I Ship You Not

Photo by Blake Thornberry / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo by Blake Thornberry / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The social science polymath Richard Rosecrance, in his book The Rise of the Trading State, stipulated the existence of “two worlds” of international relations: a land-based world in which states fight over territory for power and a sea-based world in which states prosper peacefully through international trade.  Despite the imperfection of this theoretical model, Rosecrance was able to tease out a rather interesting implication: that the nature of international relations depended at least in part on the physical properties of the substance upon which those relations ensue.  Land yields war through conquest, where water yields peace through exchange.  Throughout most of human civilization, the land-based world had the upper hand, thus producing the costly wars we observe throughout history.  In step with the liberal school of thought in international relations, Rosecrance theorized that a rise in the influence and prestige of the sea-based system would promote greater peace through interdependence – a supposition that became part and parcel of US foreign policy in the post-WWII global order.  In this new global order, the sea-based system would get the upper hand.

Certainly, this is the case when would look at the data.  As illustrated in the graph below, world exports as a share of global product (or “world GDP”) has increased markedly since WWII.

Source: World Bank
Source: World Bank

And by at least one measure, we appear to be living in one of the safest eras in perhaps all of human civilization.


So, it appears that the liberal world view has won.  Rosecrance’s prognostication of the rise of the sea-based world mitigating the scourge of war seems to pan out.  While there are obviously other factors at play contributing to the decrease in world-wide battle deaths, the interconnectedness of the liberal world economy has arguable been a significant contributor to the era of relative peace in which we now find ourselves.

However, the rise of the sea-based world complicates the international community’s efforts to tackle another looming collective security problem – climate change, an issue for which President Obama recently laid out a new set of regulations and – as the graphic below illustrates – is driven primarily by increased emissions of fossil fuels.

Source: EPA
Source: EPA

While the scholarly discussion of global trade and climate change focuses mostly on events in the land-based world such as the deterioration of environmental regulation due to increased global competition, little scholarly ink has been spilled discussing the nexus of trade and climate change in the sea-based world – international shipping.  This gap in the discourse is particularly interesting given what we know about the environmental effects of container shipping.  It is estimated that 16 container ships produce the same level of pollution as all of the world’s cars, and shipping is responsible for 4.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – figures that are estimated to increase as container shipping increases (see graph below).


While there are some efforts to make shipping more environmentally friendly, the global differentiation in shipping costs produces a wide distribution in shipping efficiency.  At some point, policymakers will have to face the fact that promoting free trade and reducing carbon emissions is an untenable agenda if we ignore the impact of global container shipping, an issue that is often swept under the rug.  As someone who does research on international trade, I find it interesting that scholars have not exposed this inconsistency in the contemporary Western liberal political economic approach.  Politicians across Western countries speak the discourse of expanding free trade and combating climate change without any allusion to the issue at which these two agendas conflict.

So it seems the sea-based world is not without its conflicts.  This time, however, rather than states fighting over Earth, the Earth is fighting with the states.

I ship you not, my friend.


2 thoughts on “I Ship You Not

  1. You’re not going to make a dent in carbon emissions without China and India on board, and neither of them were even signatories to the original Kyoto protocol. Nor are they currently interested in such an arrangement at this point in time. US emissions are declining despite no carbon taxes (increased efficiency), but even if the US stopped emitting tomorrow, it would not make enough of a difference to halt CO2 increases.

    Furthermore, shipping companies have no economic incentive to switch to cleaner burning fuels when they literally cannot be required to use anything in particular in international waters. These ships burn what is essentially one step above asphalt in their engines when out at sea. It’s super cheap and super dirty. When they reach sovereign waters they switch to much more expensive diesel/fuel oil to comply with local emissions requirements (if there are any).

    Any attempt to reduce carbon emissions in a significant manner with today’s technology would crash the world economy. I don’t think this is a winning political or humanitarian move. Developing countries rely too much on fossil fuels. You aren’t going to be able to ask these countries to do without for the sake of the environment. They don’t care. I don’t think we are going to see widespread adoption of renewable energy until we literally run out of oil and the market forces the switchover (which is, well, how things work in general). There have to be economic profits associated with investment in renewables. Oil is simply still too cheap (but we should definitely stop subsidizing it…). Heavy-handed regulation on new nuclear plants doesn’t help either.

    Luckily (in my opinion) the Earth’s climate is probably a bit more resistant to our meddling than we think it is. I believe we have plenty of time to let technology save us from ourselves. I’m worried much more about dem terrrists getting a hold of something that they shouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Josh,

      Aside from your last sentence, I agree with much of what you claim. US unilateral action in the face of a daunting collective action problem will not suffice, shipping companies have little incentive to clean up their act, and the post-recession global economy is hesitant to welcome any new regulations – environmental or otherwise. And I do think the earth is more resilient than many leftist environmentalists would claim.

      However, I would argue that dealing with climate change has much more to do with being able to sustain our modes of production, distribution, and consumption into the future rather than any abstract normative imperative to save Mother Earth. The rock is going to be just fine (until it eventually gets swallowed by the sun, of course). Combating climate change is in many ways an effort to save capitalism from itself (more in a Tragedy of the Commons sense than any Marxist sense). For instance, few would care about rising sea levels if no one owned coastal property. The concern is about an infringement on private property rather the shape of the world’s landmass, which is always naturally shifting and changing anyway.

      Given this, I find it fascinating that the efficiency of global container shipping is relatively ignored in a world dominated by free trade promotion and concerned with climate change. There is a logical inconsistency that is interesting in an academic sense. Policy-wise, some of the claims you make would explain why it is brushed under the rug by politicians. But in my research of this issue, I have found no scholars discussing free trade and climate change with a focus on the interesting role of global container shipping. The lacuna fascinates me.

      Who knows what – if anything – will be done about it all. You may be right that the answer is “mostly nothing.”


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