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Accelerate Risk

A blocked Suez shows how rapid progress can ratchet the impact of a mistake.

The grounding of the Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in existence, in the Suez Canal in 2021 shut down the flow of an estimated $10 billion a day in goods, further bruising a world economy already suffering from the pandemic’s impact. Hundreds of ships traveling in both directions were stalled for the six days it took to free her.

Acceleration, as in actual speed, was a factor: Pushing the throttle in the canal to counteract strong winds produced a chaotic “bank effect” in the flow of water around the vessel that contributed to a loss of control. The size of the ship made everything worse. A generation ago, one disabled cargo ship could hardly have slowed traffic. But the Ever Given is a modern marvel, as long as the Empire State Building is high and capable of carrying 20,000 containers—the result of decades of acceleration in shipping technology.

The disruption to traffic prompted some serious soul-searching and pushes for reforms in the global shipping network. The Suez Canal Authority promised changes that include widening of the channel to accommodate larger ships. Others involved have accepted various degrees of responsibility and vowed to do better. But the larger point remains: Rapid progress—toward greater size, speed, efficiency, iteration—can dramatically increase the risks from a single catastrophe. “You’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” as one expert remarked to The New York Times. 

The Titanic, a huge ship for its time and deemed unsinkable, claimed over 1,500 lives when it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. In 1985, 520 died in the crash of a single Boeing 747, the largest passenger plane in the sky at that time. Recent history is replete with individual pipeline and tanker ruptures that resulted in devastating environmental damage. And today, as artificial intelligence moves closer to achieving its promised goals, it has also raised fears—voiced by the late genius scientist Stephen Hawking, among others—that an unforeseen AI event could cause irreparable harm, even destroying humanity.

The moral of the story of the Ever Given grounding remains ever present: Acceleration must be accompanied by watchfulness. For any technology promising benefits on such a large scale, failure on the same scale must be anticipated. 

It’s a lesson that applies wherever progress is acting.

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PHOTOGRAPH: Samuel Mohsen/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Authors

Carlton Wilkinson
Carlton Wilkinson

Director, New York

Carlton Wilkinson is a Director and the Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review.