Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The box that changed Britain (and the world)

I confess. I love a good doco. And we saw a fascinating one recently, called The Box that changed Britain. Unfortunately for UK residents, it has now expired on iPlayer (I should have mentioned it earlier).

In any case, the box in question is not, as you might have expected, the idiot box that has changed our recreational patterns, language, economic expectations, cultural awareness, attention spans, visual literacy and waistlines.

No, the box that changed Britain (and the world) is the humble shipping container (technically, an "intermodal container"). Prior to the invention of this now ubiquitous stackable steel box, loading and unloading ships' cargo was constrained by human muscle power and the vicissitudes of heavily unionized industrial relations. But when a US trucking owner came up the idea of standardised containers able to be mechanically manipulated, it caused nothing less than a shipping revolution. Within decades, the number of dockworkers in the UK dropped from about 130,000 to 11,000, while the volume of cargo shipped skyrocketed. The ease, security,* flexibility and simplicity of the design dropped transport costs and speed to a fraction of their former levels and so enabled a massive increase in world trade: more than a fivefold increase in global shipping volume in the last thirty years. In turn, this displaced much primary manufacturing from the developed to the developing world and was a very significant contributor to the process of globalisation and the consumption habits of the developed world.
*One curious statistic was that prior to containerisation, over a third of whisky shipped would be "damaged" in transit. With the advent of sealed containers, this dropped to almost zero. As my scare quotes indicate, this was less about freight stability and more about security.

It was an eye-opening narrative, though I thought they could have spent less time on the effect on docklands (significant though this was in many coastal cities) and more time on the cultural effects of boosted consumerism from the massive increase in world trade, not to mention the ecological effects of displacing production from consumption. Mass shipping effectively enabled developed nations to export much of their environmental degradation. In order words, shipping containers are one of the primary reasons why most estimates of developed nations' ecological footprint is too small, since they rarely take into account the effect of all the goods purchased in the developed world but made in the developing world.
I have just realised that a book was published in 2007 called The Box that changed the World, and another one came out in 2008 called The Box: How the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger.


Unknown said...

Thankyou for this interesting article (which introduced me to the term 'scare quotes' which, as a bibliophile, I shall now use wherever relevant). I think Globalisation, industry and automation are not of themselves a bad thing. It is the consumerism, carelessness and excess that come with them that can change things for the worse.

I favour the approach of using the technology we have and pushing it in new directions.

It occurred to me the other day - what if we took the effort put into developing steam ships and the commercialised shipping that came from them and the effort put into developing aeroplanes and ploughed it into technology to make a new 'clipper' - how fast and effective and large could we make wind-based sea transport? (and how useful would modern clippers and other ships be right now and especially if the other two volcanoes in Iceland blow)

If we applied the logistics used for large scale farming and instead applied it to a large amount of 'forest farms' (forgive me if I got the name of this wrong - it's a type of farming similar to that used on Cocoa farms where, basically, the 'farm' is a forest with sympathetic crops growing within) how much could it change nature worldwide?

If we put as much effort into pushing back deserts as we put into chopping down rainforests how long would it take before we had no deserts?

I believe that God created the world as a robust place. If he had not then we would have destroyed it long ago. I also believe that we should not use that robustness as an excuse. Unlike many who would consider themselves to have green views I don't believe that mankind is the main cause of Global Warming but I also don't believe that we should use that as an excuse to do what we like and squander our resources.

byron smith said...

I think Globalisation, industry and automation are not of themselves a bad thing. It is the consumerism, carelessness and excess that come with them that can change things for the worse.
Yes, this is probably correct. The real issue is whether it is possible to disconnect the former from the latter. Using existing technology in new directions is an excellent goal, but what is it that is going to cause such a shift in society?