Give up Shipping Containers

We all know, if we know anything, that stuff has to be given up for the sake of the planet and human survival. Things like single use plastic, meat and dairy foods, planes and cars are polluters and destroyers we must do without or use less and less until they are given up. That giving up process is confusing and dispiriting, and seems too little and too late. What is needed, it seems to be, is something to give up which is big enough, and where every little really helps. My candidate for this is shipping containers.

I tackled the subject of containers in an earlier blog post entitled ‘Tagore and the Gunny Bags: making connections between the ruinous effect of plastic in our world and gunny-bag factories in Tagore’s day’. That was about the development in transportation technology in the 1960s including the invention of the container and of the plastic bag as the powerful successor to the hessian sack or ‘gunny bag’ in Tagore’s day. I also referred to the editorial in an issue of The Ecologist from 1993 which describes the Kondriatev cycle whereby the industrial economy seemed to expand and contract in waves lasting approximately 50 years, and links that to the suggestion by Andrew Tylecote that each of the boom periods is associated with the successful emergence of a new ‘technological style’, characterised by a new form of transportation.[1]

Historically the railways are the primary example of this phenomenon, although we should take account of their introduction not being a singular event. Every major introduction or extension around the world has created a boom from a capitalist perspective, and a new phase of exploitation of people and planet. William Morris, artist-craftsman and the ‘first English Marxist’[2] declared that ‘railways are ABOMINATIONS’.[3] This was partly aesthetic, an objection to the spoiling of the countryside, but also linked to Morris’s condemnation of imperialism whereby capitalism in a nation such as the UK requires a process of expansion into new countries, whose industries are destroyed in order to create new markets and sources of raw materials, a process facilitated by building railways in the subject territories.

It is ironic that the railways are nowadays seen as benign compared to road transport, especially the private motor car. The need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions to address the climate emergency surely demands big changes in car technology, usage and infrastructure, but it’s complicated, as shown by a recent Guardian article on ‘the changing shape of car culture’.[4] The article begins with a reference to motor sport star Lewis Hamilton declaring his support for climate action, and a fellow Formula One driver Max Verstappen countering that by saying ‘I like fuel. Can I say that? I don’t like electric stuff’. The article goes on to discuss the debate between those who favour the shift from fossil fuel to electricity and those who advocate less private road transport, more public transport, walking and cycling, and I would add less transport altogether with local community self-reliance.

I was intrigued that this article on changing car culture begins with the views of two motor racing champions. It made me think of the car as a man’s steed, a twentieth century version of the richly caparisoned charger of a mediaeval knight – the perfect alternative to the abominable railways for William Morris and his nineteenth century friends. Reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom recently, I thought of the car as man’s steed being like the thoroughbred camel of an Arabian prince, its luxurious saddle adorned with elaborate leather-work and plaited fringes.[5] Given the history, this is a male thing, despite women increasingly engaging in, and being followed and admired for, what were once male sports and enthusiasms. The deep roots of a macho attachment to the fossil fuelled car – even the Arab image seems apt – may help to explain both lingering climate denial and rejection of travel alternatives.

Returning to the main topic of shipping containers, I kept a clipping from the Guardian on 10 December with a disturbing news item entitled ‘Climate threat from Europe’s shipping emissions revealed’, which begins:

Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping equal the carbon footprint of a quarter of passenger cars in Europe and stand in the way of countries reducing emissions and limiting runaway global heating, analysis reveals.

Despite the scale of shipping emissions from both container and cruise ships, they are not part of emissions reduction targets made by countries as part of the Paris agreement on climate change.[6]

The news item refers to a report by Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based campaign group, which says that: ‘The shipping sector emitted about 139m tonnes of CO2 in 2018 – equal to CO2 from a quarter of Europe’s total passenger car fleet or 68m cars’. One container shipping operator, The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), moves consumer goods such as electronics, fresh fruit, clothes and toys, and is included in the EU’s list of top 10 carbon emitters, responsible for about 11m tonnes of CO2 emissions. In its defence, MSC claims to be operating ‘a modern, green fleet and is investing heavily in low-carbon technologies and extensive new-build and retrofit programmes to boost performance and minimise our environmental impact’ and that ‘MSC’s fleet improvement programme has resulted in a 13% reduction in CO2 emissions per transport work in 2015-18 and will help the container shipping industry make progress towards the United Nations International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) 2030 CO2 targets’.

