Friday, 25 August 2017

How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization

An interesting piece from the FEE recently:
The Most Important Invention You Never Thought About - Foundation for Economic Education - Working for a free and prosperous world

The Most Important Invention You Never Thought About - YouTube

With a very big book out on the subject recently:
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger: Amazon.co.uk: Marc Levinson: 9780691136400: Books
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger - Wikipedia
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger: The Independent Review: The Independent Institute

There are other opinions, however:
A critique of the super-port idea: Maritime Policy & Management: Vol 7, No 2

For example: 

How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization

by Alice Friedemann
21 February 2008

Editor's introduction: This analysis deftly reveals how our cities physically and culturally changed to accommodate commerce, technology and economies of scale to the detriment of communities' livelihoods. Alice Friedemann spent many years in the shipping business (ships), and since retirement has ratcheted up her critique of the corporate economy's distribution system as she explores peak oil. Her previous articles have focused on "Peak Soil", and the "Financial Monsters" we face as economic reality catches up with endless growth.- Jan Lundberg

Book Review: Mark Levinson: The Box. How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Mark Levinson has written a book that shows how containers made global trade possible. In the preface of the paperback edition, he notes other aspects of containerization he became aware of later, such as the potential for containers to harbor atomic weapons, how they’ve become homes, and so on.

To me, what Levinson leaves out is how this global distribution system will make it very difficult to go back to local production as energy declines. He doesn’t mention that containerization was the fastest way yet for capitalism to loot the planet and strip Mother Earth down to her hard dry skin.

In 2005, roughly 18 million containers worldwide made over 200 million trips (wikipedia). Containers come in many sizes, an average one is 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high, the size of three 10 by 10 foot bedrooms. There are 1,300 foot-long ships now that can carry 7,250 of them.

It’s mind boggling to think about how different the world is now. My grandparents ate what was in season, an orange was a precious Christmas gift. Today, the Japanese are eating Wyoming beef and we’re driving Japanese cars.

Before containers were used to move cargo, port cities had long piers where boxes and bales were moved by sweat and muscle onto ships. Longshoremen lived within two miles of the docks in cheap housing. Now the piers are gone and the only sweat comes from yuppies on treadmills in luxury apartments.

The cost of moving products by any means, whether truck, train, or ship, was often so high most goods were made locally. Factories were often located near ports to shorten the distance of getting products to ships.

The idea of containerization was around for a long time, and a few companies experimented with doing this and failed for various reasons. It took Malcolm McLean, the founder of Sea-Land, and standardization, to make containerization really take off.

The cost of shipping goods, whether the container was on land or water, dropped so drastically, that suddenly it made more economic sense for a factory to be located wherever land, labor, and electricity were inexpensive. Millions of high-paying factory jobs were lost as containerization made it possible for factories to move overseas.

Also very important was being able to get goods cheaply to a container port. The price of labor in Africa might even be less than China, but Africa has few container ports, so factories don’t move there.

Containerization was a major revolution – instead of endless loading and unloading each box from trucks, to trains, to ships, moving cargo became so much simpler and cheaper that the cost to move cargo was no longer a major consideration. This made longer supply chains became possible. The example Levinson gives in his book is how Barbie dolls are manufactured. America ships China the cotton, molds, and pigments used to make Barbie, Japan the nylon hair, and Taiwan the plastic in her body. This allows Japan to get really, really good at nylon hair, and make it far cheaper.

The history of container ships contains a valuable lesson about why capitalism has hastened the collapse of petro-civilization. After the energy crises of the '70s, U. S. Lines built slow, energy efficient ships. Fuel had gone from 25% of operating costs in 1972 to 50% in 1975. If oil had gone to $50 per barrel as expected, U. S. Lines would have had the most profitable shipping line plying the ocean. But oil plunged to $14 a barrel, and the bankruptcy was the largest in history. Capitalism can only see profit this microsecond; it has no plans for the future.

Wham! Imagine what will happen when the energy crisis strikes forever, and only the military and politically connected have gasoline. It’s great that container ships carry cargo efficiently, and perhaps can be towed by giant kites (experiments are underway). But what can be shipped with inland factories scattered across several continents? How will all the bits and pieces of Barbie find each other?

With limited energy, it will be hard to go back in time, to rebuild docks and local factories plus all the other sail-based infrastructure. Humpty Dumpty didn’t just fall off the wall, where we could have glued him back, he’s been blown up, his ashes scattered around the world, and there’s not enough time or energy to put him back together again.

