Stef (firecat) wrote,

Nifty book - Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee

In my quest to understand how everything is connected to everything else, and how it is economically feasible to create very inexpensive products by shipping materials all over the world, I just finished reading (on audio) Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. It's a set of essays mostly about shipping modalities, but each essay goes at the subject from a different angle (or several angles).

The book doesn't really answer the "how can things be so cheap?" question but it gets me a step closer to the "how everything is connected" part.

My favorite chapters were:
"A Fleet of One" and "A Fleet of One - II" about a guy who owns a chemical tanker.
"Tight-Assed River" about small boats that push strings of barges ("longer than the Titanic") up and down the Illinois River
"Out in the Sort" about the travels of live lobsters sold by a Nova Scotia company, Clearwater Seafoods (which may make you not want to eat lobster at Asian buffets any more) and the sorting facility at the UPS Worldport facility in Louisville, KY
"Coal Train" about 19,000 ton coal-laden trains more than a mile long and the Union Pacific engineers, conductors, and dispatchers who get them where they're going (the dispatchers sometimes quit the job and go into air traffic controlling, because it is easier).

There are also chapters about a ship-handling course that uses scale models, and a canoe trip; those are good too but they didn't fascinate me.

"Are My Hands Clean?"
Lyrics and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Songtalk Publishing Co. 1985
Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Sweet Honey in the Rock, Live at Carnegie Hall
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world 
35% cotton, 65% polyester, the journey begins in Central America 
In the cotton fields of El Salvador 
In a province soaked in blood, 
Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun 
Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.  

Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill  
A top-forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton through the Panama Canal  
Up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time 
In South Carolina  
At the Burlington mills  
Joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of 

Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela Where oil 
riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day 
Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world, 
Upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago 
Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas 
To the factories of Dupont 
On the way to the Burlington mills 
In South Carolina 
To meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador 

In South Carolina 
Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric 
for Sears 
Who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea 
Headed for Haiti this time—May she be one day soon free— 
Far from the Port-au-Prince palace 
Third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications 
For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse 

It leaves the third world for the last time 
Coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me 
This third world sister 
And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse 
On sale for 20% discount 

Are my hands clean? 
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