The Colombo Bay
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact that container ships have had on our lives. By dramatically reducing the cost and speed of shipping goods around the world, they have made possible the unparalleled standard of living enjoyed by most in the developing world. That more of us are better fed, better clothed, and better informed than at any other time in human history is due in no small part to the unassuming steel boxes stacked by the thousands in ports from Baltimore to Bangkok that carry 90 percent of the world's cargo. First envisioned in 1937 by trucking company owner Malcolm McLean, this paradigm shift in shipping has also resulted in the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States. the establishment of vast, unregulated factories throughout the Third World, and the disruption of local economies. In short, the container ship made globalization possible.
In September 2001, Richard Pollak, a contributing editor to The Nation, flew from New York to Hong Kong and shipped out with the container ship Colombo Bay for a five-week trip back to New York. Given his tenure at America's leading progressive magazine and the world-historical significance of his subject, the resulting book, The Colombo Bay, might have been a searing indictment of the shipping industry, a thoughtful exploration of the nuances of globalization, or an idiosyncratic travel adventure. Instead, it is an intermittently informative narrative of an uneventful cruise that only suggests--largely through facts and anecdotes that Pollak could have uncovered without ever leaving his Manhattan apartment--the vast implications of container shipping. Setting sail two days after Sept. 11, Pollak devotes considerable space to his ongoing dilemma about whether or not to abandon his story and return to New York. Two years after the event, this hand-wringing is less interesting than the stories taking place around him on board, in port, and throughout the international process of production and consumption.
This story demanded an investigative reporter (or perhaps a novelist); in Pollak, it got a curious and benign tourist. The ship's multinational crew, with the exception of its decent English master, receives only cursory treatment, parading through the book like colorful minor characters in a Bildungsroman. Pollak is more engaging on the details of container-ship technology and the ease with which containers can be used for smuggling goods, people, and perhaps weapons of mass destruction. Overall, though, he missed an important opportunity to offer original insights on globalization and its discontents.