Perhaps the most dramatic shift of all has been how quickly hundreds of millions have joined the middle class. Economies may have stumbled in recent months and years, but vast numbers of new consumers have adopted many of the desires that once defined the world's wealthiest nations.
Global trade has brought appetites around the world to a new level, as more people, with more money, seek to consume more of almost everything. The shifts can be as dramatic as they are predictable—from grain-based diets to ever increasing amounts of fish and meat, from locally produced goods to internationally branded products, and from meeting modest needs to embracing grand material aspirations. Our world is knit together by new bonds of trade and consumption—and by our shared fate in the face of financial crisis.
The roots of international trade, of course, stretch back to the dawn of civilization—from the flint and obsidian stone exchanged throughout the ancient Levant and along the pre-Columbian trade routes of South America, to the Phoenicians' early seafaring trade in cedar and dyes, to the famous Silk Road, the vast network of trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean for more than a thousand years.
Yet, despite its deep roots, modern global trade is unlike anything the world has seen before. China may once again have become an anchor of international trade, but the Middle Kingdom now is known more for its rapid development and industrialization than as a source of silk, spices, and other luxuries. Today goods are manufactured in every corner of the world, and shipped in every direction. Nations such as Brazil and India are also hubs now, of production, certainly, and of consumption, as years of intense trade and remarkable economic growth have allowed millions to join the ranks of the world's middle class.
What is the meaning of the goods we ship? Sometimes iron ore is just iron ore, but many products carry with them ideas, identities, ideologies, and impacts that far outweigh the gross weight listed on their manifest. Just as the Silk Road helped spread religious, cultural, and artistic ideas in ancient times, today's accelerated global trade is creating its own consumer demand, and blurring national and cultural lines in the process. Our tastes and preferences still differ, but when it comes to how much we consume, of what, and with what environmental consequences, no factor matters more than our level of affluence.
International trade in goods has improved many lives—but not without costs and inequities. Global shipping, and the supply-chain strategies it supports, has been built on the expectation of ongoing economic growth and low, stable fuel prices—and with little regard for the world's environment or, too often, for the more than one billion people who still live in abject poverty, on less than one U.S. dollar a day. The culture of consumption has exacted a steep price on the planet and many of its residents. Today the future of our world economic system is uncertain: Many of the raw materials that have fueled economic growth are becoming more scarce, and the intensifying threat of devastating climate change hangs over all of our heads.
The world has undergone vast changes in trade and transport over the past half century. Yet that may all end up being no more than prelude to yet more changes to come.