Without us, the world would come to a grinding halt, unfed, unfuelled and unlubricated. There would be precious little manufacturing, with no access to either raw materials or markets, all that "out of season" produce would rot in the fields and starvation would spread, grimly and inexorably, across the planet. Fanciful?
This frightful prospect would be a world without merchant ships; those wonderful, yet invisible conveyors of everything we need for modern 21st century life. They are as essential as electricity and potable water, yet just like the utilities we depend upon, we take merchant ships completely for granted. We fill our supermarket trollies and petrol tanks with abandon, without considering for a second how the goods and fuel are made so accessible. Only when a ship sinks, leaving oil in the water are folk reminded of our maritime dependence. Then people just tend to get angry.
It's a fact of life, and human nature, but we in the shipping industry ought to be concerned about the widespread public ignorance of what it is we do and the wide gulf that exists between our small maritime population and everyone else. We need some bridges to be built.
But it is only the industry that can bridge the gap? We, who understand the magic and mystery of ships, have to take more seriously the responsibility of telling the general public why they are so important, and why shipping is so fascinating an industry.
We have to recognise that our communication has not been effective, and that we have been too defensive and reactive in our approach. We should not wait until a tanker spills her cargo, before we tell the public something about the amazing energy delivery system that criss-crosses the oceans. We need to get in first and fast, as early as possible, so that children at primary schools learn about the amazing job done by modern shipping, before environmental interest groups present them with negative messages. We then have to keep up the pressure through the generations, as these children mature.
Is it so difficult? It depends how we go about the task. For a start we have to build our visibility. We are probably never going to get prime time television on network channels or positive front page stories on national newspapers, where there is a distinct lack of interest in "good news", but there are plenty of alternatives for interesting articles and features about ships and shipping people.
You can list some of the essential elements that the industry needs, if it is to promote awareness among the public.
We could do with a better political constituency and a higher profile, positive role models among both our industry leaders and senior officers.
We need to be more open and less secretive about our industry, boasting more about our many achievements. There is too much false modesty about. We should be cultivating the local media, making sure there is somebody who knows our managements and something about our business. We need to be more active in challenging the frequently wrong assertions that are made about ships and shipping by ill-informed journalists, but we should also
be asking why it is that they are so ignorant, and what we can do to make them better informed!
Above all we need leadership, along with a few heroic souls who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and support shipping and its institutions, telling the great story we have to recount.
Date: 07 September 2005