effort to follow shipping and freight transport on a daily basis is undertaken by the Logistics Report of Wall Street Journal.
Think tanks interested in shipping are remarkably scarce. The main intelligence on the industry is provided by specialised consultancies, often with their hands tied because of their clients. Only the most reputable ones can afford to be critical now and then: for example the shipping industry guru Martin Stopford. The most critical think tanks that cover shipping are – perhaps not surprisingly – the environmental NGOs. The work of Civic Exchange has been instrumental in reducing ship emissions in Hong Kong. Various other groups, such as T&E and Nabu regularly manage to provoke debates on greening shipping.
Academics could play a critical role, but they are all too often far away from industry or policy makers. Some, on the contrary, are too close to the maritime industry or other organisations (IMO, EU) to be really critical. Rare are scholars with practical experience in the sector, academic credibility and the willingness to raise the fundamental issues. One of these exceptions: professor Haralambides.
One regularly reads about how shipping could become more visible and more convincingly make its case, but it actually does very well in making its case – discretely via the old boys networks and support to friends of the industry. This operating mode seems to work well for most of the industry. However, this is not necessarily in the public interest. The public interest is served with shedding light where darkness reigns.
That is what this blog wants to do. Ask the painful questions, provoke the discussions that are needed, comment on what happens. Because a sector that is so important needs a serious discussion. Not out of belligerence, but as a sign of love.