Keeping tabs on how shipping touches us all

Crowded shipping lane. Photo: Ilmari Hyvonen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Crowded shipping lane. Photo: Ilmari Hyvonen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I started this post just planning to share a CBC news item on a new way to track all ships at sea – one more application of satellite surveillance and data mining that have also been quite newsworthy of late.

But on Wednesday I heard a Terry Gross Fresh Air interview with author Rose George on her new book ”Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping” (The long sub-title goes on thusly: “…the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate”) NPR posted an excerpt here. Rose George also has her own webpage that details her career and other books.

And that reminded me of a recent NCPR/Innovation Trail story by Kate O’Connell on the shortage of truck drivers to move all those containers hither and yon. Experts quoted in that story pointed to low wages and regulatory issues. Still, demand to prop up this current transportation system looms behind those employment considerations.

So here’s a bundle of all that together, as a big-picture take on how we get and move all our stuff, with sidebar aspects of worker rights and surveillance technology. (All of which connect to our region by way of the products we buy and the St. Lawrence Seaway.)

As this Atlanticwire items states, the shipping industry is bigger than many of us imagine.

For those who like details, the above-mentioned CBC science and technology article on ship tracking article is worth a closer read. While the story depicts a commercial service, the implications of tracking ships at sea sounds both exciting and Orwellian, as can be imagined in this exchange with an executive from exactEarth Ltd:

“Until we started doing this…you had little bits of information, but you really didn’t have a complete domain awareness of what’s out there,” said Philip Miller, the company’s vice president of engineering and operations.

“Once a ship leaves the shore, essentially they’re a sovereign entity …. A captain can go where he wants. And from shore you didn’t know what was happening unless you contacted the ship and asked — whereas now we’re watching, and we know where they go.”

Shipping seems to tie into so many hot topics: the environment, sustainability, economic efficiency, and new applications of technology. This includes the expansion of surveillance that so many are mulling over these days: “…now we’re watching, and now we now where they go.”

I may never look at a cargo ship – or even a tractor trailer – the same way again.

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7 Responses to “Keeping tabs on how shipping touches us all”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    And how does all this shipping help the environment?

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  2. Lucy Martin says:

    Well, that’s the funky part of it, Pete. Shipping is very energy efficient. It should be a plus.

    But then people go overboard (so to speak) and ship ridiculous amounts of junk – or raw material in search of cheap labor. After that, it all has to be trucked too. The new/lower economies of scale in terms of transportation has made it too easy to do things that aren’t smart, except in terms of profitability.

    In the Fresh Air interview Rose George mentions that low, low shipping costs means seafood caught in Scotland can get shipped to China to be turned into filets and shipped back to Scotland for final packaging. (It’s hard to not share Terry Gross’ reaction, which was: “That’s crazy.”)

    I guess it’s like a lot of other issues. This activity (shipping) could be part of real solutions to pressing problems – including a more sustainable economy. But so many other things would have to change to make that so.

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  3. Hank says:

    “Shipping is very energy efficient”

    I don’t know the stats on this, but it seems to me that it must take a lot of energy to constantly push all that water out of the way of the ship. I wonder how the mileage of a large cargo ship compares to that of a train or plane.

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  4. Lucy Martin says:

    re: how does shipping stack up in terms of energy efficiency? That’s a fair question.

    I’m not terribly good at crunching numbers but here are some sources that chart or convert shipping transportation efficiencies in comparison to other forms of transportation.
    Freight shipping appears to be very “green”

    http://cleantechnica.com/2011/05/31/energy-use-of-different-modes-of-transport-infographic/

    http://truecostblog.com/2010/05/27/fuel-efficiency-modes-of-transportation-ranked-by-mpg/

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Lucy,
    Not just talking about energy used in transportation. Also talking about damage done to sea life and transportation of invasive plants and animals from one place to another.
    When it comes to trucking, you also have damage done to roads and bridges.
    Want more problems stemming from the movement of goods?
    Let’s add national and local security. The more you are dependent upon goods from distant places, the more you are at risk when the transportation of those goods are halted for whatever reason.
    Remember the oil embargo?

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  6. Walker says:

    Hey, remember the middle class? All those factory jobs that used to put bread on American tables. Now we’re building the new Chinese middle class, while ours goes down the tubes. But so what? Look at all those low, low prices!

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  7. Lucy Martin says:

    All good points, Pete. I’m not saying massive global shipping is peachy-keen and I support the status quo. (Though what I do or do not like should be beside the point of informational posts.)

    No, the post was an observation of how crucial this sector has become. High-efficiency, low-cost shipping of container units was a major development that enabled “globalization”. That system helps drive modern economic forces, including outsourcing jobs and all manner of other important issues.

    (Personal opinion alert!) Cheap shipping gave consumers a short term gain in standard of living while also contributing to a huge shift in jobs and a “tragedy of the commons” pillage of natural resources.

    Compared to many other means of transportation, shipping looks pretty “green” and sustainable. But humans are not applying that advantage in sustainable ways, which does bother me. (If that matters!)

    On a theoretical level at least I can easily see an argument for some sort of shipping carbon tax intended to adjust for hidden costs so things don’t get shipped willy-nilly just because it’s so darned cheap to do so now.

    But that gets into the whole messy business of free-market verses regulatory intervention, unfair competition between “responsible” and “irresponsible” countries, assessment, enforcement, fraud and all that difficult-to-manage stuff.

    People who value sustainability and people who value short-term profitability seldom see eye to eye. Of course, that’s pretty much the whole tragedy of the commons problem, isn’t it?

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