I can recall the economists, bureaucrats and investors rejoicing loudly and proudly when the Commerce Department announced that U.S. exports were rising overall, as much as $28.8 billion higher than the year before. But what the department made less noise about and even failed to mention in many instances, was the rising tide of imports, which were up as much or more, around $26.4 billion between the year 2007 and 2008.
I also read an article explaining that the nation’s seaports, airports, railways and highways were still faced with moving an additional $40 billion worth of stuff in and out across our borders, on top of the $330 billion worth of stuff that’s already going in and out each month. These figures omit the increases in the import cost that comes from rising oil prices, which is a huge factor.
But imports of consumer and industrial goods continue to dominate over exports in our trade balance. This is what is called a “trade deficit”. We make and export far less than we import and consume and this has had a huge impact on our economy and current inability to pull ourselves out of the recession. And the need for imports just keeps rising as our capacity to manufacture those items keeps disappearing. The hauling, sorting and delivering of all these foreign-made goods has evolved into a fast-growing, high-tech, high-profit industry. On that end, those that profit from this business are hard pressed to slow it down or correct the imbalance and this is also a huge part of our current picture.
Our local Port Authority here on the space coast in Florida releases data on a regular basis about the volumes of imports that cross our water borders. They are saying that the port and all ports are now handling about 1 1/2 billion tons of goods every year and that they expect waterborne container traffic to double by 2020. And, as you know, if you are a shopper in the big box stores, as we all are, most of these little imported goodies come from Asia, in particular Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and China.
Most of these imports enter the United States through the twin seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, they comprise the third-largest container-handling facility in the world, receiving 40 percent of all imports entering the country. Traffic through the two ports is expected to triple within 15 years. These are amazing numbers and if you use your head when you think about it you can clearly see how our self indulgent habits have driven the wealth ratio of countries around the world. Countries where citizens buy very little and live spartan lives. Many of these goods are made by slaves, children who work for food and shelter.
But getting back to my subject, the impact of these imports on the environment is horrific. At the places where these ships, trains and trucks converge, the air is so polluted you could cut it with a knife. Consider also that cargo ships use the lowest of low-quality diesel oil, and the fuel used by freight trains isn’t much better. Trucks burn a greater quantity of fuel per ton hauled, with correspondingly high emissions. All of this adds up to a huge carbon footprint brought about by our driving demand for new toys and our inability to just make our own.
Figures determined by the Los Angeles and Long Beach authorities show that the movement of cargo through their ports was responsible for 6,000 tons of particle matter in 2005. This matter includes soot, smoke, dust, organic matter and other microscopic flecks that can invade deep into the lungs and is a known cause of cancer. These figures also show more than 46,000 tons of nitrogen and sulfur oxides. These are chemicals that can cause slow suffocation and brain hypoxia if exposure is great enough.
According to studies, emissions from oceangoing vessels caused 60,000 premature deaths in 2002. With increasing trade, the number of such deaths is projected to rise 40 percent by 2012. Ships’ crews, dock workers, truckers, other port personnel and local residents are all vulnerable. It is a known fact that particulate matter produced by burning diesel oil has been associated with lung cancer, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, decreased lung function in children and infant mortality.
If this doesn’t concern you, then consider this. According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a relatively small community of 50,000 people living on the fringes of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports suffers 25 new cases of cancer each year because of diesel pollution from ships, trucks and dock equipment. These are current figures. Similar cancer risks were found for people living near railroads and rail yards. According to the same agency, people living within a several mile radius around sea ports are dieing from exposure to air pollutants to the tune of 75 new cases a year! I live right on the skirts of a port in my community, a port with a large foreign trade center and a big number of ships. It is very unnerving to read numbers like this and realize, with trepidation, that nothing is being done except more orders are being placed for new toys from the Orient.
In 2008, an all time record was set with imports topping $2 trillion dollars for the first time. This does not include oil imports, which amounted to about another $2 trillion, also a record. I am not so sure about this moment in 2009, as the numbers have not been totaled yet but it is my bet that even with our tight wallets we still make every effort to purchase the goodies we want so much. Imported goods account for more of these desired items.
During the process, merchandise never sits in one place for long. It is moved out of the ports, sorted at sophisticated warehouse complexes known as “logistics facilities,” and distributed throughout the country as quickly as possible. In recent years California has seen construction of these special warehouses covering as much or more than 330 million square feet. To get a mental picture of this massive undertaking, imagine 7300 football fields paved and enclosed in concrete. This is an enormous development that underscores the true magnitude of our consumption of imported goods and remember that all this warehousing and trucking triples and quadriples the amount of traffic moving in any given area. This requires the removal of natural landscapes in favor of concrete and brick and the amount of emissions it creates is staggering.
