“How the Shipping Container Changed Everything”
Urban Mutations, topos Magazine #113, Winter 2020

Few people have much reason to pass through Amsterdam's Westhaven district. Too far out of town and too industrial, it doesn't bear comparison to the famous Grachtengordel in the city’s historic centre, with all its old canals lined with pretty architecture from the so-called Dutch Golden Age. But if you want to get the whole truth of Amsterdam, or any city for that matter, you have to go to places like Westhaven.

Among other things, it's here that you find the OBA Bulk Terminal, which contains several great mounds of coal, along with other piles of agricultural products, minerals and biomass. This is the dirty stuff that keeps the Dutch economy ticking over. Everyone thinks modern cities like Amsterdam dispensed with the need for this kind of economic activity. But not all this stuff could be shipped off to China. Some of it had to remain close by, albeit swept to the margins.

The invisibility of these sites is essential to our image of the modern city. Ordered, high-tech, and most of all, clean, this image would be impossible without the intermodal shipping container, a form of cargo container that allows goods to be transferred from one mode of transport to another without the costly process of unpacking and repacking. With this one simple innovation in the management of goods, we could finally close our eyes to the wildly complex material processes that are required to reproduce the city, and in the process create an image of urban progress which almost completely denies the underlying environmental and human costs.

The modern shipping container has its origins in 1955, when trucking magnate Malcom McLean teamed up with engineer Keith Tantlinger to hammer out the container's essential design, which remains practically the same to this day: eight foot wide, eight foot tall, 20 foot long, with 20mm thick corrugated steel walls that can, amazingly, hold a weight of 25,000kg. The design's persistence, ubiquity and overall success was not only down to its simplicity, however, it was also thanks to McLean encouraging Tantlinger to give away the patents to the industry for free, so that the same standard could be replicated on trucks, ships, cranes and ports across the world.

The shipping container quickly and drastically cut the number of dock workers needed to handle goods at ports. In Britain, for instance, the number of people employed in the port industry declined by 72 per cent between 1961 and 2001, while the number of people employed as a dock worker declined by 90 per cent. With no need to have so many people present on the docks, what followed was the mass abandonment of inner-city ports, with large swathes of warehouses left empty (and ripe for redevelopment). At the same time, with no need to have a large pool of labour on-hand in the nearby neighbourhoods, the port-side areas of these cities turned into ghost towns.

We see the first effect of this in the port cities that lined America's East Coast: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore. But the effects also spread to other historic port cities elsewhere in the world like London and Amsterdam, where the warehouses along the Oostelijk Havengebied (Eastern Docklands) were first squatted and then, in many cases, turned into cultural venues like Pakhuis de Zwijger. In London, after hundreds of years as the beating heart of international trade, the Docklands closed completely, leaving eight square miles of derelict land which was quickly redeveloped and given a big boost by the creation of the Canary Wharf financial district.

It was not just port cities that were affected either, in America, cities like Detroit, went from being the centre of the world's car industry to a hollow shell in a matter of decades. Because not only did the shipping container make dock work redundant, it also made it possible to displace manufacturing work to other parts of the world where labour costs were lower and workers less unionised.

Eventually, many of these cities found a way to bounce back from the desolation, converting the abandoned warehouses or demolishing them and putting luxury condos in their place. They slowly managed to draw people back in with the promise of various sorts of service work, instead of the dirty work of processing and manufacturing goods that had fuelled their economic growth in the first place. In more ways than one, the shipping container took the city's dirt elsewhere.

All this from one simple 8 by 8 by 20 steel box. But why then? Could it have happened sooner?

Precursors to the intermodal cargo container have existed since at least the early industrial revolution. In 1766, James Brindley designed the "Starvationer", a ship that could navigate the underground waterways of the Bridgewater Canal from the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mine at Worsley to Manchester, whose skeletal ribs inspired its peculiar name. The box boat had ten wooden containers that could transport coal by boat and then be transferred to horse-drawn carriage. The Canal River Trust describes it as one of the most important boats in the history of canals". Much like the McLean container, it helped usher in a new industrial age by cutting the cost of coal by half almost overnight, thereby enabling the rapid expansion of industry in booming Manchester.

But the Starvationer never captured the true potential of the intermodal container. Nor did the handful of other increasingly sophisticated examples that followed in its wake. These were the amphibians that ventured further outside the water but never left it altogether. McLean's containers are the tetrapods that finally went on to conquer the land.

But explaining all these transformations with the analogy of mutation is too easy. There's an intention to these changes which belies the nature metaphor. In his book Uneven Development, geographer Neil Smith explains that this tendency to describe socio-economic processes by way of nature metaphors has a very specific ideological function: to make these processes seem "normal, God-given, unchangeable".

By talking about the world economy's widespread adoption of the shipping container in terms of mutation, "nature, not human history, is made responsible", as Smith says, "capitalism is treated not as historically contingent but as an inevitable and universal product of nature which, while it may be in full bloom today, can be found in ancient Rome or among bands of marauding monkeys where survival of the fittest is the rule. Capitalism is natural; to fight it is to fight human nature."

Which is to say, this elegant metaphor for the sweeping and highly complex changes to our global economy obscures the man-made tragedy that followed from, among many other things, destroying the industrial power of dock workers and factory workers in cities like Liverpool and Detroit, or allowing the decades-long emptying-out of cities like New York and Amsterdam, leading both places to buckle under the pressure of lost tax revenue for decades. All this was anything but natural. It depended on ideological choices that were made for very partial reasons.

This became all the more stark when the global economy temporarily ground to a halt during the early days of the global pandemic. Thanks to the shipping container, supply chains have become so stretched across the world that it’s now possible for a product’s combined materials to pass through an almost endless array of disparate locations before they reach us in the form of a single consumable object. This bewilderingly vast web of global supply chains is part of what is dubbed the "lean" economy, an approach which sees companies focused on slick “just-in-time” logistics, that help minimise excess waste and capacity through predictive analytics, while extending the manufacturing process across the world, in search of the cheapest place to do each task. The short, sharp shock of the global pandemic laid bare the self-evident folly of a too-heavy reliance on this lean approach, especially when it left supermarket shelves empty and hospitals without basic supplies.

Even so, it would be easy to continue the mutation metaphor into this post-COVID situation. Like the organisms that adapt and mutate to survive a mass extinction, new technology has come to the fore to thrive in the chaos. In the past year, we've seen a plethora of articles vaunting the opportunities presented by the pandemic to introduce new technological solutions that relieve the chokepoints it exposed. Particularly relevant to this discussion are the automated "smart ports" and IoT-enabled smart containers that are being brought in to ensure that the vast network of container-enabled distribution is no longer encumbered by an absence of humans to operate it. Following the metaphor, these new smart solutions simply reflect the global ecosystem reordering itself as a result of new atmospheric conditions.

But what this ignores are all the people's livelihoods that these solutions will destroy and the deeply unsustainable patterns of human consumption they are attempting to sustain.

There's another kind of mutation which explains this process. It's a cancer.