The Darth Vader Of Fridays

[ Hanjin container ships unloading at Terminal 46 in Seattle ]

Even Adbustsers couldn’t have come up with a better name for today’s national frenzy of consumerism.  Last I checked, the common connotation of the word “black” hasn’t changed since the dawn of human consciousness.

The term Black Friday originated with Philadelphia police in reference to the crowds and traffic that they had to deal with on that day.  More recently, its usage has morphed to indicate how retailers’ balance sheets often shift from red to black during the Christmas shopping season.  Isn’t that cute?  A large fraction of our country’s retailers survive the year only because we all buy lots of stuff to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

And don’t worry Black Friday bargain hunters, cause even though volumes have plunged during the current recession, the  international container shipping industry has still got you covered.   Apparently somebody still wants what ever is filling up all the neatly stacked metal boxes on the decks of those Hanjin ships at Seattle’s Terminal 46. Each of those ships has capacity for something like 1 million 29-inch TVs, just like the ones people were scrambling for at Walmarts across the country in the wee hours this morning.

In Seattle, our shipping terminals are venerated because they bring diversity to our economy and provide well-paying blue-collar jobs.  But how much does this system of  international trade contribute long-term sustainability?

For starters, we know that our trade deficits with China and other Asian manufacturing countries are unsustainable.  And we also know that international trade can undermine the autonomy and cohesion of local communities on both ends of the transaction.  And we also know that much of what comes in on those container ships is throw-away consumer products.

Container ships are highly energy-efficient at moving goods.  But energy prices and the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels will inevitably shift the equation in favor of local production.  Especially since end distribution from a small number of centralized ports requires significant transport via modes that are less energy-efficient than ships.

The ghost fleet of idle container ships waiting off the coast of Singapore is a preview of the likely eventual fate of international shipping.   And by then hopefully the deranged tradition of Black Friday will be relegated to the dustbin of history.