Several grateful tips of the hat to Prospect (and First Drafts) contributor William Davies for pointing out this stupendously good scheme for an investigative project on his blog—the BBC have branded a standard shipping container in brilliant red and are currently following its various passages around the world for a year as a way of illustrating the practicalities (and the power and scope) of globalised trade. “The box,” as they’ve titled it, takes its name from “a fantastic book of the same name by Marc Levinson.” And it does seem to me a miraculously elegant way of mapping the integrated global trade in goods, taking as its subject that most miraculous and elegant of building blocks, the shipping container.
The container story, as wikipedia tells it, is itself an astonishingly recent one: “During the first twenty years of growth [i.e. from 1951, when the first specialised ships began carrying containers between Seattle and Alaska] containerization meant using completely different, and incompatible, container sizes and corner fittings from one country to another”—it was not until 1970 that a true international standard was established. Today, approximately 90 per cent of non-bulk cargo worldwide moves by containers stacked on transport ships. In total, 18m containers make over 200m annual trips, criss-crossing the world and integrating near-seamlessly with road haulage and railways. It’s an infrastructure entirely unequalled in human history.