In 1996, the late essayist David Foster Wallace described his excursion on a cruise liner as a “special mix of servility and condescension.” He exhaustively journaled every event, person, and feeling during a seven-night, all-inclusive voyage. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he found it insulting that in the name of pampered luxury you are told what to eat, what will entertain you, what will relax you. No matter how many unlimited shrimp and lobster buffets, Wallace found the repetition so banal as to be infuriating.
When a ship docks for a few hours, cruise lines give passengers suggestions of what to do with their time before returning to the boat. But instead of offering sincere recommendations, cruise lines employ a certain pay-to-play model in which vendors on the island can pay to be recommended.
By registering their companies in foreign countries, cruise lines are able to dodge not only corporate income and property taxes but also labor, environmental and insurance laws. Carnival earns $3 billion yearly and pays zero income tax because they are registered in Panama. For Carnival, Panamanian minimum wage laws cost it from $1.22 to $2.36 per hour, high by industry standards. Royal Caribbean is incorporated in Liberia where the minimum wage is $4 to $6 per day. Norwegian Cruise Lines is registered in Bermuda, where there is currently no minimum wage. According to CruiseCritic.com, crew members in housekeeping or food and beverage may only get $2 a day. Tips make up 95 percent of their income.
All of that is really inconsequential compared to the real horrors of the 30-million passenger, 100-billion-dollar industry, where building an 8–figure ship can pay itself back in as little as 5 years, after which it’s all profits. Each ship has the pollution footprint of a small city, nearly unregulated and unpoliced.
Instead of paying for more expensive but less sulfuric fuel, such as liquefied natural gas, ships are installing “emission cheat” systems, called scrubbers. A scrubber allows ship to wash cheap fuel and meet the IMO requirements, then discharge the pollutants from the cheap fuel into the ocean.
The two most popular cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, both received a D score from environmental advocacy group Friends of Earth, which tabulated the score based on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and transparency.
— Aditi Shrikant, vox.com
The volume of wastes these floating cities produce is large — sewage; wastewater; hazardous wastes; solid waste; oily bilge water; ballast water; and sooty, sulfurous air pollution. Cruise ships can emit as much particulate matter as a million cars every day and the air quality on deck can be as bad as the world’s most polluted cities. Researchers found that the air on the upper deck of the Oceana Rivera, downwind from the boat’s funnels, had 84,000 ultra-fine particulates per cubic centimeter, about a third the concentration measured directly above the stacks. Air quality in London’s busy Piccadilly Circus, using the same recording devices and found 38,400 ppcc. That 84,000 reading is closer to what you might find on a hot day close to the center of smog-choked Delhi or Shanghai.
Pampered passengers produce up to 7.7 pounds of consumer waste per person per day, from supersoft toilet paper to plastic water bottles. Many ships shred their plastic to save space, but some take advantage of the difficulty in monitoring ocean microplastics to discard it with treated sewage and greywater. Because cruise ships tend to concentrate their activities in specific coastal areas and visit the same ports, their cumulative impact on a locality can be significant. In US coastal waters, the Coast Guard has regulations prohibiting the discharge of oil or oily mixtures into the sea within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the nearest land, except under limited conditions. However, because most cruise lines are foreign registered and because the rule only applies to foreign ships within U.S. navigable waters, the regulations have little effect on cruise ship operations.
In 2015, the MV Zenith, owned by a Spanish subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, dropped anchor near a reef off Grand Cayman. Actually, it was more like “dragged anchor.” The anchor chain “draped across the entire reef, constantly moving back and forth.” The damage was immeasurable. In 2017, MV Noble Caledonia ran aground on an Indonesian reef, removing 1,600 square meters — about 17,200 square feet — of coral. Were it not that corals are declining worldwide due to climate change, the reef might repair itself in 100 years. Now the damage is permanent on any timescales humans can fathom. And these are only among the incidents we know about.
What cruise ships are really about is legal rape of the environment by the wealthiest countries and their one-percenters. Each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land.
Overpaid or financially independent, the average cruise taker is not a pensioned postal worker, but a 30- to 39-year-old pulling down a high five- or low six-digit annual salary. In wealthy countries where governments tell their citizens to fear and revile other peoples and places, cruise lines offer the illusion of secure vacation travel. If you don’t want the risk or hassle of booking hotels, rental cars, tour guides and restaurants in unfamiliar destinations with a language you don’t speak and a culture you little understand, or care to, then for about the same price as an economy flight and all-inclusive resort you can get all that taken care of and have the security of familiar, unchanging culture constantly surrounding you. So what if your unchanging culture is the worst form of throwaway consumerism? So what if it is killing sea birds, whales, and dolphins? So what if you are flouting the Paris Agreement (which cruise lines finagled their own special exemption to)? So what if by purchasing your ticket you enter a tacit agreement to end homo sapiens evolutionary line this century? You only live once, right?
Tell that to your grandchildren.
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