Cash for clunkers, the maritime version

Many years ago I came across an article by William Langewiesche in The Atlantic called The Shipbreakers. It contained amazing pictures and an equally remarkable story about the process by which ships are broken down and sold for scrap steel in a place called Alang, India. This is what Alang looks like from space. The ships are driven onto the shore at high tide and then set upon by an irregular army of shipbreakers. Low-tech and dangerous it may be, but it’s also extremely efficient.


Just this month Paul Kedrosky wrote about one effect of the Great Global Downturn: lots of idle cargo ships. One way to eliminate market overcapacity is to destroy the ships in question, and this is happening at breakneck speed, making places like Alang busier than ever. Read about it here: Destroying Market Overcapacity — Literally.

When you zoom into Alang using Google Earth, it’s easy to imagine you’re using a microscope to examine a living (though perhaps unwell) organism. These ships are the red blood cells of our economy, and when they get old, their iron needs to be reclaimed. That makes Alang a sort of global liver. Our livers manage toxic waste, something that Alang is very familiar with, although less skilled at neutralizing. From this vantage point, tiny unseen workers are digesting and devouring the dying hulks, mobilizing the steel for coagulation in some other port. You get a very biological sense of decay watching the process. It reminds me that, though we attach gloomy metaphors to it, biological decay is itself a complex engineering feat.

If you’re intrigued and want to see more pictures, I found this fun article about Alang at On The Road To Alang, by Peter Knego.