Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shipping, Globalization, Pasta and the Earth

Maersk, the mammoth Danish shipping company (late of Somali pirate notoriety) has announced that by "slow steaming" it can save up to 30% of the fuel it normally uses.* This means traveling 12 to 20 knots per hour. The full article on slow steaming is here at Mother Nature Network. At about half speed, fuel consumption drops to 100-150 tons of fuel a day from 350 tons, saving as much as $5,000 an hour. In addition, the World Shipping Council is moving toward higher fuel efficiency standards for cargo ships much like those for automobiles.These are laudable baby steps toward reducing pollution that has no pinpoint national origin. (But big shippers should not yet to be awarded the good citizen gold star just yet. See the graphic below.)

[Slow boat to china]
There are more profound questions in play here that relate to globalization, pollution and domestic well-being.

Once, not very long ago, products you consumed were pretty much made close to where you lived. Manufacturing was first concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. California, Texas, the Northwest and the South eventually blossomed. Goods might take a day or maybe two to arrive from their origin to a warehouse for local distribution. More than likely they arrived on trains.

In the North and Midwest, at least, the hat you wore was made in Orange, NJ, the toggle bolt was crafted in Toledo, the everyday kitchen soup bowl was made in Syracuse or Indianapolis, and the television may have been made in GE's plant in Schenectady, or by Magnavox in Ft. Wayne.

Free traders wiped that spectacularly successful national industrial model out over the course of 25 years beginning in the 1970s, accelerating it during the Reagan era; it continued moving at the speed of light through the Clinton years.

Without doubt, international trade has an important place in the world economy. But historically, American imports were of products we either couldn't make here because of technical or materials limitations, or of products that another country's producers had a firm lock on. (Pre-World War II German precision instruments, for example.)

Now, in New York, when shoppers buy pasta they find that Italian brands from Naples are often far cheaper than, say, Ronzoni, which is now manufactured in Harrisburg, PA. (Formerly made in New York City.) This is next to impossible to fathom.

Much Italian pasta is made with American grown durum wheat, Australian wheat, (and other wheat primarily from France.) The American and Aussie wheat is shipped across oceans, worked into pasta in Italy, then re-shipped back across the oceans yet still can be priced more cheaply than the domestic brand.

Curiously, in a country like Italy we are dealing with pretty much the same wage structure as in the United States, (versus China, where workers are paid about $200 a month in semi-skilled positions.)

So what gives?

Aside from a welter of subsidies that often makes American wheat cheaper to buy in Italy than at home, there has grown up an unnatural dependence on too-cheap, pollutant-spewing shipping, and for some products, pollutant-spewing air cargo planes. This shipping madness would be all well and good if these conveyances were clean running machines. But they aren't. They're filthy. Even when running 30% more efficiently.

There are a number of hidden costs involved in all this transoceanic shipping. The first is the degrading of our air and water, commonly held human resources. Second, the developed world's gluttonous consumption of oil keeps us stuck to the tar-baby of Middle-Eastern oil and all the political consequences that entails. The third issue is the loss of decent-paying jobs that were exported, without good reason, to other countries. Fourth, there is a continual loss of manufacturing skill sets that could take a generation or more to recover. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously tragic, there is a loss of community, pride, and a raison d'etre for people with a modicum of education who might be working the jobs we cast away so thoughtlessly.

*(By comparison, if we re-imposed the 55 mph speed limit for cars, we would save about 20% of the fuel now used for cars and trucking.)

No comments:

Post a Comment