Enabling Globalization: The Container

By Seth Dixon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Geography, Rhode Island College

When you think of technology and globalization, does your tablet or smartphone come to mind?   While smartphones and tablets play a part in reshaping global economics and culture, the backbone of the modern global economy is actually something that goes unseen by most people, despite its size. In fact, this thing is so ordinary that we fail understand how it has helped to create the network of relationships that enable global corporations and individuals to forge transcontinental linkages.

A container ship being loaded by a portainer crane.

So what is it?

Containers. The ships, railroads, and trucks that transport containers worldwide form the backbone of the global economy. The pace of globalization over the last sixty years has accelerated due to containers; just like canals and railroads defined earlier phases in the development of a global economy. While distance used to be the largest obstacle to regional integration, these successive waves of transportation improvements have functionally made the world a smaller place. Geographers refer to this as the Space-Time Convergence.

This video for students, part of a TED-ED lesson plan, nicely demonstrates the concept of globalization and how containers play a vital role in shipping goods around the world. Economies of scale rely on improved logistics.

While the video emphasizes the contributions of the individual inventor (Malcolm MacLean), the historical, economic, and geographic context meant that someone would have made this breakthrough—the modern world necessitated its invention. Today, there are even ships that are designed to ship other shipping ships (try to say that 3 times fast)!The Blue Marlin: A ship shipping ships.

The container lends itself to intermodal transportation—a container can be moved by train, ship, and truck seamlessly. Last year, NPR’s Planet Money produced an 8-part series that tracked the production and distribution of the T-Shirt.  This series explored many great topics for geo-educators, but I would like to emphasize the podcast on the container; the unsung hero of the global economy. This article and video from the New York Times is a great way to show the magnitude of the largest container vessels that drive the global economy.

The invention of these containers has changed the geography of global shipping, and so many places. As this Smithsonian Magazine interactive shows, the vast majority of the world’s largest ports are now in East Asia.  However, the biggest container ships are too wide to go through the Panama Canal. Because China and the United States are vying for control over seas and vital shipping lanes, China is planning to build a larger canal through Nicaragua.

There is a lot there to talk about with your students:

  • The environmental consequences,
  • The political process between Nicaragua and China,
  • Why might Nicaragua agree to let China do that?
  • Will people be displaced?
  • Is there any way to curb the demand and the need for this project?

Many cities (such as London, Providence, Baltimore, and Sydney) have moved their harbors to deeper waters. Some of the deindustrialized landscapes that we see in waterfront cities are part of this restructuring of the global economy’s ripple effects that can reshape our neighborhoods. As more old shipping containers get discarded, we’ll hopefully see creative ways to recycle them. In the video below you can see how old containers can even reshape our housing.

Additional Questions to Ponder:

1. How is your life impacted by container shipping? If you bought something that says “Made in China,” how did it get to you?

2. Ask your students to look at labels of items they use or own. Discuss how those items may have arrived to the shelves where they were purchased.

3. What are the pros and cons associated with container shipping?

Find Seth on social using @ProfessorDixon. Each week, we’ll be featuring his latest ideas on this blog as well as on @NatGeoEducation.

10 thoughts on “Enabling Globalization: The Container

  1. a) The cargo can be loaded and discharged much faster than for General Cargo ships. Hence, less time is spent in Port.

    b) Consequently, less Port dues are paid by the shipowner.

    c) More voyages per year, hence more income for the shipowner.

    d) Less pilferage, so lower insurance costs for the shipowner.

    e) When compared to General Cargo ships, less number of Crew are required on these ships.

    f) They are usually larger and faster than General Cargo ships.

Leave a Reply