Great big boats

I recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, a book called The Box about the history of the intermodal freight container. If you’d like to know more about the book, I recommend this extensive review by Venkatesh Rao which inspired me to buy the book in the first place. Only 50 years ago, shipping was one of the most insanely inefficient parts of the global economy. As containerization changed that and brought new efficiencies to transport, the entire economy flipped in a way that must have been supremely disorienting to even the most nimble players in the shipping business. Even those who foresaw the coming change couldn’t see how large it was ultimately going to be. For instance, cheap shipping meant that manufacturing jobs didn’t have to be near expensive cities anymore. So a clever textile magnate might move his factory from the Garment District in Manhattan out to Pennsylvania. And he might congratulate himself for a few years before realizing that shipping is so cheap that the jobs are in fact moving to the Pearl River Delta on the far side of the world. And they’re not coming back.

I was alternately sympathetic to and disgusted by the stories of the displaced dock workers and stevedores who had been on top in the old days. Their unions used to call the shots, shutting down entire ports when they were unhappy. It was only natural that they should cling to the old ways with bitter tenacity. But they were all swept aside by the vast tidal change, their political power snuffed out in the span of a few short years.

Once the container ship truly arrived, it put us on a treadmill where efficiency comes from size. Every year the ships get bigger and the capital expenses go up and up. And by god, would you look at the size of these as-yet-unbuilt
Mærsk Triple-E ships. They are the most efficient bulk movers the world has ever seen. Which is a good thing, but wow! where will it stop? It will only stop when the hips of these brutes scrape both sides of the Strait of Malacca as they waddle past Singapore.

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