The world was riveted by the week-long blockage of the Suez Canal in late March by a massive container ship, resulting in a colossal traffic jam in world shipping. (My favorite meme so far: “You may make mistakes, but at least they’re not usually mistakes that can be seen from space.”)
Ships have been stuck in the canal before, and trade has been blocked due to political conflicts for as long as eight years. But shipping volume in the canal has increased tremendously in the past few years, and any interruption in the smooth flow of goods is potentially catastrophic to an already weakened global economy.
The Suez Canal handles about 10% of global trade. If this industrial accident did nothing else, it has demonstrated just how easy it would be to stress the international supply chain by manipulating key bottleneck areas.
And bottlenecks are everywhere. According to this article, the most economically important global pinch-points are: The Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Bosphorus, the Strait of Malacca, and Bab-el-Mandeb. The Strait of Hormuz alone sees nearly 17 million barrels of oil pass through per day, and is considered the biggest choke-point to global supply. It is also a place Iran has frequently threatened to shut down over the years.
It should be obvious by now there are many loose screws on the international stage who would love nothing more than to impose shortages on the world through control of these choke-points. Couple that with the current administration’s attempt to once again make America dependent on everyone else for necessities such as oil and food, and you have a recipe for a disaster. Complex and highly interconnected systems are inherently vulnerable. That’s a certainty.
Sun Tzu said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” What better way to bring a nation to its knees than to eliminate its ability to provide for itself? And that, my friends, is the lesson of the Suez Canal blockage. The degree of interconnectedness in the global economy is extraordinary. Coming on the heels of 2020 (the Year from Hell), this blockage was icing on the cake.
Supply-chain shortages are becoming the New Normal. Case in point: We just spoke to a local electrical contractor who cannot obtain the ubiquitous plastic switch, plug and junction boxes that are essential to modern home wiring, which in turn delays him from fulfilling his contractual obligations. He’s not alone. Contractors everywhere are waiting months for basic materials. The chip shortage alone is wreaking havoc with dozens of major industries.
Lots of digital ink has been spilled on how to lessen a corporation’s vulnerability by stressed supply chains. I read an article offering advice to companies on handling handle shortages, which included: Planning for disruption; diversifying transportation options; finding local alternatives; and establishing an emergency backup plan in case supplies dry up.
But here’s the thing: Supply-chain shortages don’t just affect corporations. The above advice also applies to individuals. Not one of us can personally go and unblock the Suez Canal or any other pinch-point. We can’t speed up semiconductor manufacturing. There isn’t much we can do about the big scheme of what happens on the world stage. But we can understand the vulnerabilities inherent in the system, anticipate what kinds of supply-chain issues are likely to affect us and brace ourselves.
But how? What can we – personally, as individuals – do to mitigate how supply shortages could impact us? Everyone will answer this question differently, but if the national shortages of garden seeds, pressure canners, canning jars/lids and other expressions of self-sufficiency are any indication, people are taking this question very seriously.
“This reaffirms something I figured out about a year ago: Our civilization is too global for resilience,” one commenter wrote. “We need to localize as much as we can. Support your local brick-and-mortar stores, buy locally grown and locally produced when you can, and start a garden this year.” Another observed, “The world’s economies hang on a delicate thread.”
They say the worse things get, the smaller your focus should be. We can’t control what happens around the world or even in our own government. But we can control how we, personally, react. Maybe it’s time for everyone to shrink their focus and concentrate on the things that are most important in light of global supply-chain problems.
If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it taught us to distinguish between needs and wants. As millions lost their jobs, and far too many people lost their businesses and homes, wants took a far backseat to needs. And therein, perhaps, is the answer. We all have similar needs (food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care), but every single one of us has different wants. That’s the distinction we need to understand as we examine how to make ourselves (as individuals) less vulnerable to global supply-chain shortages.
“Western Economies are dependent on long exterior global supply chains to fuel demand for more and more consumer goods,” observed Blain’s Morning Porridge. “We’ve become comfortable to click and deliver being satisfied from China. Stuck in lockdown we’ve heard disembodied voices warning of economic catastrophe, but we’ve been cocooned from the economic reality, relying on governments assurances they can prop up the COVID ravaged economy with subsidy and furloughs. Destabilize our supply lines, and the threat is a run on everything – potentially making last year’s pandemic panic look tame.”
Remember Sun Tzu’s words: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” If an enemy tactic is to eliminate one’s ability to provide for one’s self, then the best way to fight against that tactic is to do everything possible to provide for one’s own needs, regardless of outside influences, and the only way to win is to make sure we – personally – cannot be made vulnerable. Well, let me amend that: We can work on making ourselves less vulnerable, but it’s doubtful we can do that and maintain a modern consumerist lifestyle.
Something to think about as the challenges of 2021 unfold.
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Author: Patrice Lewis
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