The pledges which MSC makes are typical of big companies with vested interests in fossil fuels. The reductions in CO2 emissions per transport are genuine and welcome, although one suspects that the resulting cost savings will be taken advantage of by expanding the business, such is the compulsion of any capitalist enterprise. Listening to Radio 4’s Today Programme on 30 December guest edited by Greta Thunberg, we heard a spokesman from Shell making similar claims. When challenged on the proportion of Shell’s investment going towards alternative energy, he told us this was ten percent,[7] but still a large sum of money which, for instance, goes towards installing thousands of recharging points around Europe for electric cars. Asked when Shell will stop oil and gas exploration and extraction, he said this would depend on demand, citing the majority of UK householders (85%) being reliant on gas central heating. Mark Carney, retiring Governor of the Bank of England, and now with his new role as United Nations special envoy for climate action and finance, warned that firms have not yet woken up to the climate crisis and their assets could become worthless, but if all the oil and gas reserves were to be burned we would not meet our carbon budget and we would blow through the 1.5 degrees mark very quickly, and if they are not burned, ‘[u]p to 80% of coal assets will be stranded, [and] up to half of developed oil reserves’.[8]

Producers and suppliers of gas to households will not change their businesses until gas boilers and household heating systems change to other approaches and technologies. Similarly, producers and suppliers of fossil fuels for container shipping will not change unless and until the demand changes. Companies like MSC will continue to demand their fuel despite any green programmes they claim to be embarking on. Only the consumers of the stuff in the containers can have any effect on how much shipping is carried out. This is a hard concern to get excited about because container shipping, the containers themselves, and their contents are largely out of sight and out of mind. Indeed, the contents being out of sight has always been a big part of the appeal of this technology to its users.

To be motivated to take an interest in this aspect of dependence on fossil fuels, we all need to understand the enormous surge in the industrial economy and its impact on people and planet brought about by shipping container technology. The best source of information on this is not the critics of the technology but its admirers, including Freightos, a company established in 2012 as ‘the online freight marketplace’, providing automated booking facilities to freight companies, retailers and distributors, and hundreds of small businesses.[9] This company has a page on its website with all we need to know about the history of the shipping container, which ‘has radically transformed supply chains, fundamentally changed domestic and international economies across the world, and changed societies in the process – all the while driving trillions dollars in annual trade’.[10] For Freightos, its customers and all the other businesses which make use of shipping containers, this has been a success story, and the expansion since the 1960s when the container was invented is extraordinary.

The Freightos history page begins with the story of how in 1937 a single individual, a ‘small trucker’ named Malcom McLean, ‘fum[ed] at the slow loading of cargo aboard ship’, declared: ‘There has to be a better way’, and dreamt up the concept of the modern shipping container. His concept was adopted by the US Army in 1950 for shipping supplies for the Korean War. McLean went on to develop a ‘fitting system’ to lift and fix containers onto vehicles, and other technologies followed. In Western Europe container standards were adopted for rail, ship and truck. After that, in the 70s and 80s, the ‘container shipping industry grew exponentially. By 1973, US, European and Asian container ship operators are carrying 4 million TEUs (Twenty foot Equivalent Units). Export manufacturing starts moving away from ports.’ In the 1980s ‘90% of countries have container ports, up from 1% in 1966. By 1983, container ships are carrying 12 million TEUs, with trade routes extending to the Middle East, South Asia and Africa’. In the 1990s ‘Global Trade Takes Off. More types of goods are traded economically, and much manufacturing is transferring to developing economies. The rapidly developing Chinese economy rescues hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens from poverty’. In the 2000s ‘International supply chains grow more intricate and inclusive, supporting the growth of e-commerce’. In the 2010s ‘By 2013, 90% of global trade is seaborne, shipped in 700 million containers every year. In 2014, the shipping ports of America received $1.73 trillion worth of goods’.

Smoothing the path of trade over the past thirty years has had devastating effects on the planet. It is no coincidence that more than half of carbon emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have taken place in those same thirty years.[11] The economic picture is far from simple, as shown by two articles in New Left Review by Aaron Benanav. In ‘The Automation Discourse’ Benanav challenges the view that ever more advanced machines may lead to a ‘mass unemployment catastrophe’, requiring the introduction of universal basic income (UBI), by arguing that the trend towards underemployment is not due to automation but to a progressive slowdown of economic growth since the 1970s.[12] Benanav identifies one key consequence of his different perspective as to the cause of underemployment – and the ‘good job-less future’ in particular – is that full automation will not bring about a socially equitable post-scarcity world. The remedy for underemployment Benanav advocates is a post-scarcity world brought about by ‘the pressure of social movements pushing for a radical restructuring of social life’.[13] Benanav sees hope in the waves of strikes and social movements across five continents ‘protesting against the morbid symptoms of a long-term decline in the demand for labour’.[14] His vision of a wholly different world is appealing:

one in which the infrastructures of capitalist societies are brought under collective control, work is reorganized and redistributed, scarcity overcome through the free-giving of goods and services, and our human capacities correspondingly enlarged as new vistas of existential security and freedom are opened up.[15]

Benanav is a teacher in social sciences, hence his concentration on the social effects of automation, with scarcely any mention of environmental effects – just a suggestion that a carbon tax might accompany the introduction of UBI.[16] His ‘wholly different world’ could well benefit the planet as well as its people, but something more targeted than waves of protests about disparate symptoms of underemployment is needed to address the ecological crisis.

