In a world of extraordinary complexity, at a time of enormous uncertainty, a big boat stuck in the Suez Canal took us back to a simpler time.
“The greater our knowledge increases,” said John F Kennedy in the speech that launched the US space programme, “the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
So it proved to be. We live in a world in which artificially intelligent algorithms make decisions about our lives that even their creators cannot explain. We live in the long aftermath of an economic crisis caused by financial products those who bought and sold them did not understand. And now we wait for an impending climate crisis, without quite knowing when it is going to happen, or whether it already has.
All this before turning to Covid: a disease whose complexities are far beyond the comprehension of most of us, for all the amateur epidemiologists Twitter serves up.
Amongst all this came joyous news. Not the arrival of vaccines, nor their surprisingly effective rollout, and not even the lifting of lockdown. It was instead the news that a very big boat had got stuck. Enter the Ever Given. Two hundred thousand tonnes of container ship wedged into both banks of the Suez Canal.
It was a story that none of us have ever experienced, but we all understood perfectly.
If you’ve ever rented a surprisingly big car while travelling abroad, then attempted a three-point turn, you know something of how the Ever Given’s Captain must have felt. The prickling heat, the boiling rage, then profuse and uncontrollable sweating. Finally, surely, unavoidably, tears.
We also knew exactly what was on that ship. The Ever Given was laden with things, not bitcoin or non-fungible tokens. The ship carried those things from a place where they were made, to a place where they would be worn, eaten, or perhaps made into other things.
To those of us with a working knowledge of nautical dramas, we even responded with appropriate trepidation to the news that other ships might be forced to round the Cape of Good Hope. On route, as Tom Hanks’s Captain Phillips can attest, be pirates. And may Anthony Hopkins’s Captain Bligh forever remind us of the perils of forcing your crew around a Cape.
To some, the Ever Given was a metaphor. A world in suspended animation watched a ship that, like us, had got stuck. But the true joy of the story was that it was the opposite of everything else we have grown used to. It was the thing we could understand in a world we so rarely can.
Better still, the only unreal thing about it was its impact. Analysts at Fitch, the credit ratings agency, expect insurers’ costs to run into the hundreds of millions. That’s a pain for their reinsurers, but reassuringly remote from the rest of us.
The cost to global trade, meanwhile, was pegged at £7bn per day. This number was quickly forgotten, a footnote really, to the story about a really big boat stuck in a canal. Global trade is in itself an abstract noun, the one part of this story we couldn’t understand as a “thing”. We could safely assume this would hurt someone else. Even if you tried to put the number in a little context, it just didn’t seem that big. Wasn’t a pound per person good value for all the entertainment we had?
The Ever Given’s beauty was to have been the antithesis to everything else. While Covid has been mysterious in its maneuvers, its impact has been painfully clear. While the financial crisis was hard to understand, we know we live in its shadow today. As the Ever Given sails on, it departs with our hope. If only all of our problems were as easy to fix as a boat that once got stuck.