...as far as the costs of shipping non-spoilable non-urgent commodities, that is.
…My heart’s in Accra: [T]he cost of shipping water from a bottling plant in Yaqara, Fiji to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was interested in unpacking the everyday mystery of container shipping – how is it possible that we can sell a product for a couple of dollars a bottle despite shipping it 8,000 miles around the world – and in the odd idea that atoms might be more mobile than bits, as we get lots more Fiji water in the US than Fijian music, movies or news.
My estimate then was that... it would cost $0.21 for a liter bottle of Fiji water to make the 8,000 mile journey.... a small fraction of the retail price of a bottle of “premium” imported bottled water....
I got a few details wrong.... That comes out to $0.18 per liter.... These new figures come from my new favorite toy, Maersk’s online shipping rates calculator.... To use Maersk’s calculator, you need to register with the site, download a client browser certificate and accept three server certificates from Maersk before you can access their secure site. But once you do, it’s just a few short clicks before you can calculate the cost of shipping a 20′ container of “umbrellas, sun umbrellas, walking-sticks, seat-sticks, whips, riding-crops and parts thereof” (yes, that’s one of the available categories, along with “bone and meal”, “ores, slag and ash” and “straw, esparto, other plaiting materials and articles of straw, esparto, other plaiting materials) from Auckland to Dubai: $2451.02.
The main thing I’ve found playing with Maersk’s calendar: distance doesn’t matter as much as demand. Americans buy a lot of atoms from China. The Chinese don’t buy nearly as many from the US. A 40′ container filled with household goods, shipped from Shanghai to Houston, TX costs $6169.93. Reverse the trip and ship the same container from Houston to Shanghai and the cost is $3631.07....
As I poke through these maps, schedules and tariffs, I feel like I’m glimpsing a secret world... the sense that these routes and rates, the infrastructure that supports an economy where transPacific bottled water is possible, are the ley lines of globalization, radiating a mysterious and sinister power.