This pissed me off all week. Yesterday, the world’s biggest container ship, M/V Emma Maersk arrived in Felixstowe on her first trip from China to Europe. There has been a degree of pre-Christmas hype about this sailing, revolving around the notion that she is packed with nothing but Christmas presents-to-be. This may be a little off target, as Marc Levinson notes in his history of container shipping, The Box: only one-third of containers transiting Long Beach in 1998 contained consumer goods, the rest being stuffed with intermediate inputs to some industrial process or other. It is, however, an interesting culture echo – Peter Davidson mentions in The Idea of North that Holland is the only country in Europe where Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas doesn’t come from the north, instead coming from Spain on a steamship.
Anyway, Green MEP for the South-East, Dr. Caroline Lucas is furious about the arrival of the Emma Maersk.
“”These are the goods that Europe used to make. We are faced with a country that has an almost absolute advantage in an increasing number of sectors. This a triumph for multinational capital, not for Chinese workers who, as well as suffering from some of the worst labour exploitation on record, are also losing jobs at a phenomenal rate,” she said.
The real cost of the goods that the Emma Maersk is bringing in should include the environment, the markets destroyed in developing countries and the millions of jobs lost.”
The enviroment, eh? According to the Department of Transport, a container ship uses some 0.12MJ of energy per kilometre and a truck as much as 1.2. Plugging in the numbers for a wholly notional trip of 10,000 KM, and noting that the Emma‘s capacity is given as 14,500 TEU=7,250 trucks, we get energy usage of 83,333MJ for the ship with a full load. But if the trucks only go 50 kilometres away from the docks, they have already hugely exceeded that. 7,250×1.2=8,700. Multiplied by 50 that’s 435,000MJ of energy use – and that isn’t even as far as London.
Further, I struggle to see why poorer people in China should be made poorer in order to repatriate low-value manufacturing industries. After all, what kind of a tariff would it take to make Chinese products uncompetitive? I can’t see this happening without big wage cuts for the prospective European workers. After all, though, presumably it won’t be Lucas’s south-eastern constituents who are asked to take a pay cut and a worse job. It’ll be the, ahem, working class.
What on Earth is a Green doing talking the crudest and most aggressive 1980s Tory’s book? We must slash labour costs to compete with China! Keep slashing! Until we’re cheaper than the Chinese! Presumably, Dr. Lucas hasn’t given up the rest of the Green platform, which (rightly) wants a massive reconstruction of the UK’s transport infrastructure, power grid and housing stock. But any such drive to bring back toy assembly jobs would compete directly with infrastructure projects for short-supply trades – an electrician wiring a new factory can’t simultaneously work on an offshore wind turbine.
Charlie Stross predicted, years ago, that environmentalism might split into an anti-technology faction and a “green extropian” one. I think he is right. There is a more fundamental fault line here than the famous realo/fundi divide of the 1980s, which was more like the traditional debate on the Left between democratic change and revolution. On the one hand you have the Worldchanging crowd, who are solution-focused and technophile, on the other you have a spectrum of PR greens from Diddy Dave Cameron to Greenpeace (a great week they chose to try to shut down Didcot power station, no?), the remaining 70s/80s social-revolutionary types, and the increasingly nasty U.S-based apocalypse bunnies. I predict that the media-activists will be forced to choose, that the WC/Worldwatch ones will see their ideas sucked up into the mainstream, where they will have to watch closely that they do not become a figleaf for inaction, and the extremists will shade into the far right at the edges. I also second Blacktriangle’s point here, who quotes the director of the Met Office Tyndall Centre complaining of the demand for “environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric”. I always thought some of the founding ideas of the Green movement were basis democracy and citizens’ right to know, not debate-framing trickery and bullshit.
The serious stuff over, what about some gratuitous ship porn?
Update: To answer a comment, my point about Dr Lucas and labour is that she does not make clear, or does not realise, that making Chinese goods cost-prohibitive would go beyond what could be done with a tariff – a new industry would sprout overnight taking goods out of boxes and putting them back in to disguise their source. As the cost of capital and capital goods is probably equal, and the cost of land far higher in Europe, something has to give. The something is wages.