Year in a word: Ever Given

(proper noun) strangely-named cargo ship that got stuck between the banks of the Suez Canal in March causing shortlived chaos to global supply chains

It was a perfect news story. It lasted for about a week, just long enough to develop a narrative arc without getting tedious. It had something for everyone — the human interest of sailors stuck aboard for the sensitive; the hydrodynamics of a huge ship manoeuvring in a shallow narrow canal for the nerds; the childlike joy for anyone who has ever played with boats in the bath.

Of course, the serious lesson we were all supposed to take from the drama was about the fragility of globalisation. This reminder that Europe’s trade with Asia is at the mercy of a 150 year-old choke point was catnip to politicians already talking of onshoring and strategic independence.

Was Ever Given an inflection point in globalisation — the moment when we realised the international web of supply chains had stretched too far? Not really, no. Shippers used different routes, including around Africa, and companies ran down inventories. The international economy failed to grind to a halt. Global goods trade in the first quarter of the year continued to roar back from the shock of the pandemic, rising by more than 8 per cent for the big economies, and did OK in the second quarter too.

There have been much bigger disruptions to supply chains since, with a lively debate about how long they will last. In that sense, Ever Given might come to be seen as a harbinger of troubles to come. But in terms of its actual impact, it was basically a big boat stuck in a canal for a week and then freed. By the standards of 2021, that counts as a good news story.

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