Travelling in Europe at the height of a pandemic

Covid 19 – picture CDC

Omicron is remarkable. A month ago we were unaware of it, now it threatens – single handedly – to “cancel” Christmas; for some reason, the politicians’ worst fear. It has thrown up a problem for me. At 2300 on 19 December 2021, Germany closed its border with the UK because – yet again – the UK is a considerable source of infection and has to be controlled. A mere 8 hours after the closure of the border, I was to set off on a journey to cross the border.

I am vaccine boosted (but that is no longer enough). I needed a negative PCR test. Bearing in mind it was only 24 hours earlier that the German Government announced the new restrictions, my journey got a whole lot more difficult. I had to search for a PCR test that could be delivered in super-quick time. The recommended testers by Eurostar had no appointments, and even if they did, they had to be done before 1300 for delivery by midnight. That was pushing my itinerary a bit.

I did actually find a company in London with appointments – Concepto Clinic. They have various locations in the UK. I went to the facility in the Hilton Hotel at Canary Wharf on the understanding that the day’s test result would be delivered overnight. It was. On that basis alone, I recommend the experience, despite the expense (all equivalents are similarly priced).

It was necessary. A negative test was required to board the Eurostar in London. Also necessary was a passenger locator form for Belgium (Eurostar terminus is Brussels). The form is online and is validated with a code either sent to the traveller’s email address or mobile phone. The locator form was checked again at Brussels by border police.

 German Emperor Wilhelm II, viewed from Hohenzollern railway bridge, Köln, Germany

I have additionally filled out a locator form for Germany. This form, for the new regulations, asks for a reason for travel. Visiting close relatives is a valid reason to travel. There is also a section on vaccine status, and being able to prove it. It is not entirely clear at the moment whether two jabs constitutes being vaccinated, or whether a booster is required. The form is online and is also validated with a code. My form was accepted by the system, though not checked despite border police being on the train.

One more thing about travelling with Deutsche Bahn, if a connection is missed (which in my experience is pretty common), the train managers do not seem to care that one is on an unscheduled train. There is no explaining to do, they point their machines at the QR code and move on.

The DB Navigator app is a bit of a curiosity. I travel paperless, so the ticket and itinerary are stored within and read by the train managers’ devices. The app informs you whether you are likely to meet your connections. If not, it offers alternative suggestions. I have found these to be not so wise to take up. Today, for example, I was offered a train from Köln involving some regional services as well as intercity. I think that unless one is terribly stuck, regional services point you in the right direction, but not much else. When booking, however, some of the real bargains on offer involve regional services, but when the booking is exclusively intercity, as mine was, they can extend journey times significantly.

Vaccination against Covid-19

Yesterday (14 December 2021) I had my third vaccination to protect against Covid-19. I went to a vaccination centre in Eastbourne, England. Despite the booking chaos prompted by the Prime Minister’s impromptu address to the nation the previous Sunday, the process was ordered with most people arriving with an appointment at the right time.

My two previous vaccinations were Astra Zeneca (AZ) which, it seems, offers little protection against Omicron, hence the need for a “booster”. This time it was Biontech/Pfizer (BPf).

Side effects – AZ (1) made me feel quite unwell. I’d had it administered on a Friday evening, just in case I had a not-good reaction. It is fair to say that regular visits to my bed were required on the next day, a little better on the Sunday. AZ (2) was light by comparison. Life went on as normal.

I am now just short of 24 hours since BPf was injected into my arm. I can report disturbed sleep. I had four hours’ sleep before I roused. Sleep was fitful after that. I now feel a little light-headed, but not in that pleasurable drunk sense. My arm hurts (way worse than AZ). I have just had breakfast. My porridge was welcome and the coffee tasted good, though provided slightly less of a kick than normal. By which I mean, on a normal day, a cup of coffee truly kick starts the day. I sense today that I am going to be a bit lethargic.

COP26 – success or failure?

I’d been counting down the days to COP26 on my twitter feed (@ClimateDaily1). I’d given thought to how to engage with the actual event at my university. I will be joint organising an event in the Business School for which I work on the implications for business. Watch this space.