Consider any product moving from an Asian sweatshop to the shelves in Walmart. I hate to pick on Walmart, they are not the only purveyor of imported goods, they are just the most visible. This product is destined to sell for $10, let’s say. By the time this item arrives at Walmart, it has traveled many thousands of miles on diesel burning cargo ships and required a dozen concrete warehouses along the way, not to mention the trees that are taken down to develop packaging. It also spends many days and miles on trucks, which also burn diesel at a high rate. And the warehouses where it is stored often require air conditioning and stevedoring, more energy consumption. This is a scary trail of carbon that eventually will smother every port and port side neighborhood along the polluted path. It will also drain the gas pumps we all rely on so much.
Take this one step further and imagine that it sits on the shelf in the store, in it’s cardboard box, under air, waiting for the buyer. And then buyer drives around looking for it, using gas as he goes, buys it, takes it home, uses it for awhile and then, guess what? It’s tossed in the trash and ends up in the landfill, where they mostly remain today and for ever from here on.
With a rising tide of imports from China and other countries choking the ports and major highways of the country, the goods-transport system is looking for alternate routes. The traffic jams can cost a company big money because the longer the product sits in the truck, the longer it takes for you to buy it and for the company to get its money back for the cost of manufacture. So they are now using rail lines out of Mexico to move this stuff into the southwestern US. But what does this do for us, other than get the product out of the traffic jam? It extends the route from the sweatshop to store shelf thereby using more gas, staying in more warehouses, eating up more of our air. On the southeastern side of the country, the railways have been developing yet another intermodal hub, south of Kansas City. It has the potential for 23 million square feet of warehouse space on 970 acres of land. Aerable land, I assume.
In 2008, in response to this scenario, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced a “Clean Air Action Plan,” characterized as “the most comprehensive strategy to cut air pollution and reduce health risks ever produced for a global seaport complex.” The goal has been to reduce emissions of diesel pollutants by almost 50 percent in five years. The Port of Long Beach has since been calling itself the “Green Port” but I cannot find anything on their website where numbers are posted that make sense to the average reader. They have clearly outlined their plans and it has been over a year since the programs started but it’s hard to tell if they are working.
As part of the program, trucks entering either of two big Southern California ports have to comply with new rules on emissions and safety, and older trucks with poorer pollution controls are banned. On top of that, the Los Angeles port has decreed that only drivers who are employees of trucking firms, not independent contractors, will be allowed to enter the port. American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents most of the nation’s trucking companies, has sued the port over this.
I read another article about this matter where it was stated that the lever the ATA is employing in its effort to overturn the Clean Air Action Plan is the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause, it is claimed, prohibits states and localities from interfering with interstate trade. Economist John Husing of Redlands, Calif., who has done analyses of the region’s goods-transport industry under contracts with the ports and the Southern California Association of Governments, believes that the industry’s constitutional argument will succeed. This is another sad day for environmentalists as the states are again held hostage by big biz and not allowed to create their own environments. There have been lawsuits going in every direction over this, from the trucking industry to the maritime groups, but nothing has yet been decided. The Clean Air Action Plan is still in place at this time. But, once again, there is no easy measure by which I can ascertain if it is actually working.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and an office in Los Angeles, filed a “motion to intervene” in opposition to ATA’s lawsuit. Other groups, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have joined NRDC in supporting the new environmental regulations at the Southern California ports. NRDC is in favor of the Clean Air Action Plan, as you can imagine. Their spokesperson, Jessica Lass, has been quoted as saying, “We support the plan because more management oversight is needed at the ports, to improve efficiency. Trucks need to be fully loaded, to minimize the number of trips in and out. And we need to be sure they are fuel-efficient and well maintained.”
But if you think the problem of controlling trucks is a problem, wait until you see how hard it is going to be to regulate ships. 90% of the vessels coming into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are foreign-owned and -flagged. They are under foreign control and basically not under our law, so regulating them is nearly impossible. And waiting around for these foreign elements to consider our smog problem and carbon footprint is a waste of time. All any of these characters cares about is making money for themselves and their loved ones, the rest of the world be damned. There is nothing that I get more tired of hearing is the old adage, “I’ll be dead and gone”, referring to future calamities. The other one I despise is, “This is the way it’s always been done”. Enough.
In the naive hope that they will have some minor impact, the EPA has a voluntary program under which some ships will use better grades of fuel in their auxiliary engines (which they switch to when they’re in and around ports), reduce their speed near ports, and plug into shore-based power sources when at dock. NRDC hails the program as a step forward but I must say that I don’t hold out much hope for the EPA. If you read my blog, you know what I think of them.
