File:Ever Given container ship.jpg, From Wikimedia Commons

The Story of (Moving) Stuff

Some of you remember (or still frequently revisit) Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. Her animated stick figures told the story of our voracious appetite for stuff — more and bigger and better and faster — from cradle to grave.

Story of Stuff

The problem is that both the cradle and the grave are places where creatures live. And the birth place of stuff is from something we glibly call “natural resources” — minerals, rare earths, wood, soil, water, oil and gas.

Some of that is “renewable” but much is a fixed stock for the turning of its stuff into doodahs and widgets and gadgets and thingamabobs. Some of this is stuff essential to life; most is the stuff of our whimsy and want, our lust for the lastest, shiniest, wizz-bangiest version. We love it, it breaks, and it goes to the grave — in somebody’s back yard. This is BAU — -Business as Usual.

It’s the way things are supposed to run in a growth economy — the kind of story of stuff we’ve come to understand as “the way the world works.” The faster this machinery of turning Earth Stuff into People Stuff, the happier the bankers, the stockholders, the CEO’s and their political enablers. BAU will be the way the world breaks if we don’t create a new story of stuff.

Watch, if you ever get a chance, the new movie called Freightened. It is the Story of Stuff Horror Flick. And it all started, innocently enough, because of the inefficiency of getting bulk stuff from trucks to ships and ships to far-off places with that stuff.

The Film — Freightened

Not infrequently, when you hear the phrase “increased efficiency” there is gonna be a down-side. Caveat emptor. Watch the short video on the history of “containerized cargo” that made today’s globalization both possible and profitable (for some, and terribly damaging for many more.)

How Containerization Shaped the Modern World — YouTube

Today some 90% of stuff from places outside any particular country get there on a cargo ship. This is largely invisible, largely unregulated industry that operates under the radar of most folks who care about the state of the planet. Just some of those issues are addressed in this World Wildlife Fund page:

Marine problems: Shipping | WWF

And other concerns highlighted in this from The Guardian:

Health risks of shipping pollution have been ‘underestimated’ | Environment | The Guardian

Increased efficiency of containerized cargo shipping has been made possible by the humble shipping pallet. And now, shrink-wrap. Pallets and the floors of millions of 40 foot containers are “mostly tropical hardwoods.” There’s another issue altogether.

Pallets: The single most important object in the global economy.

The list of poorly regulated potential problems with this immense seafaring version of the story of stuff is long and sobering: the hearing loss and pollution deaths of the world’s whales and porpoises; the air pollution from burning the dirtiest of all petroleum products — called bunker oil; the cargo ship wrecks that happen once every three days, and the ultimate human and environmental toll when these 1000 foot long metal tubes are cut apart to be recycled.

A very small percent of shipping containers are inspected. Imagine the potential, already realized, for drugs and arms — and perhaps more terror-focused in the future. And a ship is only bound by the (lack of) regulations of the “flag of convenience” under which it flies. Say, Liberia, for instance.

And something new to watch for as the cargo fleet modernizes (said to take some 30 years to bring about): What is cleaner than bunker oil is LNG — Liquid Natural Gas. So here’s a marriage made in hell — fracked gas from Appalachian rock, wood pellets from former Appalachian forests, and amazingly efficient cargo shipping. How much of the world can we cram into metal boxes? The BAU model seems determined to find out.

But wait! Soon these megaships will be able to travel the Northwest Passage where the ice has melted, in no small part due to cargo ship’s dirty exhaust (not to mention the massive number of tractor-trailer truck miles required to distribute STUFF from ports to people.) Think about this next time you see get behind a truck on the interstate. Every one of them hauls a load that was mid-ocean a few days before — or will be a few days hence.

Can anything be done? Just knowing about the issue is a start. There are proposals that “nautical miles” be recorded on mandatory labels on the $5 cotton shirt you buy from your favorite Big Box Store. Ships won’t bring what we don’t ask for. Consumer choice is a place to start.

Also for starters, we can go deaf to the siren call of marketing and advertising. (At my house we have opted to do without television since 2004 in part to avoid being subjected to the ads.) Think from sufficiency and not from excess. How much is enough? What do I need that I can make myself or find produced locally from local stuff?

Nothing will change if we are not “freightened” of the Business as Usual workings of the world. But courage, not fear, will turn the ship. Enough of us can put our shoulder to the wheel. We can re-localize our sources for food, clothing and shelter in and from our communities. We can use our enlightened consumer understanding to starve the beast. Or we can be consumed by it, cradle to grave.