The implications, however, are different to what I expected. I genuinely thought that COP26 would deliver on banishing fossil fuels from our economies. And that climate mitigation (measures to reduce and eliminate green house gases – GHG – from firms’ accounts) would be the challenge for all firms. Firms would be mandated to do so because of states’ legal commitments to a binding international treaty. But alas not.

I know it is complicated. This is geopolitics after all. Just look at the slow pace of negotiating World Trade Organization trade agreements. I’m told that I should be reassured that for the first time a COP has recognised the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Not just recognised, but also written-in to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The world leaders have signed up to a phase down of coal. Though, it seems that an hour before the final announcement at the COP plenary (13 November 2021), the world had agreed to phase out coal. One word makes a huge difference. I’m told that I should not pay too much attention to that. Coal is finished. Will any bank finance a future coal mine in light of this? Let me hold that thought.

Subsidies – in the 21st century despite years of neo-liberal economic management, we still talk of subsidies. State subsidies for fossil fuels, at least. We would not subsidise fair transitions for working people (mining industry in 1980s Britain, for example), but perfectly happy to do so for Big Oil. Interestingly, the COP drew a distinction between efficient and inefficient subsidies. So not only are we still talking about subsidies, but we now recognise that some subsidies are inefficient. I am not sure that I can get my head around that. Does that mean that states – their finance ministries – (knowingly) support projects with money that does not deliver the stated benefits?

The analogy: bovines are a source of protein for humans, but they are hugely inefficient as a transfer/conversion mechanism. It’s much easier to feed humans the soya protein currently fed to cattle. But still humans do it with state subsidies. In the process those subsidies contribute to deforestation and excessive methane (bovines are methane machines), amongst other. Is that inefficient? What about the huge subsidies that go into the motor industry? Then there is nuclear power. As a means of huge amounts of zero carbon electricity, they are hard to match. Nuclear plants take so much longer to build, even longer to decommission and leave a not-inconsiderable problem with waste. Notwithstanding that, in the UK, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimates (2015) that the electricity generated by nuclear is one-third more than onshore wind (offshore is more expensive), 10 per cent more than large-scale photovoltaic (the UK is not the sunniest country in the world). Though it is cheaper than gas-generation from plants with carbon capture technology fitted. Even that is old thinking. The future is not in national/regional grids; the future is local generation, distribution and storage.

At the beginning of COP, Narenda Modi, India’s PM surprised delegates by announcing his country’s intention to be net carbon zero by 2070. This is at least twenty years later than is needed, but again, the first time that India has set a date. It is that very same India that demanded and defended the change from phase out to phase down. Though China fully endorsed it. Of course, neither China nor India are responsible for the historic carbon emissions that warm the planet. The UK, US and Europe are. I am pretty sure that some of India’s low-lying neighbours are not happy about it. I am pretty sure that some of India’s own low-lying cities, too, fear for their own future as sea-levels rise. China, too, has many low-lying cities. So why do they want to keep burning coal? For the same reason that the government led by Jair Bolsanaro (right) continues to sanction the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? Because they can, because money flows to them for doing so, and because of the elephant in the room, the economic system that delivers their continued power, influence and legacies. They are all men. They operate in either undemocratic systems or have spent their time undermining the democratic institutions in their countries. They are popular populists. They enable consumption.

Whilst I would like to advocate for system change, as young campaigners and activists call for, I do think that we have to work with what we have got. My own history is one of activism. I am acutely aware that no amount of token civil disobedience or mass demonstrating will change things from a political perspective. (Though mass civil disobedience is another matter.) Change will come from us. It is up to us. We must decarbonise our own lives. In so doing we will make choices that will affect the bottom-line of the suppliers of the products that we consume. So, when I run my event on the implications of COP for business in the early spring 2022, it will be on that basis. It will still be a basic market self-interest that motivates firms to become carbon zero in this decade.

NB – I am not finished yet. First Nation people, small-island nations and many developing countries came away with little in comparison with the fossil-fuel lobby that seems to have had unwarranted access to delegates at the COP. This is the subject for another entry.

Adam Tooze’s article is also pertinent here:

Pic: Palácio do Planalto –

The state of cigarette advertising in Germany

This blog draws many readers from searches for cigarette advertising. I have absolutely no idea why people search for cigarette advertising, but they do, and some of my poster snaps have been used by others for all sorts of purposes. Certainly since the pandemic – and perhaps more significantly, the growing importance of e-cigarettes and standard packaging with images of diseased lungs – I’ve been starved of content; and the advertising there has been, seems a shade unimaginative.

Take, for example, Winston (left). The end of the packet is shown to avoid the unpleasant images and also to show how fat is the packet, housing as it does enough cigarettes to kill an elephant. There is an inexplicable link made between the number of cigarettes, taste (grosser geschmack) and value (for money). Not much of a narrative. Winston is an ITG brand in the USA (Imperial tobacco) and is a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco in the rest of the world.

Burton goes for a similar approach, though these are selected by smokers because they are “your [killer] cigarette”. I was not previously aware of Burton cigarettes, but according to cigarettespedia (goodness, an encyclopaedia of cigarettes, soon no reason to come to this site at all), it is a Greek and German brand owned by Tabak House. Seemingly, the brand goes for cheap, and appeals to young people. The taste is, therefore, not really an issue. The nicotine is perhaps more important.

It is not all despair, though. Camel is persisting with its primary colours approach with a touch of marketing brilliance (only joking). These sticks are extra long and therefore extra enjoyable. The subtlety of the slogan doesn’t really translate. It it reflexive, which means the cigarettes enjoy themselves being extra long as well as the smoker? Why do I care?

Also back on the high street is Lucky Strike (Luckies). Of course, this advertising campaign is trying to convince someone that cigarettes are green. The filters here are made of paper (rather than cork?), so that is alright then. Strangely, consumers are advised to put the used filters in the regular waste rather than the recycling bin!

And finally, something I have not reported on before (because it is not common in Germany), is loose rolling tobacco. Spirit with Character, whatever that is supposed to mean attached to a product that has known lethal properties, is certainly attractive in packaging terms. American Spirit has been in all sorts of bother over the years in the US. The Truth Initiative reports that the brand has convinced its customers that the product is less-harmful than competitor products because it is organic. But ironically, the organic claim may well contribute to the product being more harmful than competitor brands with more nicotine by means of “more puffs per cigarette”. Hawk-eyed readers may also consider the use of a representation of a native American to sell a distinctly western capitalist product to be at best unsavoury. The brand is owned by Reynolds American, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

Living with hernias

I am going to open up – literally – a new thread on this blog. It is going to be about health, or perhaps more precisely, ageing and health. It has been prompted by the discovery of two 3cm long hernias after an ultra-sound scan, conducted by a wonderful NHS ultra-sound practitioner who intuitively found hernias, despite looking for something completely different and, apparently, unrelated. I will come back to the apparently in a subsequent post.

The NHS – the National Health Service – to any non-British readers, does not repair inguinal hernias as a matter of course. The position seems to be, if one can adjust behaviour such that the condition can be lived-with, then invasive surgery is unnecessary and/or ill-advised. But living with hernias requires quite a radical – and in some cases embarrassing – adjustment. The embarrassing is having to ask for help all of the time. Yesterday, for example, I was in a shop with a full shopping basket. I had to ask for help to raise it to the counter. Essentially, though, anything that requires heavy lifting has to go. That is pretty radical in my life.

At the time of writing, I was anticipating to be recovering from surgery. Indeed it was three weeks ago today that I went for a Covid-19 PCR test, to be followed by isolation so as to limit the spread of the disease on checking into the hospital on the morning of 15 September 2021. A call the night before from the nursing sister on the ward that was to receive me, confirmed that I was expected the following day. And when I got there at 0745, my name was on a big whiteboard adjacent to the ward – for want of a better phrase – control room/desk.

I was first visited by a nurse who recorded my blood pressure and temperature. She went through the paperwork and assisted with putting some compression socks onto my feet. I was then visited by a surgeon who drew on my body the arrows pointing to the hernias and, presumably, incision points. He went through my consent form. There was something slightly wrong with it, so a change was made and I counter-signed it. He told me that they do not like doing two hernias in one go, but it was left like that. We talked about the nature of “keyhole” surgery in the context of hernias. My understanding developed a little here. In order to do the keyhole surgery, gas has to be pumped into the body to lift tissue to provide surgical access. “You will be sore”, he said.

Next up was the anaesthetist. She went through the paperwork and advised me of the effects of the anaesthetic. I could expect to feel nauseous. I was then visited by another surgeon. For reasons which are now a little blurred, she indicated that she was not the person who could do the surgery that I had now agreed to. She had to find a colleague who was possibly not on duty. I was asked to wait about 30 minutes or so.

In the end it was about 60 minutes before a third surgeon arrived. She was the right surgeon and she was not dressed for surgery. She and her colleagues had obviously been talking about my case. The third surgeon pulled no punches. She told me that had I gone through her clinic, I would not have got this far. She was not satisfied that I understood fully the risks associated with the surgery. Before she would perform it, that risk was going to be spelled out again.

The risk of failure is 5 per cent. I was aware of that, and was prepared to take the risk in order to fix my hernias. The risk is not just 5 per cent of failure. If the procedure, involving the insertion of meshes, fails, it does not just not work. Failure does not leave a patient back where they started. It leaves the patient in a far worse place than just living with the inconvenience of not being able to lift a basket of shopping. It has to be reversed. The process of failure is not nice. Those meshes are rejected, they become infected. Reversal can take as long as five years; that is not just inconvenient, it is also five years of debilitating pain.

The surgeon looked at her watch and said “we still have time to do it. Why not phone your wife and have a chat with her? I will come back in half-an-hour.” When she returned, I had already put my clothes back on. The operation was cancelled. We revisit in a year. This blog entry, then, is part of a process by which I am coming to terms with not having had the surgery, and the physical and mental challenges that decision generated.

Three weeks on, I do not know whether I made the right decision or not. Whilst 5 per cent is high, 95 per cent is higher. But human bodies are such that no one can predict who will be in the 5 per cent, and who the 95 per cent. And if I was the 5 per cent, my professional life would be trashed. I am just about to publish a book, as some readers know, about business strategy and climate change. I have written the book to make my contribution to positive change in the context of my own university teaching, and that of others who will adopt the book. That would go by the wayside, for sure. Five years is a big chunk of life when one is in their late 50s. The surgery can be done later, and it can be done sooner if the pain becomes intolerable.

Every day, the decision is revisited in my head.

Climate revisionism

I am a subscriber to the Economist; not because I like it – though the writing is excellent – but because its free-market ideology is a constant reminder of the challenge the ideology presents for those looking to foster progressive change. So, when I opened this week’s copy, I was hoping to see one dominant factor, climate change. Note it was hope, not expectation.

The Economist is struggling with climate change. The writers/editors know that it is a challenge to business-as-usual. The IPCC report published earlier this week (9 August 2021), has given the the magazine’s editors a way out: sulphates. Every cloud has a silver lining, and sulphates – or more generically, aerosols – are showing themselves to be a way to justify not changing the system that delivers ever-greater climate change.

The IPCC report shows that in burning fossil fuels, sulphates are released into the atmosphere – the lower atmosphere to be precise. These particles actually reflect heat away from the planet and have contributed something in the order of 0.4 degrees Celsius of cooling. Actually scrubbing fossil fuels when they are burned, takes out the sulphates and, hence, makes warming worse (though the benefits to air quality and hence mortality from air polution are significant but peripheral in the argument). Even more interesting is the discernible decrease in sulphates that occurred after 2015 and is detailed here by James Hansen – a colossus in climate science (left). In other words, without sulphates the planet would have already reached 1.5 degrees Celsius warming since pre-industrial times. Readers may well be able to see where this is going?

