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World Futures: The Distribution Of Stuff – Part One

on February 8, 2019 - 7:07am
Los Alamos World Futures Institute
People in the world today are dependent on stuff. If one looks at the evolution of humankind, one sees the creation of communities or societies for mutual support in continued existence.
Then one sees societies interacting to trade for needed and desired stuff. Today we have a human society of 7,680,256,619 people, almost 8 billion, organized in various nation-states, needing as well as producing stuff. It is stuff we really need as well as stuff we think we need, absolutely essential through frivolous. And if you go to and do a simple calculation, the world will have 9 billion human inhabitants in 10 years.

Usually “stuff” is related to an economic concept in which economists cite the categories of consumable and durable goods. After all, it is about trading of what is good and what is wanted. Consumable goods last less than three years while durable goods will last longer.

Personally, my image of consumable is much shorter. If I buy a bag of popcorn, consumption is better measured in minutes or hours. In contrast, if I buy a sweatshirt and wear it frequently, it will wear out, most likely in less than three years. In contrast, if I buy a television set I expect it to last a long time (more than three years), barring an accident or other unfortunate incident. Is it durable?

So which category of goods, consumable or durable, has the greatest distribution challenge? To me, it is not the durable. As an example, car, truck, and SUV sales in the United States totaled about 17.3 million vehicles in a recent year. Using an estimated average weight of two tons, this amounts to 34.6 million tons per year or 95,000 tons per day. The amount of food distribution is much higher. In data found on Google, food consumption per day ranged from three to five pounds per person.

Using a value of four pounds per day and a United States population of 328,113,176 (again from on Jan. 29, 2019), 656,000 tons must be distributed daily. In the world distribution, the number becomes 15,363,000 tons per day or, in simple English, over 15 million tons per day. Okay, these are U.S. tons. Converting to metric tons the value is 13.6 million.

These food consumption numbers represent what goes into the tummy. What additional mass must be transported as part of the packaging? To gain a wee bit of insight, I conducted a very unscientific investigation.

I purchased a can of chicken broth that indicated it contained fourteen ounces net. Elsewhere on the label it said about two cups. A cup is 8 ounces making 2 cups 16 ounces, so I crudely measured the liquid content in a kitchen measuring container – 14 ounces. Then I weighed the can. It was 2 ounces. Or one might say the container represented 12.5 percent of the shipping weight. Or, globally, we really have to distribute 17 million tons of packaged food per day. Now assume that the 17 million tons are all distributed by class 8 Tractor-Trailer rigs. Obviously, this is not a solid assumption because ships, trains, planes and automobiles are also involved.

Locally produced food stuffs are distributed by other means and it does not include movement from the grocery store or distribution point to the consumer destination. But it does provide a visceral gut feeling (it is food) for the magnitude of the challenge.

Per data I found, class 8 Tractor-Trailer payloads typically max out at 20 tons. So to move 17 million tons per day you need 850,000 semi-rigs if they only carry one load per day. One can argue that a single rig might move two or three loads per day. But how far is the trip? Assume the average trip is 100 miles. This equates to 85 million miles and at 20 tons per trip the number becomes 1.7 billion ton-miles. Another data point I found is that truck shipping is about 15.6 cents per ton mile. Doing the math, the cost is $265 million per day or about $96,725 billion per year. That comes to about $12 per person per year. Sounds reasonable.

The distribution of food sounds fairly straight forward, but it gets sticky. In September 1952, John Steinbeck’s book East of Eden was published and on March 9, 1955 the movie with James Dean was released in New York City. While not a major part of the film, one aspect is worthy of note. Set in the 1917 timeframe in Salinas, Calif., Adam Trask (played by Raymond Massey), Cal Trask’s (James Dean) father, wants to engage in long-haul shipping of his farm’s lettuce.

The rail cars were loaded with lettuce and ice to keep the lettuce “fresh.” Unfortunately, the ice melts, the lettuce rots, and Adam Trask is greatly affected financially. How do you distribute food, especially perishable food, successfully and do it efficiently on a global scale?

Till next time…
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