On Inventing World Peace.

It’s not a globe; it’s a box.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006, 12:30 p.m.

I saw on the news the other night that the M/S Emma Maersk arrived in England on her maiden voyage from China.   This seemingly un-newsworthy event set off a mental declension.

It all starts with hit-the-mother-lode greed.  Haven’t you ever wished you held the patent on the paperclip?   or maybe PostIt Notes?  I have.  I do.  I dream of striking it rich with one neuronic burst of brilliance. 

I’m not talking cold fusion here.  I may be greedy but I’m not stupid. Call me “Lazy” but I have no interest in working as hard as Thomas Edison promised.  Invention-wise, I’ll willingly settle for a patent on an elegantly simple and cheap device that quickly worms into everyone’s life one way or another, sooner or later.  

Indispensable—that’s my ticket.  My role model here is one of Tricky Dick Nixon’s best pals Robert Abplanalp. Abplanalp, still not a household name, but my kind of inventor.  He’s made a fortune on the little push valve on the ubiquitous aerosol spray can.  I think of Robert every time I pick up a can of ReddiWip or EasyCheese.

Like John Travolta’s title character in the 1996 flick Michael, I too have already invented lots of stuff.  Unfortunately, both my timing and my resources have failed me.  I didn’t invent sliced bread but I did invent the bag a loaf of bread is now packaged in.  I also invented electronic key cards on an athletic trip to New York City.  Buick may have introduced electric turn signals in 1938, but I invented the automobile hazard warning flasher system on a road trip to Florida around 1970.  I could go on but you get the drift. Lining up investment capital has clearly been my short suit, or why would I be writing this stuff?

All of which brings me to the most world-shrinking invention of the twentieth century.  It’s not a colossal AirBus, it’s the humble shipping container.  Do you shed tears about American jobs being shipped abroad?  Don’t blame Sam Walton , blame Malcom McLean.  He invented a box.

The M/S Emma Maersk is the largest ship afloat.  She can carry something between 11,000 and 15,000 standard shipping containers.  The actual number is a company trade secret.  On her maiden voyage, she carried 45,000 tonnes of mostly Christmas merchandise from China to England.  There’s enough stuff on board to give a present for every man, woman, and child in England.  In just one trip.  Santa’s sleigh is smaller and reportedly carries a lot more but among mortal handiworks Emma totes a load.  Two million Christmas decorations, 12,800 MP3 players, 33,00 cocktail shakers, 150 tonnes  of New Zealand lamb, and 138,000 tins of cat food are samples of her cargo.

British MPs and others outraged at the globalization of world markets are already screaming foul.  “Everything on board Emma could have been manufactured in Europe, “ they cry.  Undoubtedly true and you’ve got to admit they’ve got a point.  Isn’t shipping New Zealand lamb to England in the same category as shipping coal to Newcastle?  And how can it possibly be cheaper to make cat food in China and ship it halfway around the world rather than make your own across town?  But it is, it is, it really is or am I supposed to cloak myself in a conspiracy theory that all the capitalists involved are taking a temporary financial bath as part of their plans for world domination?   What has made international shipping costs tank?  McLean’s box has .

Years ago an engineer friend introduced me to the idea that increased world commerce and industrialization leads to increased world peace and stability.  Lack of industrial growth, he claimed, is related to regional conflict and instability withthe festering Balkans being the current topic on the table. He offered no facile explanation but simply made the contention that the more industrialized a society was and the more interlocked in international trade,  the less likely it was to have either internal civil conflict or to pick a fight with its neighbors.  My first response was that the entire 20th Century was a huge counterexample to his claim.  But now I’m not so sure. 

Nuclear weapons  have fulfilled Alfred Nobel’s dream of a weapon so ruinous as to make global war obsolete.   Mutual Assured Destruction has kept hotheaded politicians of every world power on a leash for more than fifty years.  I think you have to go back to Pax Romana to find a similar span of peace between world powers.  However, nuclear weapons can not stop bloody encounters such as Argentina trying to grab the Falklands or Iraq snatching up Kuwait.   Note that in neither instance were the disputants members of the international industrial commercial complex or entangled in each other’s commerce.  Argentina discounted England’s response as Iraq similarly discounted America’s.

China is one big boom town with rampant industrial growth and commercialization. China will soon challenge the US as a consumer of world energy as it feeds its new industrial powerhouse.   Yet no one fears China will nuke us out of spite; they’re just stealing our industrial base.  We are told to fear evil Iran and evil North Korea (I forget, do we still fear Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega too?) or evil faceless terrorists from impoverished non-industrialized countries.  My friend may be right, there may be linkage between world trade and world peace after all.

Perhaps the US needs to revisit its ineffectual policy of economic isolation /strangulation of its enemies and adopt a more subtle strategy of economic inclusion/seduction.  Words are just words ; McDonald’s, Levis, iPods and cans of cat food really do change the world.  We are what we buy and what we buy today travels the globe thanks to Malcolm McLean and the Emma Maersk and her sisters.

So I save “Brava, Emma Maersk!  Welcome to England.”  And I’m thinking of nominating Malcom McLean for the Nobel Peace Prize.


Check this out--The Box:  How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson;  

Here’s a picture of the M/S Emma Maersk being towed out of her Danish shipyard last August. Measured in the giant city blocks we have here in Salt Lake City, she is two blocks long and 1/4 block wide--a true leviathan!



For more photo information go to Hansen's Web Site.

Saturday, 11 November 2006.

A response--

I would truly love to see a full manifest for the average ship of this type.  Such things will make good fodder for future historians.  The other impact that such economies of scale, reduced shipping costs, and the ability to take advantages of (current) economic disequilibriums in labor markets, is, I suspect, a true blurring of the material correlates of socioeconomic status.  I got to thinking about this tonight, because a friend of mine who teaches an intro to archaeology class at the U wanted our trash for a little exercise she does where she gets trash from various families and individuals of different towns, ethnicities, etc.  (she only takes dry recyclables) and has students try to infer various things from the different assemblages.  As I put ours into a bag for her I noticed that no single artifact in that particular week's worth of trash would provide a clear and unambiguous indicator of our socioeconomic status.  1000 years ago, it would be a different story, there were individual, rare, difficult to procure, artifacts.  Now, almost anyone anywhere can get almost any single artifact (with some exceptions).  Socioeconomic distinctions now will be seen in overall artifact patterning.  Another thing her exercise made me think of was distinctions between communities.  She goes so far as to get trash from not only SLC but Vernal and a few other rural towns.  I'm betting it will be very hard to see any differences between SLC and rural trash, in part, because of tremendous efficiency gains in transportation brought on by container shipping.  This wasn't the case even 75 years ago.  As part of the Level (3) fiber optic project, I compared trash from a railroad section station in rural Utah with SLC trash from the same time period.  The difference in "procurement range" (from how far and how many different places artifacts came to each place) was dramatic.  SLC had stuff from all over the country and even the world.  Stuff from the rural site was much, much more limited in terms of number and distance of markets, even though it was, in fact a RR stop (I speculated that thousands of goods went through the site, just very few got off the train).  Now, with containers and Wal-Mart, even someone in Milford can have essentially the same market reach as someone in NYC......

M. S. -- Salt Lake City archaeologist.

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray