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THE ARTICLE “Gargantuanisation,” by John Lancaster, in the London Review of Books, April 22, 2021, is a review of Laleh Khalili’s Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula.
Khalili’s book was written prior to the Ever Given’s jamming of the Suez Canal, but Lancaster’s review touches on this recent news as well as the history of this particularly important transportation route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Here are several tidbits.
Shipping and the Internet. Lancaster observes that international shipping “is the physical equivalent of the Internet, the other industry which makes globalisation possible. The Internet abolishes national boundaries for information, news, data; shipping abolishes these boundaries for physical goods.”
Like the Internet, Lancaster says, “The main way it does this is by being almost incomprehensibly cheap…. This has had the effect of abolishing geography and location as an economic factor.”
Where to Make It? There’s no need to locate manufacturing close to consumers: “Instead,” Lancaster says, “you make whatever it is where it’s cheapest, and ship it to them instead.”
As one of his sources cites, “… if you’re having a sweater shipped from the other side of the planet, the cost of shipping adds just a cent to the price. Another way of putting it would be to say that shipping is, in practice, free.”
Except for During Wartime. International shipping, of course, depends upon free and safe access to sea lanes. This was addressed here at SimanaitisSays in “On Straits and Narrows.”
Even a conflict as brief as the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, June 5–10, 1967, had long-ranging implications.
Six Days and Eight Years. At the start of the Six-Day War, fourteen ships were caught in the Suez Canal. For reasons of blockages and politics, they remained there for eight years. The group became known as the Yellow Fleet because, as Wikipedia notes, desert sand eventually coated them.
(Another tidbit from Lancester’s article: The world’s most mined commodity in shipping is sand.)
“The crews were allowed to rotate,” Lancaster writes, “They formed the Great Bitter Lake Association to manage their pooled resources and lively social lives. They issued stamps and had their own version of the Olympics. By the time it reopened, both the world and the shipping industry had permanently changed.”
Marcus Samuel, of a Seashell Trading Family. “A major technological breakthrough in shipping,” Lancaster notes, “was the invention of an Iraqi Jew born in Whitechapel, whose family background was in trading seashells, and who went on to become lord mayor of London: Marcus Samuel.”
Lancaster says that in the late 1800s Samuel “saw how slow and laborious it was to load barrels of oil onto ships. (The legacy of this is oil being priced in barrels.) Samuel realised that it would be much more efficient if the ship itself was a single big tank.”
“This invention, the oil tanker,” Lancaster continues, “led to the modern oil transportation industry, and to the foundation of Samuel’s new firm, whose name nodded at the old family business….”
The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company (quotation marks part of its legal name) was founded in 1897.
The Container Vessel. Lancaster observes, “Containers are the force which has driven the cost of shipping down, and then further down, and then down so low that it has in effect abolished itself as an economic factor.”
“The remarkable thing about the story of the container,” Lancaster writes, “is that it is such a simple idea that almost anyone could have had it – anyone who has ever tidied up children’s toys, for instance. The idea is that stuff is more manageable if you shove it into a box. That’s it.”
Lancaster writes, “Ships are unloaded now in a matter of hours, with the order determined by algorithms. Nobody knows or cares what’s in the boxes: the crew’s manifest is concerned only with items that are refrigerated or dangerous.”
As noted here at SimanaitisSays, the loading and unloading of these containers has become increasingly automated and efficient, though not without labor controversy.
Conclusion. Lancaster sums up: “Shipping is a modern miracle of efficiency, interconnection and technology. It might also be the definitive example of modern capitalism, at the moment of its peak supremacy over labour. George [Rose George, author of 90 Percent of Everything, 2013] quotes a schoolchild’s prayer, written on the wall of the library in the Felixstowe Seafarers’ Centre: ‘Make all the people on the ship safe so we can have all the food from the ship that the seamen bring us. If other countries were not so nice, we wouldn’t have so much food. Thank you. Amen.’ ” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021
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Another great read — thanks, Dennis! The counterpoint might be historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer’s recent column “Shipping: Worse Than Aviation”
Thanks, Andrew, for your kind words. And thanks too for the counterpoint.
Of course, the shipping is not “free.” The problem is that the massive amount of pollution produced by international shipping is not added to the cost of goods.