Mechanising the Oceans
The shipping container is an uncanny symbol of modern life
I recently watched for a second time J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, a strangely riveting film with only one character, no dialogue and almost no words at all, set in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The entire plot consists of an unnamed man, played by Robert Redford, struggling to survive at sea. The sailor’s misfortune is not just that there is no civilisation on the ocean, but also, in a sense, that there is too much. Everything starts to go wrong when the man wakes to find that his boat has collided with a stray shipping container, a red steel cuboid disgorging its cargo of branded trainers as it bobs ominously across the water.
This shipping container feels symbolic, though I’m not exactly sure why. It could represent capitalism’s conquest of the globe, eradicating every frontier until even the oceans offer no escape from the rule of consumer goods. But we could equally read it the other way around. The doomed man’s boat stands for us, the coddled citizens of the modern world; afloat on a sea of complacency, we take for granted the global networks that underpin our way of life – then something breaks down, and our hidden dependencies burst into view.
Container shipping is the kind of background system that we tend not to notice until it’s disrupted. And because we are living in a time of increasing global instability, such systems are being disrupted, and noticed. I was buying coffee at the supermarket this week when the cashier ruefully observed that prices were likely to go up again, thanks to events unfolding around the Red Sea. In northern Yemen, Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been attacking the shipping of countries aligned with Israel in its current war. As a consequence, cargoes trying to access the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal face higher insurance rates, or a much longer route around the tip of Africa. Either way, the costs will be passed on to us. That’s to say nothing of the dangers of military escalation, as the United States and its allies try to protect the Red Sea lanes.
Such incidents have geopolitical importance because western voters have become accustomed to cheap imported goods, and that is in no small part thanks to the revolutionary impact of container shipping itself. As I discussed in a previous post, the adoption of this system in the 1960s and 70s killed stone dead a millennia-old tradition of human life on the oceans. It laid the foundation for the mechanisation of ports, and of the vessels themselves. It drastically cut the cost of transportation – a television can now be shipped from China to the U.S. for as little as ten cents – and thereby facilitated the rise of globalisation. Look around you: virtually all of the objects you see, and many of their parts, have crossed the ocean in a container ship.
And yet, the principles behind containerisation were so simple as to be almost banal. As the author Matt Ridley notes, it involved “no new science, no high technology, and not much new low technology.” The idea is essentially that, if everyone uses the same standardised boxes for trade, huge amounts of time and labour can be saved. Goods can be loaded at factories rather than in ports, the containers can be stacked onto ships by cranes, and the ships can grow to enormous dimensions, carrying thousands of identical containers and thereby reducing the cost for each. This is largely a question of organisation, but it also could not have happened without obsessive determination and an insane appetite for risk, qualities that came together in an American businessman called Malcolm McLean.
By the mid-1950s, as Ridley notes, foreign trade had actually been shrinking for decades as a proportion of the U.S. economy. This was when McLean sold his trucking company and, having borrowed a large sum of money, entered the shipping business. He bought two Second World War oil tankers, which the engineer Keith Tantlinger helped him convert into makeshift container ships. McLean had done his sums and thought he could reduce shipping costs from $5.83 per ton to just $0.16, a saving of over 97 percent. Still, he had to see through years of conflict with commerce authorities, dockworkers’ unions and port managers, his usual response to failure being to borrow even more money and design even bigger ships. Eventually, through stubbornness as much as anything, he brought the world around to his system. As with so many momentous innovations, the U.S. military played a role, contracting McLean to resolve its supply issues in the Vietnam War.
No less than the shipping container itself, this story is emblematic of how capitalism works. It is a framework in which the animal spirits of unusual individuals can change the world, yet it often produces inhuman efficiency and homogenisation as its end result. It ultimately consumed McLean himself: the final gamble of his career ended with bankruptcy in 1986, at which point he was $1.2 billion in debt.
The most successful revolutions are those that create a new normality and recede unnoticed into the background. This is especially true of container ships because, having displaced the older commercial fleets and needing only small crews, they now rule over an ocean world where there are few people to observe them. This eerie state of affairs is nicely illustrated in All Is Lost, as the desperate castaway floats right beside the vast hull of a container ship, unable to get anyone’s attention. But what happens at sea does not, of course, stay confined there, and trade disruptions are far from the worst way to be reminded of this.
Last month, six shipping containers fell into the Atlantic off Portugal, one of which contained millions of plastic pellets used in the food packaging industry. These rice-sized beads, easily ingested by fish, birds and other animals, are currently causing an environmental catastrophe on the Spanish coast. This comes almost exactly a year after an identical plastic spillage took place in French waters. These disasters bring hundreds of volunteers desperately trying to gather the tiny pellets from European beaches, a harrowing image of our struggle against the very systems that facilitate our lives.
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