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Editor's further thoughts: Containers crossing the ocean are extremely hazardous to the ecosystem for centuries, when they fall off of freighters' decks in storms. The stuff that comes out of them are often plastics that add to the disaster befalling the North Pacific Gyre, for example. Thousands of basketballs can suddenly be loosed upon the waves, attracting pollutants as plastics do, and breaking down to smaller pieces to be ingested by sea life.

I've long thought that containerization and intermodal transport have had interesting and rather negative effects. Perhaps the worst one was to freeze railroads into perhaps permanent secondary status, or even hasten their ultimate demise. Although they move freight at one eighth the energy (and the pollution) of trucking, trucking dominates once the containers arrive across the seas. Because the railroads' signing onto containerization got them into bed with trucking, our Alliance for a Paving Moratorium and the Auto-Free Times magazine could make zero headway with the rail industry in fighting road construction such as NAFTA Superhighways.

One look at the port of Oakland and other modern ports shows huge cranes dealing with containers. Entirely out of human scale, these alien-looking contraptions were actually the inspiration for George Lucas's "Star Wars" films' evil robotic weaponry later mimicked in "The Matrix" sequels. - JL

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Alice Friedemann's previous articles on Culture Change include:

How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization 

The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture

13:00 - 29 August, 2011
by Brian Pagnotta

Photo by Håkan Dahlström - http://www.flickr.com/photos/dahlstroms/. Used under Creative Commons
With the green premise growing in popularity across the globe, more and more people are turning to cargo container structures for green alternatives. There are countless numbers of empty, unused shipping containers around the world just sitting on shipping docks taking up space. The reason for this is that it’s too expensive for a country to ship empty containers back to their origin. In most cases, it’s just cheaper to buy new containers from Asia. The result is an extremely high surplus of empty shipping containers that are just waiting to become a home, office, apartment, school, dormitory, studio, emergency shelter, and everything else. More information after the break.


On November 23, 1987, Phillip C. Clark file for a United States patent describe as a “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof.” This patent was granted on August 8, 1989 as patent 4854094. The diagrams and information contained within the documentation of the patent appear to lay the groundwork for many current shipping container architectural ideas.

Photo by SlapBcn - http://www.flickr.com/photos/slapbcn/. Used under Creative Commons

In 2006, Southern California architect Peter DeMaria, designed the first two-story shipping container home in the U.S. as an approved structural system under the strict guidelines of the nationally recognized Uniform Building Code. Even more impressive is Lot-Tek’s Puma City, which was built with abundant material at a low price, without substituting design quality. As such, there are many great examples of shipping container architecture in the world.

Shipping container architecture gets a lot of encouraging coverage in the design world as a trendy green alternative to traditional building materials, and seems like a smart choice for people looking for eco-consciousness. However, there are a lot of downsides to building with cargo containers. For instance, the coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints. Moreover, wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away.

Puma City, Photo by Ari Herzog - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari-herzog/. Used under Creative Commons

Reusing containers seems to be a low energy alternative, however, few people factor in the amount of energy required to make the box habitable. The entire structure needs to be sandblasted bare, floors need to be replaced, and openings need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw. The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure. All of this, coupled with the fossil fuels required to move the container into place with heavy machinery, contribute significantly to its ecological footprint.

Photo by mr.push - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr-push/. Used under Creative Commons

Another downside is that dimensionally, an individual container creates awkward living/working spaces. Taking into account added insulation, you have a long narrow box with less than eight foot ceiling. To make an adequate sized space, multiple boxes need to be combined, which again, requires energy.

In many areas, it is cheaper and less energy to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. Shipping container homes makes sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance, and where people are in need of immediate shelter such as, developing nations and disaster relief. While there are certainly striking and innovative examples of architecture using cargo containers, it is typically not the best method of design and construction.
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Photo by john.duffell - http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnduffell/. Used under Creative Commons

Photos: Flickr user: Håkan Dahlström, Flick user: wendyfairy, Flickr user: SlapBcn, Flick user: RO/LU, Flickr user: pakitt, Flickr user: OneGoodEye, Flickr user: mr.push, Flickr user: Mr. Kimberly, Flickr user: Matt Brock, Flickr user: mark.hogan, Flick user: macguys, Flickr user: lorigami, Flickr user: john.duffell, Flickr user: JaviC, Flick user: Dom Dada, Flickr user: Ari Herzog References: firmitas

The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture | ArchDaily

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