Cargo Containers | United States (1955)


A cargo ship entering the Gatun Locks by Joe Ross

By Zamiel Schwarz

There are many possible time periods that the beginning of the Anthropocene could be placed. Ranging from 10,000 BC until even today. However, during the great acceleration in the 1950’s it becomes evident that humans were a major geologic force worldwide. Primarily because of mass fuel consumption, natural resource use and a globalized world economy. Each enabled by globalized shipping and trade. And during the great acceleration, the standardized cargo container was invented. Leading to a massively more efficient oversea shipping industry during the great acceleration. The standardized cargo container is a vital object in the Anthropocene. Primarily because of its role in the transit of consumer and production goods from one region to another. The standard cargo container is representative of the Anthropocene because it enables capitalism by making cheap natural resources and commodities readily available regardless of environmental cost.

Before the great acceleration, general ocean transport of non-bulk cargo was mainly done through extensive use of pallets. Each pallet was moved one at a time onto a vehicle which was then moved to the dock or shipyard. Then someone used a crane to move the pallets again onto the desired ship using cargo nets or other devices. Then, the pallets had to be moved around in the ships hold by large amounts of workers and machinery. Thereby ensuring that the items wouldn’t break or move around to prevent damage to them and the ship. And finally, the whole process was reversed as the ship reached the other side of the ocean. Obviously, this whole ordeal requires an exorbitant amount of people and individually operated machinery to do. Additionally, one can imagine that with the large amount of somewhat skilled and backbreaking labor required to move millions of pallets it was a very expensive method to ship things. And as capitalists in wealthy countries during the great acceleration required a new way to reduce the cost of shipping overseas, the standardized shipping container was invented. In 1955 Malcolm McLean invented the modern shipping container on the premise that goods should only be handled two times. First when storing the box and lastly when being unloaded. He made the boxes so that they could be used on trains, trucks and other vehicles. Consequently, the cost of shipping aggressively decreased. Primarily because of the lessened need for port labor and increased storage efficiency of the containers. And with the cost of shipping reduced, the ability of capitalists in wealthier countries to import materials was increased. This kept an otherwise limited amount of natural resources and goods in the wealthy nation well stocked through imports from pseudo-colonies. Because of their cheaper labor, land and goods available there. For example, look at the shipment of goods from the Middle East to the United States. Where the US acts as a sort of overlord over the middleeast by imposing sanctions. Which both keeps the nations with cheap commodities (primarily oil or textiles) under their control to maintain cheapness. Which is ironically like the British ruling over the American colonies by imposing trade restrictions like the Navigation Acts.

Besides how the introduction of the standard cargo container has made the cost of shipping cheaper, it also molded how firms and shipping companies conduct business. Worldwide, the top four shipping firms and eight of the top twenty are privately owned. And almost all the top 20 in 2007 were based in Asia. With a few in based in Europe and none in the United States. Additionally, these private firms look to innovate. For example, the firm MSC (2ndplace firm 2006) looks to cut costs and has become regarded as a low-cost firm. Primarily by buying second had ships or being based in less expensive ports. The founder of this firm claims his philosophy is to overwork people to maximize labor. With the privately-owned shipping firms being at the top of the food chain, the competition between ports becomes highly intensified. This privatization is important because the firms work for the highest paying customer. And to maximize profits often look for cheaper ports, leaving many ports underemployed.  These firms also look for deep-channeled and cheap ports that can take the most of their goods effectively and efficiently to minimize cost. These requirements due to the modern cargo container has not just influenced the structure of the shipping firms, but the ports as well.  Modern ports built for standardized containers require extreme investments into infrastructure, comparative to the pallet-based shipping method. From 1996-2000, The United States planned greater than $6 billion in port-related spending on infrastructure. Even with these necessary upgrades for US ports, many are still in debt. This debt often falls upon peripheralized taxpayers. And if the infrastructure cannot be afforded, the port is often sold to become a private port. With the privatization being the standard for high profile ports and firms, it appears that this is the future of shipping. And because of these containers, privatization and capitalist expansion will lead to an even greater search for cheapness as emphasized since the great acceleration in the Anthropocene.

Thirdly, standardized shipping containers add a slew of environmental issues. Because the crates are uniform, ships can be built extremely large without risking capsizing from uneven storage. And even though large ships are not just container ships, a crash is still a considerable environmental hazard. For example, in Wellington New Zealand a cargo ship hit a coral reef and began to sink. It spilt 400 tons of oil fuel and killed thousands of seabirds and countless sea organisms. It also lost 150 of 800 cargo containers. Which will eventually wash to shore or float in the sea just under the surface. These containers are especially dangerous for trawlers. With these containers, there is an interest in plastic debris that either washes up on shore, gets eaten by marine life or is a new addition to the trash island. Furthermore, the bunker fuel that is used for cargo ships is extremely toxic to aquatic life. This fuel is extremely viscous and spreads long distances in the water because it does not evaporate. Making it a very dangerous substance for marine life. Even if the ship does not crash and makes its journey successfully, the gargantuan ships still burn fuel that is a dirty byproduct of making gasoline and other fuels. One tanker produces the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. And if the shipping industry was a country it would be the sixth largest yearly CO2 contributor. Even with the dangerous level of emissions produced by these vessels and the effects of crashes they are vital to the world economy. Because the need for cheap materials and labor outweighs the risk of environmental peril. This exchange for cheap goods that the standard shipping container has enabled makes it the centerpiece of the Anthropocene.

The standard shipping container represents the Anthropocene because it exemplifies the tradeoff of cheapness for the environment. The privatization of these shipping firms made possible by this object continues to streamline the industry and put individual ports in peril. Often by forcing heavy infrastructure investments so they can compete. Which frequently make the ports to sell out or make the peripheralized taxpayers pay. The invention of standardized shipping containers influences the cheapness of the goods shipped and sold, but it also affects the size of boats. As the system gets more streamlined the boats get larger, larger fuel tanks are installed. Further increasing the fallout of a crashed boat. And with the bunker fuel burned on the ships, emissions are through the roof. This streamlining of the shipping process protects capitalism from its contradictions by making a cheap worldwide market. While simultaneously risking major environmental disaster and continuously polluting the atmosphere with CO2.


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