Returning – again – to those shipping containers, we might observe that the adoption and soaring success of this technology brought about massive unemployment, of workers in dockyards in particular. The Freightos automated booking facilities introduced in 2012 will presumably have affected workers on the administration side, previously requiring exchanges of faxes according to one of Freightos’s videos. But there is another aspect, involving a critique of Benanav’s argument about underemployment being due to the slowdown in the economy since the 1970s, rather than automation. A slowdown in the economy does not mean a halt, and when the economy grows however slowly the planet suffers, not only from the release of carbon from shipping or anything else, but also from the activities powered by the fossil fuels, especially various forms of land degradation and ruin, brought about by mining and agriculture, waste dumping and deforestation, construction and manufacturing, weaponry and warfare. And it is worth pointing out that some manufacturing regarded as ‘green’ such as making wind turbines and electric cars have carbon costs before they reach stages of carbon neutrality when in use. Electric car manufacture will continue to rely on shipping of component parts in containers, and in that respect be no better than business as usual, with just-in-time division of production exploiting government subsidies and infrastructure provision, and exclusion from carbon targets.

The conclusion my argument about container shipping has been working towards is that all those concerned about a sustainable future for life on earth, including human life on this planet, should shun this technology, and should campaign for it to be progressively dismantled. That recommendation may sound unrealistic to the point of absurdity, given how massive and out-of-sight and out-of-mind the global transportation system has become over the past thirty years. The way to look at shunning container shipping is to see it as not unlike the well established green lifestyle idea of cutting food miles.

I have often quoted Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Unit, who wrote ten years ago about local foods movements in the United States and elsewhere which had been growing massively without any need for government involvement.[17] One encouraging and interesting aspect of local food movements and cutting food miles is that they have health benefits for people and planet. There is evidence that food grown locally is more nutritious because it is consumed fresh, and local growers can cultivate more varieties if local consumers are interested and involved. The environmental benefits come from the viability of mixed small-scale farming and horticulture which benefits land, wildlife and soils, and cuts carbon emissions associated with industrial-scale monocultural farming, packaging and transportation.

The generalised aim of cutting miles for all consumer goods has similar benefits for people and planet. It can bring progress towards a revival of local communities and economies and culture, towards what I have called a ‘Tagorean world’ after the great Bengali poet and social reformer’s vision of ‘life in its completeness’ a century ago.

All we need to do is think about where everything we contemplate buying has come from. If the item would come from abroad at any stage of its production or assembly or packaging, then the strong likelihood is that container shipping would have been part of its story – so don’t buy it, find an alternative which is as local as possible, or do without.

[1] Simon Fairlie, Editorial ‘The Infrastructure Lobby: “The Slow Breathing of the Monster”’, in The Ecologist, Vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 1993.

[2] A.L. Morton, ed., Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979), p.21.

[3] J.W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (London: OUP, 1950 [1899]), p. 79.

[4] ‘The Guardian view on car culture: change is coming’ (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/26/the-guardian-view-on-car-culture-change-is-coming , accessed 28/12/19)

[5] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1997 [1935]), p. 61.

[6] Sandra Laville, (online Guardian title) ‘European shipping emissions undermining international climate targets’ (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/09/european-shipping-emissions-in-way-of-nations-meeting-paris-climate-targets, accessed 14/12/19)

[7] ‘Shell’s green energy plans are some of the most ambitious in the oil industry, despite assigning just a 10th of its spending pot to “new energies”.’ (Jillian Ambrose and Jasper Jolly, ‘Royal Dutch Shell may fail to reach green energy targets’, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/03/royal-dutch-shell-may-fail-to-reach-green-energy-targets [accessed 3/1/20])

[8] Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst, ‘Bank of England chief Mark Carney issues climate change warning’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-50868717 accessed 30/12/19)

[9] https://www.freightos.com/ accessed 31/12/19

[10] https://www.freightos.com/the-history-of-the-shipping-container/ [accessed 26/12/19]

[11] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (London: Allen Lane, 2019), p.4, Note 4, p.235.

[12] Aaron Benanav, ‘The Automation Discourse’, New Left Review, 119 (2019), 5-38 (p. 6) and ‘Automation and the Future of Work’, New Left Review, 120 (2019), 117-46 (p. 117).

[13] Benanav, ‘Automation and the Future of Work’, p. 143.

[14] Benanav, p. 144.

[15] Benanav, p. 146.

[16] Benanav, p. 133.

[17] Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175-8.

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