Containerization and the Creation of the Modern World

When the contents of a grounded container ship wash ashore in Cornwall, a discussion ensues about the effect of containerization on modern life.


| June 2015



Shipping containers

Containerization affects more than the realm of the transportation of goods and logistics of the transport sector; it also plays into other areas of knowledge and cultural practices such as architecture, psychology, philosophy, theater and art.

Photo by Fotolia/chungking

Alexander Klose examines the shipping container as a vivid representation of the increasing, world-is-flat globalization of the international economy in The Container Principle (The MIT Press, 2015). Klose argues that containerization signals a change in the fundamental order of thinking and things as it spreads from physical storage to organizational metaphors. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

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The Accident

On the morning of January 18, 2007, nearly 50 miles south of the headlands of Cornwall, a container ship sailing under the British flag in the English Channel was in distress. MSC Napoli was at the very beginning of its journey from Belgium to South Africa via the Portuguese city of Sines when it crossed the destructive path of Hurricane Kyrill. Amid 40-foot-high waves and a 70-mile-per-hour wind, the 26 members of the crew were successfully rescued by helicopter. The disabled freighter was initially supposed to be towed to the nearest harbor, but instead it was put aground off the coast of Cornwall because it was threatening to break apart.

As a result of the continuing poor weather and an alarming starboard tilt of 35 degrees, 116 containers spilled into the sea. The remaining 846 containers stacked on the deck were able to be unloaded by March 9 with the help of a floating pontoon. The recovery of the approximately 1,300 containers stacked below the deck dragged out for months. Of the steel boxes that had gone overboard, 73 washed up along the coast and 11 were spotted on the sea floor. The rest were considered missing.

With a capacity of 4,419 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units— the internationally determined designation for 20-foot standard transport containers), MSC Napoli was a midsize container ship. When it was launched in 1991, under the name CMA CGM Normandie, it was the first fully rigged post-Panamax container ship—that is, the first container ship that was too large (902 feet long and 122 feet wide) to cross the Panama Canal.

A comparison with the dimensions of today’s largest container ships reveals the monstrous growth that remains nearly unchecked in the transport sector, compared to any other industry, despite oil crises, collapses in the capital market, warming climate, and shipwrecks. The French shipping company CMA CGM’s Marco Polo loads up to 16,000 TEUs and measures nearly 1,300 by 180 feet. Produced on order from the world’s largest shipping carrier, the Danish firm A. P. Møller Maersk, the new Triple E Class ships, 1,312 feet long and 194 feet wide and with a loading capacity of up to 18,000 TEUs, set sail in 2013. What will happen if a ship of such proportions loses even a fraction of its payload?