The sulphates “solution” is at the heart of solar geo-engineering thinking (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s account). If human beings scatter the upper-atmosphere with sulphate particles, the heat would be reflected and the planet cooled. It seems that geo-engineering is back on the agenda for free-market thinkers, even though it is unthinkable for many reasons: political, unintended consequences (some of which are known), etc. Solar geo-engineering is not a solution for the IPCC, however.

In addition, the Economist has gone for another easy option, methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, something-like 10 times the potency of carbon dioxide. However, it stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time. The logic, then, is for methane to be targeted rather than carbon dioxide. Moreover, methane can be monetized (it has a market price), therefore it is easier to attract private investment than simple carbon capture. Here is a question, methane can be captured from human industrial processes, but one of the growing sources of methane is that released from melting ice and permafrost. How is that captured? I think the answer is not to release it in the first place. Zero carbon has to be the target. End.

Pic: By NASA –, (archived), Public Domain,

A reply to a reply

Should I, or should I not, reply to my MP after I received the anticipated inauthentic reply?

Yes, I should:

Thank you for your speedy reply; however, I would have been prepared to wait a little longer for an authentic answer.

Let me take a couple of issues – Britain’s world leadership and China. On the former, it is correct that the UK is well advanced in terms of renewable energy, but that is as far as it goes. Oil exploration licences, new coal mines, extensive road building, cold homes, no discernible investment in carbon capture and storage – leaving it to oil companies will not do (and without which there is no remote possibility of meeting the Paris targets on carbon emissions), aviation taxes (indeed the government has taken them away from damaging domestic routes, if I am not mistaken), carbon pricing more generally, cuts in foreign aid, and, critically, no engagement with the population on what is needed for the transition economy. It is not about recycling. A serious government would level with its citizens. And this will matter at COP26 when every other country asks why the UK is not leading. The UK elected to host COP26.

Second, China. Indeed, China emits a considerable volume of carbon into the atmosphere. But why is that? It is the case that China makes all of our stuff. We outsource our carbon to China. It is disingenuous to blame China for the crisis. But to add to the argument, let us aggregate China’s carbon dioxide emissions since pre-industrial times. It is this period that we use to measure the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees Celsius. I think then you’ll find the UK leading the table of carbon emissions. Certainly, Britain is a world leader, but not in the way that you claim. 

I would be grateful if you would relay these points to Ms Hart.

Kind regards,
Andrew Grantham

IPCC report reply to letter

Yesterday I sent an email to my MP, Sally-Ann Hart with some questions regarding climate change. Seemingly, there is nothing to worry about as the UK is a world leader and it’s China’s fault! And I don’t think I mentioned the weather.

Dear Mr Grantham,

Thank you for contacting me about climate change and weather. 

Tackling climate change is crucial and I am proud of the significant efforts underway to reduce carbon emissions. As the first major economy to legislate to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the UK is a world leader when it comes to tackling climate change and it is important that we as a country continue to take action to help mitigate its effects, which include flooding, costal erosion and other issues caused by extreme weather.  

When we achieve net zero, the UK will have eliminated its contribution to climate change, which as of December 2019 accounted for 1.2 per cent of global emissions. Many other countries will hopefully follow our ambition, particularly those with a much larger share of global emissions, such as China which accounted for nearly 30 per cent. Since 1990 the UK economy has grown by 75 per cent while cutting emissions by 43 per cent. 

As we transition to clean energy, there will still be some role for fossil fuels in the medium term. However, this is not sustainable in the long term and I am pleased that steps have been taken to speed up the transition. In the Energy White Paper, it set out the Government’s future plans for the oil and gas sector. This includes transforming the UK Continental Shelf to be a net zero basin by 2050. In addition, the North Sea Transition Deal creates new business opportunities, jobs and skills as the oil and gas sector works to transition to clean, green energy. I am pleased that the Government will provide opportunities for oil and gas companies to repurpose their operations away from unabated fossil fuels to abatement technologies such as Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS), or clean energy production such as hydrogen. 

