The COVID-19 pandemic is making us aware of some serious problems with our supply chains. Toilet paper, hand sanitizers, and iso-propyl alcohol are still hard to find on store shelves. Personal protective equipment shortages have been felt by everyone. Potato farmers, losing their huge commercial market with restaurants, bars, and cafeterias shut down, have given away or dumped their crop. Dairy farms are pouring out milk they would normally have delivered to schools. The international market for crude oil collapsed and created a storage shortage, forcing producers to pay people to take the stuff off their hands.
And those are just a few examples.
I’m not informed enough about the global supply chain to make judgments. I’m not looking to point fingers, unless it is squarely back at me and you. We want all this stuff and we depend on a goofy global mess to make it work. I’m amazed it works at all! One factory in China, for example, could make a part needed by several industries all over the world and if that factory shut down all of those businesses would be impacted. Another example is the consolidation of the meat-packing business here in the States. It’s more efficient but the food supply is more vulnerable. When plants closed due to sick workers stores ran out of meat. Big chunks of our economy depend on systems that have real bottlenecks. If something plugs up that bottleneck everyone downstream gets hurt.
If you read naval history (like A.T. Mahan, for example) they always talk about choke points. A choke point is a narrow passage, like a strait, or an entrance to a bay, that could be defended by a relatively small force. Control of the choke point could thwart a superior enemy’s plans by closing off their access to your waters. The land equivalent would be the Spartans defending the pass at Thermopylae.
Our intertwined global economy is full of bottlenecks and choke points. Clearly we have to become more robust, with multiple sources for raw materials and other products. Industries have to plan better for disruptions and be more flexible.
You can get a great picture of the long and narrow threads that hold our world together at vesselfinder.com. You can zoom in on any part of the globe and pick out a ship. You can see Liberian oil tankers, Singaporean bulk carriers, and Maltese container ships plying the sea lanes in real time. Or check out flightradar24.com and find a plane. Did you know a large amount of cargo is delivered by passenger jet? When flights were cut it lead to delays and shortages. Look overhead and track down that contrail. For me it’s probably the Los Angeles (LAX) to Portland (PDX) run.
We are all knitted together by marine diesels and aircraft gas turbine engines! Not to mention the ribbons of asphalt and concrete that snake across our lands, and the motors of all sorts that power the rubber-tired beasts that prowl them. Like I said, I’m amazed it works as well as it does. People don’t seem to be that organized, but somehow they get this whole thing to hold together, even in a pandemic.