Around the world in a shopping cart

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.

november, by grace

PHOTO POST

So we’ve made it this far … and what’s not to love about this November in this place?

When dawn comes cold, the frost shines so brightly that winter feels near. But by afternoon, in a sunny spot out of the wind, summer feels close too.

With most of the south-migrating birds long gone, those who remain – whether for a few more weeks or for the whole winter – are even more precious to watch.

Drama Swans

And warm afternoons, just before sunset, are a great hour for bird-watching.

Neon Cormorant

The Catch

To The Nines

The Speed of Setting Sun

Merganser, She Appears

In the right time and place, it matters little if no birds appear; the play of light with sky and water is enough.

Clearly, perpendicular

The light of sunrise is different – cold, you might say, perhaps even harsh.

Blue Spirits of Dawn

But minute by minute the frost turns to soft dew and the colours get warm.

Just Chill

Under Tension, 1

Under Tension, 2

Deep in the forest the day is brief – until a momentary breakthrough of sun, just before it dips behind a hill, illuminates the understory.

Fall Forest Flash


At top of page: Three November Lights

‘This is a key conversation to have.’

This afternoon Post Carbon Institute announced the release of the new book Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency. That brings to fruition a project more than two-and-a-half years in the making.

Cover of Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency

In May 2019, I received an email from Clifford Cobb, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. He asked if I would consider serving as Guest Editor for an issue of the Journal, addressing “problems of transition to a world of climate instability and rising energy prices.” I said “yes” – and then, month by month, learned how difficult it can be to assemble a book-length collection of essays. In July, 2020, this was published by Wiley and made accessible to academic readers around the world.

It had always been a goal, however, to also release this collection as a printed volume, for the general public, at an accessible price. With the help of the Post Carbon Institute that plan is now realized. On their website you can download the book’s Introduction –which sets the context and gives an overview of each chapter – at no cost; download the entire book in pdf format for only $9.99US; or find online retailers around the world to buy the print edition of the book.

Advance praise for Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency:

“Energy descent is crucial to stopping climate and ecological breakdown. This is a key conversation to have.” – Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, author of Being The Change

“This lively and insightful collection is highly significant for identifying key trends in transitioning to low-energy futures.” – Anitra Nelson, author of Small is Necessary

“The contributors to this volume have done us a tremendous service.” – Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute, author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

“For those already applying permaculture in their lives and livelihoods, this collection of essays is affirmation that we are on the right track for creative adaption to a world of less. This book helps fill the conceptual black hole that still prevails in academia, media, business and politics.” – David Holmgren, co-originator of Permaculture, author of RetroSuburbia

“The contributors explain why it is time to stop thinking so much about efficiency and start thinking about sufficiency: how much do we really need? What’s the best tool to do the job? What is enough? They describe a future that is not just sustainable but is regenerative, and where there is enough for everyone living in a low-carbon world.” – Lloyd Alter, Design Editor at treehugger.com and author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More Than Ever


Some sources for the print edition:

In North America, Barnes & Noble

In Britain, Blackwell’s  and Waterstones

In Australia, Booktopia

Worldwide, from Amazon

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.