Now, I know you are thinking, what does all this dismal news have to do with me? And what can little old me do about it? Well, you have to think about this. The sheer volume of imports, growing by the day, threatens to overwhelm all attempts to clean up the environment along trade routes, in landfills and even in your neighborhood. The value of goods being imported nationwide has risen 68 percent just in the past decade. That’s adjusted for inflation and doesn’t include oil.
If we could find a way to slow the growth of imports or even make deep cuts in what we are already importing, it would not only help clean the air it would also make it easier to clean up our gasping oceans, reduce the number of trees that are being harvested and reduce the horrid effects of noise pollution. In other words, lessening our purchase of imports would address those and a host of other environmental and human-rights problems created by overproduction and overconsumption. Think of the slaves they use just to make that blouse you’re wearing. But please don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming you. You did not make these theives go about raping the planet for money but you are complicit in it through your buying habits. Currently, the problem is escalating because , with an increasingly fragile economy that depends so heavily on consumer spending, politicians and economists continue to call for more trade, not less. They just keep hoping and praying that we will get busy with our credit cards again and save them from their own self indulgent disaster.
Remember our last economic slide, a few years back? Didn’t George Bush tell us to fix it by “going shopping”? Everybody should “go shopping” he said. Didn’t that strike you as odd? It did me. But it was a wake up call for me when I suddenly realized that the whole world was getting rich on the backs of American debt. We buy everything from the rest of the world and, at the same time, we owe them interest on the money we used to buy their imports. It’s a crazy, convoluted web of financial shenanigans and it’s ruining not only our lifestyles, it’s destroying the planet, too.
Our current administration does not offer solutions, either. Obama’s Government Web site says, “Obama believes that trade with foreign nations should strengthen the American economy and create more American jobs.” In practice, he appears to vacillate between advocating mild trade regulations (for which critics repeatedly brand him as a “protectionist”) and flirting with “strong dollar” policies that would bring in even higher volumes of imports. There was one small glimmer of hope (or so it seemed) when he imposed tariffs on imported Chinese tires. However, I do not understand why it was only tires.. and why nothing has ever been done even as we’ve been poisoned by imports time and again. Here in Florida we are currently under siege with a catastrophe caused by imported Chinese drywall. People are losing their homes over this and, yet, I bet they do nothing to restrict it. That is why we cannot just expect the powers to be to fix this and get it right.
Interestingly enough, I noted an article online that pointed out some interesting theories. According to this writer, some of the flow through our ports seems almost circular. This means trade for the sake of trade. In some of the categories that the U.S. Census Bureau uses to tally trade, such as “pleasure boats and motors,” “toiletries and cosmetics” and “medicinal equipment,” the dollar values of goods coming in and going out are strikingly similar. So there is no real big profit for what is imported in these instances, it is simply being done because money is being made on the other end.
Now, considering all this madness and money hysteria, you must realize that all this activity, both inbound and outbound, creates a lot of pollution along with the money that is being sought. But because of the money they are making, no one on either side of the battle over pollution control around ports, roads and railways seems to be urging a rollback of imports. They are talking about everything else but never that. And now, with an economy just begging for jobs, no matter what kind, the expansion of imports and the need for packers, truckers, stevedores and shop managers creates these kinds of jobs. But the payoff is only half of what it could be. As long as we do not make these goods ourselves, then we lose out on the biggest part of the profits and when it comes down to cleaning this place up, that is going to cost us more than we can imagine in the long run. The money being made now may not be worth it after all.
Overall, environmentalists are focusing on pollution control, carbon counting, emission standards, laboring under the assumption that demand for imports cannot be stemmed. That is where you must come in. Yes, we need jobs, we need money and we need products. But we need to cut back on buying so many imports and focus more on homemade, grass roots business and products. When the big box stores drove mom and pop out of business they went into the cheap import business, buying from slave driven economies that we just can’t compete with. Our standard of living outpaces theirs and so our need for income is much higher. Only if we start buying here at home will we start making here at home again on a large enough scale to give us all worthwhile employment.
We need to also work on making our ports, highways and airports more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Cleaning up emissions is a part of it but not all. We have to get a grip on our “purchase driven” lifestyles and get a grip on how and what we buy. Unfortunately, this painful, miserable recession we are all wallowing in right now is a part of that process. You can speed it up by stopping your spending and when you do buy, be careful what you buy and where it comes from. A clean-running economy that can thrive on less production and less importation of consumer goods would look very different from today’s economy. It could be our future.. our shining future.. but it won’t be if we don’t take action.. and soon.