Containerships and Cannibals

a discussion of containerships and cannibals

Containerships and Cannibals

A while back an on line discussion in the Resilient Futures Forum veered in the direction of looking at the effects of global trade on communities at both end of the global trade pipelines.  I first studied this issue in relationship to the Rhode Island discussion as to whether or not to build a container port at Quonset Point.

A little context.  Rhode Island was an economic powerhouse, one of the richest places in the world, in the 19th century.  This prosperity generally lasted until the Great Depression, but as early as 1920 the signs were upon us that the RI manufacturing powerhouse was leaving town, moving to low wage areas. The last 20 years RI has had very slow economic growth, almost no population growth, and been among the leaders in the country in unemployment.  Ever since the 1950’s the powers that be, political, capitalist, and information in Rhode Island have been looking for the one big thing to get the state back on top.  They have developed report after report on what to do.  The Knowledge and Creative economy buzz are just the latest in a long string of hot topics that generate many words, a few deeds, and no change in conditions.  Actually we do get one change, but  that consistently fails to deliver anything useful for most Rhode Islanders.   We consistently get efforts to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy and on to the rest of the community.  It is called making us more competitive and is consistently used to undermine the social and environmental safety net.   It does nothing to  keep Rhode Island prosperous.

Now it is possible that this consistent effort at boosterism and economic attraction is why Rhode Island still has anything of an economy, but it is at least as likely that a better economy for the people of RI, if not for the ruling class, could be created if our analysis and the actions based on that analysis, more closely matched the reality of planet Earth.  I will return to that point.

I am sure that ever since the Navy closed the base at Quonset the developers in Rhode Island have had some sort of maritime economy wet dream for the property.    The Babbits of RI wanted us to all believe that if you build it they will come.  That if RI had the right port the giants of trade would come to our shores. Playing on this two con men came to the Ocean State peddling the idea of a container port at Quonset.  The powers that be jumped into their arms, offering millions and millions in incentives to get it done. Fortunately a very large part of the citizenry realized this was not a great idea. With the citizenry up in arms the state was forced to organized a large community process to gather information and discuss the topic before committing any more money.  I became a stakeholder.

At the first stakeholder meeting the two conmen, who’s names I never remembered, gave us a powerpoint on global trade and the wonders thereof. Their particular focus was the containerships coming out of Singapore.  It happened that a while before this Co Evolution Quarterly had published an article on the efforts of the Indonesia government to resettle people from the crowded inner islands of Indonesia on to some of the less crowded islands of the archipelago.  The goal was to develop these islands for the export trade, palm oil, sneaker factories , whatever.  Of course it always involved displacing the current residents from their land and destroying the forests that they live in and use in making their livelihoods.     But since when have modern nation states ever demonstrated any concern over what happens to the indigenous forest people when they are in the way of civilization.    And who really cares if the forest people fight back, that is what modern armies are for, and besides mostly the defenders of the forest just kill the folks that were transported to their islands as totally expendable low wage labor in the global sweatshop.

Turns out on this one particular set of islands the traditional warfare pattern included the idea that if you eat the heart of the enemy you kill in battle you will gain his strength.  All well and good in warfare with spears, not very much use when you have a spear and the opponent has an AK 47 and tanks.  So it reminded me of the Ghost Dance of the northern Plains as the Lakota were being forced into the long term reality of life on the reservations.  The people of the northern plains danced the dances, donned the sacred armor, and rode off to be slaughtered by the US Army.

In this case we had people practicing cannibalism, eating the hearts of those invading their land, to avoid becoming collateral damage in the global trade game in which low wages paid by friends of the presidents who get big forest concessions was putting all these cheap plastic and wooden doodads on the boats in Asia to sell in the US to consumers who no longer had jobs because they no longer were required for manufacturing the goods we use in our lives.

At the various meetings I asked questions about whether or not what came through the port on the boats made any difference to the local economy.  Essentially I was told that it is the quantity and value that is important , not what was actually traded.  That what I asked was totally irrelevant in the global trade economy.  In other words, it does not matter that people are losing their homes and dying to feed the global trade machine.  It does not matter that Rhode Islanders are losing jobs because of the obsession with low wages that would only be made worse by what was on the ships, and it makes no difference that the products going on the ships are made via the destruction of the forest and the totally unsustainable use of all sorts of other resources.  There were short term profits to be made and Rhode Island ought to get in line or it would be left behind.

I would like to think that the presentation I made on the topic Containerships and Cannibals,  pointing out how this container trade was creating very bad conditions for the people at both ends of the shipments, made a difference in the struggle that eventually stopped the construction of the container port, but I know better.  What killed the project was that the con men could not deliver shipping lines and had no money.  There was also massive resistance to the port as a factor potentially harming the Narragansett Bay economy that was already in place.  When we were having these discussions in 2001 no one could have anticipated the Great Recession starting in 2007, but it is with a sigh of relief that we remember that with what happened to global trade in the recession, the people of Rhode Island would be in even worse shape than they are now if we were paying for that unused infrastructure.

I found the whole issue to be rather instructive in  the nature of the economic development game and how it works.   And what I have learned since then makes me more confident that the global trade game is a scam.  Immanuel Wallerstein in his work on the world system pointed out two of the conditions necessary for rapid economic growth, access to the resources of forests and massive migration from rural areas to urban areas.

It seems as if the value in forests is so vast that they provide much of the capital that goes into the later steps of development.  Note that occasionally some other natural resource can substitute for wood, such as easy access to fertile plains, oil, coal, or various metals. Forests are this vast storehouse of wealth, resources just standing there for the cutting.  Easy access to wood builds cities, ships, and everything else.  And it is a source of wealth that is then available for building everything else. We like to think that we do not use as much wood anymore, but with the use of paper at an all time high, and as much lumber being used in buildings as ever, that is unlikely.   Notably, nearly every country experiencing rapid growth right now either has uncut forests or easy access to uncut forests.   China is exploiting the forest of South Asia while protecting its own to cut down on flooding.  And while Indonesia is still rapidly growing, its forests are coming to the end of the line, and with that probably we shall see the end of its rapid growth.   So clearly for people at both end of the trade routes  that goes on to or comes in on containerships is not going to create long term prosperity, just contribute to ecological and social decay.

Rhode Island does not have ready access new sources of wood so it makes me wonder  how will they build the new economy in Rhode Island?    Could we rely on immigration to fuel rapid growth? Rhode Island has some immigration from Latin America, and it is the engine that continues to fuel much of our economic development, but with the continuing efforts to stop immigration, we can not count on this to do all that much for the economy of the state either.

My viewpoint is that most places in  the world are going to have to get used to a smaller economy, which is considered blasphemy.  The days of economic growth are mostly over, and that building our resilient future is going to take an intelligent shrinking of the economy on the basis of use less, share more, and heal our ecosystems.  Building our soils, agriculture, forests, and fisheries is going to contribute more to resilience and future prosperity than what travels around the world in containerships.

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