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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Awesome Map of World Trade and Shipping

A Billion Tons Cross the Seas Every Month

UCL’s Energy Institute has created an mesmerizing time lapse of global shipping, plotting every single commercial cargo ship’s position, speed, and route around the globe for one year. You can play around with the map to show individual ships and routes by type of cargo: gas, liquids, raw materials, cars, and container ships. 

At any given time, tens of thousands of cargo ships (some over a quarter mile long) are moving 14 million shipping containers, 60 million cubic meters of gas, and 10 million kilotons of vehicles on the sea. In total, shipping moves 11 billion tons of stuff around the planet each year.

It’s awe-inspiring how vast this network of spontaneous trade has become. Even without a world map, you can clearly see all the world’s coastlines (and many canals and rivers) clearly outlined just by shipping routes.

Created by

The most incredible thing about this story, this symphony of human activity, is that there is nobody in charge, nobody planning it, no central intelligence telling people to move this or that from here to there. And yet it happens anyway: millions of people cooperating with each other across thousands of miles of road, river, air, and ocean, despite different religions, ideologies, languages, and goals. And it happens to bring us all of the things we want and need every day.

The mining, manufacturing, processing, production, retail, and consumption that created the hundreds of millions data points that went into this UCL map resulted from countless trillions of tiny decisions, connecting billions of people with each other through the magic of price system.

This was Leonard Read’s insight in his classic I, Pencil essay: for the trifling sum we each are willing to spend on something like a pencil, a rippling chain reaction spreads across the globe, touching off decisions by loggers, miners, oil drillers, chemists, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, shippers, communications networks, and countless others in dozens of countries — hardy any of whom know or even care that you want a pencil — that nonetheless results in an affordable, high quality writing implement in your hands whenever you want it.

Nobody could do it on their own; we all rely on a staggering chain of voluntary, unplanned cooperation to achieve even the simplest things. You couldn’t plan it even if you tried, because it is impossible sum up all the bits of knowledge that are dispersed throughout those millions of minds. The market connects each of us this network of billions of minds, producing countless bits of information about very specific circumstances, plans, and desires, and then coordinates our activities without anyone being coerced or ordered around or even aware of it.

This constantly evolving network of increasingly specialized knowledge and trade is the key to the increasing wealth, health, and prosperity of the human race. It’s incredibly sad that some people look at this monumental human achievement and see only swarthy foreigners conniving to “steal our jobs.” 

This map (and others of human trade, travel, and migration) show the beating heart of global civilization. Let’s never lose sight of that.

Bonus: here is an even more beautiful visualization of 24 hours of air traffic over Europe: 

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.