by Peter Pharos

Footprints In The Sand

Given my fondness for wine writing, you won’t be surprised to hear I like other pointless discussions too. So I enjoyed the noise generated by a recent New York Times Op-Ed criticising the “Anthropocene” label, a term employed to describe the new geological epoch human intervention has brought on the planet. My own issues with it are etymological. After all, those that extract fossil fuels, let alone those that profit from them, tend to look down, not up. (A little language puzzle for those of you that are so inclined.) But, as the piece ably covers, there are better reasons to dislike the semiotics of the Anthropocene, not least of which the implication that we are all more-or-less equally responsible. It is not a coincidence that a counterproposal for the name of the mess we find ourselves in is the Capitalocene, which, while far from perfect, at least tries to frame the problem more accurately.

Indeed, the absurdity of current discourse is two-pronged. On the one hand, the suggestion that we can change the biggest threat to humankind since the invention of nuclear weapons by tinkering around the edges. On the other, the tacit assumption that not only we are all more-or-less equally responsible, but that we all have a more-or-less equal role to play in fixing this, the Tesco approach to sustainability. It reminds me of a scene in the much re-assessed Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers. In this, Earth is under attack by swarms of giant alien insectoids. TV advertisements urge everyone to “do your part” – cue footage of children fiercely squashing harmless household bugs. With the vital difference, of course, that in that world the Earth is actually under general mobilisation.

If this reads both gloomier, and less vinous, than you would expect from a wine column, I am coming to you with great news. If you are a wine drinker, or as the wine trade it would have it a “consumer”, sustainability can easily have no consideration in your wine selection. By all means, do buy and drink wine, whose producers (you think) share your views, aesthetics, and politics. But, realistically, if your wine choices make a measurable impact on your household’s carbon footprint, the main thing you need to do, urgently and drastically, is cut down on wine. Though by the time it will take you to finish reading this paragraph, cirrhosis has probably kicked in and you’re already dead.

I also come with similarly deterministic news on the rest of your consumer habits. Unless your choices are really extreme, really well engineered, and you possess a superhuman insight into the production practices of the goods and services you buy, your carbon footprint will invariably end up being directly related to the country you live in, your assets and your spending. Eat local to your heart’s content – a single holiday flight will turn it into an irrelevance. Have you cut down on those and now holiday in the UK? Surprisingly, that second home you bought in Wales is not net zero. Nor are all the Vitamin D pills you now need.

The collective delusion of the past 20 years has been the belief that we can solve a major global challenge by doing nothing much. That, somehow, largely aesthetic changes to our buying habits will save the world; an argument that makes about as much sense as saying that you can set up your own National Health Service by buying differently coloured plasters. A slyer variant of this argument is government “nudging” enterprises to the path of virtue via cleverly structured incentives and other invocations of the Almighty deity of the Western world, the Free Market. The idea is Lampedusa in reverse: everything will change, by everything staying as it is.

These trends are universal, and so can be easily found in the wine industry too. One expression is the joint belief in the power of green marketing and producers’ good intentions. In this narrative, consumers will reward sustainable practices, or at least the advertising of sustainable practices (as, like most things in wine, drinkers rely on things being as producers say they are). The parallel argument is that the wine trade will collectively switch habits, effectively performing commercial seppuku, due to some vague obligation to the planet. Given the psychotropic nature of alcohol, this effectively paints wine producers as some sort of saintly drug dealers.

It is the edge-tinkering though that provides the belly laughs. My personal favourite is the recent obsession with the weight of glass bottles. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I couldn’t care less if wine is packaged in glass, plastic, cardboard, or the entrails of domesticated animals. I have my concerns on ageing and quality but, hey, I will compromise if the fate of the world rests on it. In a way, I would welcome all wine coming in identical Tetra Paks and the resulting price collapse it would bring – it’s my only chance of ever drinking Screaming Eagle. But I don’t make my living making or selling wine.

The argument is so amusing because it is an excellent exhibition of the free market and nudge fallacies. It starts with exaggerated numbers on the importance of glass weight, distracting from bigger questions. It continues with the inevitable intellectual contortions. If glass is so bad, then we should probably look into abolishing it altogether, shouldn’t we? But, unless we plan to torch the entire business model, that’s clearly not going to work, so we are going to allow some exceptions. Hilarity ensues.

Ban glass, unless it’s for great wines, goes one take. What is a great wine, pray tell? (You hit 17.5 out of 20, you get to use glass!) Ban glass for wines that are “everyday wines”, consumed soon after purchase, but allow it for wines that are for laying down, goes another suggestion. Hold on. I genuinely, and earnestly, lay down a few wines below £10 a bottle every year – do I get to have them in glass? Conversely, if David Beckham stops by Harrods for some Romanée-Conti for the evening, does he have to come in with an empty bottle of Highland Spring? (I’m clearly assuming he is buying en magnum.) Or, if the idea is that the rich get to keep glass bottles, and the rest of us no, maybe come out and say it.

The unfortunate truth is that producers don’t use heavy glass bottles out of some maniacal desire to bring planetary inferno, but because of a proven commercial benefit. There is a vague assumption that the wine intelligentsia, be it wine writers, commentators, or other hangers-on, can change this by altering the prevalent consumer aesthetic. I could spend a paragraph deconstructing this suggestion, but since I am already a thousand words in, I’ll summarise instead. Lol.

The problems of the wine industry, and its impact on the planet, are not trivial. They are structural, complex, and large-scale. Exactly for this reason, they’re not going to be solved by stylistic, let alone performative, gestures. They will be unaffected by the aesthetic of buyers, and even less by the good intentions of the sellers. There is a reason theorists consider the economic aspect one of the three pillars of sustainability – and few people ever choose to be substantially poorer for the greater good.

This is not a call for complacency or inaction. It’s not even a call for behavioural change. Sure, do continue doing anything that makes you feel well. I will still recycle religiously; I am just aware that its effect on my carbon footprint is a rounding error, and the real reason I do it is because I like organising things in buckets. If, however, you do believe the planet is in danger and this is a priority issue, then at the very least you need to consider politics, not shopping carts. These problems are solved by governments, and the people that end up in government usually are there because they are good at one thing: picking up what the electorate actually cares about. If you feel even more strongly about it, you might want to dedicate a career, or even a life, to it. There is practically no sector where sustainability cannot be turned into a career. But it’s hard work.

In the meantime, you can take some solace in the fact that what’s in your wine glass is not going to destroy the world – and it’s not going to save it either.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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