Ultimately, the Government is clear that the licensing of domestic oil and gas exploration and production must continue to be compatible with our climate change ambitions. While the Government has supported the sector through the pandemic, which has protected jobs and livelihoods, there can be no ‘return to normal’ due to the context of the UK’s net zero recovery. I am encouraged that oil and gas companies are already responding positively to this challenge. For example, Shell is investing in CCUS technology which acts to capture Carbon Dioxide from fuel combustion and Industrial Process.

Kind regards, 

IPCC report, 9 August 2021

The IPCC reported this morning on the latest evidence on climate change. There’s much to be done. I have little confidence in the British Government, but here is my letter to my MP.

Dear Ms Hart,

In response to the publication of the IPCC 6th report today, the Prime Minister is reported as saying ““Today’s report makes for sobering reading, and it is clear that the next decade is going to be pivotal to securing the future of our planet … I hope today’s report will be a wake-up call for the world to take action now, before we meet in Glasgow in November for the critical Cop26 summit.”
He is correct on many counts:

  • it is sobering reading
  • the next decade will be pivotal
  • it should be a wake-up call to governments worldwide
  • the UK is hosting COP26 in November in Glasgow

On that latter point, one would not know it. Where is the leadership? Alok Sharma is doing good work, but even he is downplaying the urgency when he says that humanity can open up new oil fields and meet targets. That sets a bad example, particularly to crucial G20 countries. Other sources within the governing party are starting to undermine COP26 with the PM’s official spokesperson not fancying an electric vehicle and telling people to freeze bread and not rinse plates before they go into the dishwasher (if they have one)! The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a potential sceptic when it comes to the transition economy and the Sunday Telegraph yesterday echoed that sentiment. Your own party now has a group of MPs, led by Craig Mackinlay, seeking to quash the transition economy on the false grounds that poor people will suffer (they will, but only if your Government wills it to be).

What happened to the Green Homes initiative? Why has the Government issued licences for oil exploration in the Cambo field? Why has the Government not stopped the application for a new deep carbon mine in Cumbria? Why are so many roads being built? Where is the public information about climate change and what a transition economy means and looks like?

I can predict how you will answer these questions. Some authenticity would be appreciated.

Your sincerely,
Andrew Grantham

Book Review: The Box by Marc Levinson

I come from a port city. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Dockers seemed to be a protected species. They seemed well-off (a relative concept) and always at home. They were on strike often. The history of dock workers and their fight against exploitation through casual labour has been told, but I was not aware of it as a child. I inherited the prejudices against feckless dock workers. Levinson, however, confirms that in England, pay gains by dockers in the 1950s were “robust”. So much so that they earned 30 per cent more than the average male by the 1960s. This is precisely the period of my growing up.

The history of life on the “waterfront” is revisited by Levinson as he chronicles the economic and social history of the shipping container. There’s a paradox. One function of the shipping container mirrored that of the steam engine in capital’s fight with labour. It handed power to plutocrats and oligarchs who owned the specialised ports whilst simultaneously, making the work of dock workers – or those who were left – much safer (docking at its height was more dangerous than construction).

Without the shipping container, globalised supply chains would not have been possible. Prior to containerisation, the Waterfront was a huge cost to exporters and importers. Loading and unloading required a lot of men; and it was skilled, too. A badly loaded ship could capsize. Containerisation brought shipping costs down, considerably. So much so, that it became almost costless – a fraction of the overall costs of production. It enabled a true Ricardian revolution of comparative advantage. Of course, the externalities don’t feature. The use of dirty and carbon-laden fuels in ships is on no ledger.

