William Langewiesche, 'The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime'

IssueJune - August 2004
Review by Marc Hudson

This book - “neither a lament nor a cheap forecast of doom” - is written in a kind of discursive hand-wringing fashion much loved by American journalists of the “left” (Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation), full of picture portraits standing for large (hush at the term) economic forces, local colour and exotic details. On the right subject, it works very well (see McKibben's The End of Nature, or Hertsgaard's Earth Odyssey). This case is less clear-cut.

It opens with a quick overview of the history of “flags of convenience”, which were an American tool to side-step their Neutrality Act and supply Britain in 1940-1. The flagging (especially Panamanian and Liberian) then became a useful way of cutting costs, getting subsidies, and hiding ownership and responsibility. It exploded in usage in the 1980s, spreading to landlocked nations like Bolivia.

Two chapters on the entirely predictable sinking of a superannuated freighter, and then the theft and recapture of a “Japanese” (one of Langewiesche's well-made points is that nationality is simply meaningless) ship in the Straits of Malacca follow, both well-written and relatively informative.

The last chapter, on the shipbreaking yards in Alang, India is excellent. He's been there, spoken to people, thought about the subject and the implications of the Western environmental campaigns.

The real problem lies in the middle. The sinking of the Erika in 1994, in the Baltic with large loss of life, led to a multi-governmental investigation and then a further “blame storming” exercise by the ship's German builders. There are even lurid conspiracy stories with KGB men and plastic explosives circulating on the net. So far so good, but that this is followed by chapter five, a 70-page prurient longeur, is exceptionally frustrating. Langewiesche is obviously an intelligent, diligent and observant journalist and has better uses for a third of a slender book than sub-Reader's Digest tales of survival and half-admired Darwinian struggle aboard a doomed Estonian car ferry.

For instance, there is nothing on the history of containerisation (whose implementation was crucially funded by the Pentagon and Vietnam War expenditure). He writes very little on oil slicks - certainly nothing on Exxon's heroic struggles to avoid paying fines for the Valdez disaster. Nothing at all on the entire cruise ship phenomenon, in which corporations like Carnival make a $1bn annual profit and pay virtually no tax, whilst strewing rubbish and effluent across the oceans. Nothing on disputes over maritime boundaries (eg the Timor Gap).

There is no index (but, since the book itself is fairly light on important facts, this isn't such a great loss), no bibliography or suggested further reading. It is hard to imagine that, other than chapters one and six, this slender book - essentially a series of cobbled together magazine articles, with occasional patch of purple prose - would be of interest to Peace News readers. A missed opportunity.

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