Globalization hits home with a trip to Shanghai

A bird's eye view of the world's busiest port throws consumer demand into sharp perspective

This sunset in Shanghai is an indication of how much coal dust is in the air.

This sunset in Shanghai is an indication of how much coal dust is in the air.

As I flew into Shanghai this summer and looked out my window, I was quite unprepared for the sight — globalization illustrated on the sea below.

What I saw out my window was boats — huge, ocean-going freighters with cargo destined for all points on the globe. It was not so much the size of the boats that was spectacular but the number.

It was like the comings and goings of an ant colony, with each ant weighing more than 100,000 tons.

In 2010, Shanghai passed Singapore to become the world’s busiest port, and now handles more than 30 million containers per year. It’s hard to comprehend that many 20-foot shipping containers, but it is worth thinking about because it impacts our lives here in Langley and around the world.

A few years ago a friend who worked for a Canadian rail company gave me another “big picture.” He was amazed by the increasing size and number of trains moving coal to the coast to be shipped to China.

The amount of coal being exported from Canada continues to increase. In 2010, B.C. shipped $5 billion worth of coal there, easily surpassing B.C.’s wood products industry.

If you widen the window a bit, there is much more to the story. Canada exports coal to 50 countries. It is not surprising that the manufactured goods we buy, from cars to iPods, come largely from the Asian countries that buy our coal.

It’s hard to begin to address the environmental ramifications.

The dozens of coal mines dotting B.C. and Alberta each have their own environmental issues. Then there is the transportation system – freighters, planes and trains.

Then of course, the ramifications of burning more coal than ever before to produce the toys we buy. The air I have breathed in China is not always fresh, and there are cities there where the sunshine is continually impeded by coal dust.

Still, the term “globalization” usually has a positive ring.

Indeed, clouds of coal dust have many silver linings for countries like China now confidently making their way onto the world stage after years of impoverishment. And we hit the buttons on our iPods, happily streaming the music of the world.

How should we think globally? “Act locally, think globally” has more relevance than ever. The local consequences for Langley are fairly clear in terms of railway overpasses.

The recent controversy over the Mufford Street rail overpass was resolved with a solution that consumed less of our precious local farmland than the original proposal. But this required a lot of local action. No doubt there are many such issues to come.  All I can say is “think about it.”

David Clements is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.