Levinson details the machinations of port employers, unions and shipping companies. It is a story of men with egos – union leaders in New York and New Jersey on the east coast, and their counterparts on the west coast (LA and San Francisco). It is a tale of rejecting mechanisation and fraught negotiations (and strikes) over how many men not only each ship needed to be unloaded, but how many men per hatch. There’s a huge cast of sometimes unsavoury characters to keep track of. It is a story of demarcation – labourers vs crane drivers – and the difference between negotiating to get the best compensation for members’ job losses and negotiating to keep all men in work (on the west coast, the union negotiated a compensation scheme that enabled many men to retire, which was a most welcome opportunity after a life of hard dock labour). It’s a story of competitive politics resulting in public investment in NY Harbor’s piers and creaking and congested supporting infrastructure by politicians trying to maintain their own privilege but failing to see that the future was different and the investment was misplaced. Because all the while, the shipping companies – two in particular – were developing their own docking facilities on virgin land for the logistics of international containerisation.

There was a huge problem, however, preventing the diffusion of containerisation globally. There were no standards. There were firms that had invested in their own standards such as Sea-Land in New York, owned by one of America’s most iconic of entrepreneurs, Malcolm McLean, who constantly outflanked competitors, legislators and dock workers. McLean’s success was one of ad hoc decisions. “Find me someone who can design and build me a crane in 3 months” sums up this approach. By contrast, a west coast shipping company, Matson Navigation Company, a transportation and sugar conglomerate, took a very scientific approach under its President, John E. Cushing. Cushing brought in a university professor to consider holistically the business of containers – from the containers themselves, their loading, fitting, hauling, lifting, to the ships that would carry them and the trucks that would haul them. To use Levinson’s words “Matson moved deliberately. Pan Atlantic [Sea-Land’s original name], under McLean’s control, was a scrappy upstart building a brand new business, and it risked little by acting quickly.” (p80).


An upstart though McClean may have been, he did patent his design for a fitting device that locked containers into place in ships, on trucks or next to one another. If agreeing on a standard size of containers was not painful enough involving a cast of technocrats from organisations such as the ISO, The American Standards Association, The National Defense Transportational Association, The United States Maritime Administration (Marad), the fittings debate was fraught. These standards-setting bodies locked horns with the transportation firms and manufacturers of trailers such as Fruehauf – still a familiar name – Strick Trailers and the National Castings Company. The outcome was a classic fudge because an international standard had to reconcile global differences, whilst enabling firms that had already invested in containers not to lose too much money in converting their existing operations. McLean released his patent. It was then hastily modified over two days in Utrecht where the drawings for the final fittings were made in preparation to be presented to the ISO committee meeting in The Hague on 24 September 1965. That was not quite the end of the story. The new standard had never been tested, so when used on ships or trains they failed. Another group of engineers were needed to add strength to the design. In June 1967, the new design was approved much to the chagrin of existing transportation firms that had invested heavily in the old standard. Lesson – don’t approve standards in haste.

There’s more on standards, but not for this review. I had not realised just how much regulation the freight industry was subject to in the USA at this time. Freight bosses had to be as adept at navigating these restrictions as they did the roads and waterways. There were regulators trying to enforce “fairness”, operators trying to work with and around them, and politicians intervening. The rail companies were hidebound by both regulation and non-standardised gauges. But there were innovations, some of which still run today. A number of these companies rejected containers and provided unique services. The Trailer Train, for example, was an innovation in putting truck trailers on trains. It was run by the Pennsylvania Railroad between Chicago and St Louis starting in 1954. It also innovated in inviting all other rail operators to join creating economies of scale and a standardised operation including revenue collection and sharing. As is ever for these operators, they had legacy stock – boxcars, in particular – that would be redundant if containers were adopted.

Containers on rail passing through Crewe, UK
Containers on rails

In Europe, rail operators were keen to facilitate containerisation. In the UK, British Rail sought to develop freight out of Felixstowe; German and French national rail operators out of Bremerhaven. Rotterdam and Antwerp, were also developing their container operations. Seemingly containers bound for the United States were full of whisky!

