“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
I thought I’d just drop that line of Wittgenstein in here to explain my failure to write anything to amuse or annoy readers of Splash for a while. I had come to think that something big is going on, and I was not sure what it might be. So I had, by the standards of a Bear of Little Brain, a Hard Think, and what I have been thinking is that our industry is in the middle of some really big changes.
We all grew up with the mental picture of merchant shipping as the near perfect free market. I think that is ceasing to be true. We all know, thanks to Peter Drucker, that we can’t manage what we can’t measure, but a corollary is, “Just because we can’t measure it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening – it means we haven’t worked out how to measure it yet!” There’s a lot of ‘dark matter’ in shipping that we cannot yet measure, but which affects us. Let’s start with boxes.
This is the time of ‘peak container’. The planet wide ‘system’ that is liner shipping using ISO containers is pretty much complete, it isn’t going to change much, nor is it going to grow much further. This is it. The job that Containerisation International set out to do, as a radical campaigning industry magazine, in April 1967, has been done. We have all grown so used to what containerisation looks and sounds and feels like that we no longer remark on it.
As I said before, the container revolution ate all its children, as big revolutions do. None of the shipping companies that started the revolution are in the business in their own names now (no, I haven’t forgotten ‘3J’, now trading as ONE). The victors are all companies with little or no background in ‘liner’ shipping, whose managers had not grown up in the world of the liner conferences, and who saw container space as something to be piled high and sold cheap.
Our ancestors put centuries of effort into building beautiful places for religious worship. These mostly survive, because we think they ought to, but they are not the centres of attention that they once were. They are more visited by the tourist than by the believer. The liner conference tariff was, like a cathedral, the result of the collective efforts of thousands of dedicated people, truly a great work and a thing of great beauty, and it was swept away by the grey box and its inevitable corollary, FAK, as if it had never been.
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (“That is enough Wittgenstein for one column!” I hear you say!) We don’t actually think about the containerised transport of goods, it’s entirely familiar to us. Almost every creature that walks on this planet has seen an ISO container. We use the words that came with containers to describe our world of shipping, and that makes it hard for us to see things in a different way.
But it’s an old technology. Old technologies often carry on into new eras. The Americans who walked on the moon all wore Swiss mechanical wristwatches. Let’s think for a moment of something else that almost everybody alive has seen – the smartphone. Suddenly the ISO container seems old fashioned – big, heavy, clumsy, made of steel, and needing a lot of dirty, noisy effort to move it and its often somewhat unexciting contents around. It may not contain what it says it contains. It may contain contraband, or it may contain people. This isn’t an exciting new idea; it’s our grandparents’ exciting new idea. The romance of containerisation is dead.
Where are all the exciting plans for new container ports, and for even bigger ships? They aren’t anywhere. Those ideas are not exciting, or remunnerative. The economies of scale have been taken. The money isn’t made by owning boxes, or boxboats, or terminals, and even forwarding is pretty unremarkable. The industry is a mature business, and we know what happens to those – they consolidate into a handful of very big players selling boring products on thin margins.
There really has been a change in what the public – anywhere – wants. People don’t want big stuff; they often can’t afford anywhere to put it – and people don’t want to see the planet wrecked any more. People see a container and they think, “Carbon footprint”. People have turned – to our industry’s puzzled surprise – against ‘globalisation’, and container shipping is just about the most ‘globalising’ thing there is. Look around a big container port and at the roads and rail tracks leading to it and you get an uneasy feeling that you might be looking at a white elephant.
Now, what are we going to do? There is always a way to make money with ships…