And then something I had not really thought about, but troubles me as I write. Malcolm McLean’s success – like many of his ilk – was built on amorality. Business is business. What is legal is to be pursued. In the early years of the container revolution, the Vietnam war was ramping up. With 60 thousand soldiers in the country, the supply lines were vitally important. Vietnam had very poor infrastructure and only a single deep port, Saigon. Military logistics were struggling. McLean said he could he help. McLean transformed the fortunes of a second deep port, Cam Ranh Bay. Before McLean arrived, US military logistics had towed a DeLong pier – a whole 300ft pier – from North Carolina through the Panama Canal and across the pacific to be sunk into the bay. It was then re-inforced to support McClean’s monster cranes, suitable for lifting containers full of armaments and, separately, refrigerated foods.

The operation was hugely profitable for McLean, made more profitable when McLean opted to return to the USA via two Japanese ports, Tokyo/Yokohama and Osaka/Kobe to fill empty containers with consumer electronics. This was, apparently, a typical McLean venture – off the cuff. He is alleged to have simply said, “does anyone known anyone at Mitsui”? Two weeks later, a delegation from Mitsui was inspecting the Sea-Land docks in Newark, New Jersey. Profit and business notwithstanding, Levinson is bold enough to state that without McLean a sustained war effort by the US in Vietnam would have been unlikely. Knowing what we know now, that would perhaps have been a good thing? McLean actually enabled and prolonged the war.

McLean was also behind the development of one of England’s foremost container ports, Felixstowe. Similar to Sea- Land’s development of the container facility in Newark, NJ, Felixstowe was not encumbered by union agreements. it was a small and private wharf dealing with grain and palm oil. In 1966, Sea-Land reinforced the wharf and built a container crane at the fraction of the cost of the Tilbury (London) docks. By 1969 it was the 9th biggest container port (by volume) in the world. Leading the way in Europe was Rotterdam with its deep water, co-operative labour unions and necessary post-war reconstruction.

Supply chains – just-in-time delivery

The shipping container was a driver of globalised supply chains. For as long as shipping costs were high, cheap labour and other resources could not realistically be harnessed. As shipping containers got bigger and ports enabled “inter-modality” and computerised loading and unloading, the unit costs of each container went down, driving trade, economic growth and consumption. The containers became mobile warehouses rendering inventory stock outdated. And one-time empty containers being returned found themselves full of commodities such as soya and even grain. We are also at liberty to think about all of the waste – often public – associated with building container ports. Many were developed without tenants – and never got any. Others did, but tenants migrated to other ports with better facilities or access. These were all paid for by taxpayers. Our consumer products could have been even cheaper had ports and regions not speculatively competed with one another.


The most famous container ship, the Ever Given for getting stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021

Whenever I read books and non-fiction in particular – I am on the look out for environmental factors; acts that become normalised and pushed back nature. Sea-Land’s enormous container operation in Newark, NJ, is a case in point. I have subsequently viewed the area courtesy of Google. It even has a massive Amazon warehouse on it. The development was described in a very matter-of-fact way. The marshland that it colonised was “waste”. Though we know now that it was probably rich in wildlife that was displaced by the development. However, maybe there is a slip of the pen on page 263 in reference to Oakland, CA:

“…a timely $10 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, intended to generate jobs in the depressed city, supplied construction funds. A new terminal was rushed into construction, without a tenant, before new environmental regulations took effect.”

I say “slip of the pen” because I cannot gauge whether Levinson thinks that beating the regulation was a good move or not. Certainly if the development was assumed to have violated forthcoming environmental regulations, then it was not good. And those behind it, knew it. That is a story of environmental destruction, the world over through time. Those who do it, know what they are doing. They know what the impacts are, and they still do it.

The only silver-lining I could find was – cutting a long story short – McLean invested also in land. One piece of land was bought to turn into an intensive pig farm. When the shipping going got tough, the land had to be sold, it is now a park. No pigs.

Levinson’s book is one of these master works. it needed to be written. And it was done well. It is a social history told through the development of a familiar artefact. We are all part of its story and we of it’s. A metal box.


Ever Given By Robert Schwemmer for NOAA’s National Ocean Service – Flickr: Container Ship, CC BY-SA 2.0,