Infinite sustain

by Rob Horning

31 July 2007


Chris O’Brien, who’s written a book about beer and sustainability issues, told me about a trip he had taken to Chico, California, where he visited the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. It doesn’t publicize its efforts very much, but Sierra Nevada, it turns out, is fairly committed to environmentally-sustainable business practices, as this section of the brewery’s website makes clear. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find there; you have to peel a few layers back before you find the tab somewhat cryptically marked “Our Environment,” which takes you to the page that details the brewer’s efforts to supply its own energy and produce energy from its waste product and recycle and so on, all without compromising its product or its ambitions—currently Sierra Nevada is one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S. and its product has become fairly ubiquitous.

As Chris was telling me about this, I wondered, Can Sierra Nevada continue to expand its market share without undermining its environmental commitments? The question that seems to me central to sustainability and business is whether the pursuit of economies of scale doesn’t at some point require a business to sacrifice its commitment to sustainable practices, which seem to prescribe limits beyond which energy consumption and labor exploitation and various forms of resource arbitrage become inevitable. If consumers all decided they approved of Sierra’s methods and wanted to show it by consuming its product, it would become threatened by its own success, or become so expensive that it would reinforce the idea that conservation is a luxury of conscience for the well-to-do.

One could argue that the limits on a business’s ability to expand are organic ones, natural, constituting the natural size for human communities, but technology muddles the demarcation of these limits. Also, now that we are accustomed to globalized culture—the availability of the world’s output just about anywhere, the triumph of logistics and container-based shipping, etc.—it would be hard to experience a truly local culture as natural, to see the return to localized idiosyncrasies (which have always been typified for me by local music scenes) as anything but a loss in the richness of the fabric of life. Of course, it is easy to posit arguments about how local culture is actually richer, thicker with community involvement, community specific customs and mores—the lost folk culture I was lamenting in an earlier post. It also would make travel much more meaningful, because it would be much harder to replicate the consumption patterns one is familiar with elsewhere. A return to local culture might even displace the centrality of consumption to much of our leisure time experience.

But I know I would react badly to the loss of access to goods from abroad; I would feel deprived, even cheated. And it is hard to sell deprivation and lack of choice as a kind of liberation, though in trivial non-material cases, it sometimes can be; removing optional paralysis can sometimes lead to a lot more personal productivity, a lot less time wasted on choices that seem important but really route ones energy away from the activity the choice is supposed to facilitate and back toward a debilitating self-consciousness and endless procrastination: what will people think of me if I wear this shirt? What will they think if I read this book on the subway? You can use a prolonged decision making process to avoid doing anything while flattering yourself that you are wrapped up in important deliberations. I spent days agonizing over what kind of laptop to buy, dwelling on all the specifications and how they would impact my fantasy of using it to get all this work done out and about. If it weighs under 5 pounds, will I carry it with me more places to get things done? How much memory should it have, in order to run which applications simultaneously? Will I need it to be powerful enough to run audio editing and recording software, so I can use it as a portable studio? I thought a lot about these things, elaborating daydreams where the computer would enable me to complete all these aborted projects while spontaneously generating all these new and ever more absorbing ones. But now that I’ve bought one, all I do with it is connect it to my TV to watch downloaded shows.

The problem with taking away consumer choice in favor of local, sustainable business practices is that living with consumerism has instilled in us its values, which equate freedom of choice with freedom in general, so that an “arbitrary” limitation on our access to things—for arbitrary will be how it would seem, now that we are familiar with what can be made possible, with the great diversity that can be brought to our store shelves—seems like an encroachment on our rights as American citizens. We also prefer purchasing power as a proxy for a political power because it exempts us from coming up with a coherent ideology. It also reinforces another value pervasive in consumer societies, the primacy of individualism. Where consumerism reigns, individualism is less a matter of being able to do whatever you want without interference than it is synonymous with the ability to assemble a unique collection of goods that one owns personally and which seem to constitute one’s unique social identity. It’s easier to feel autonomous when your social role—who you are in your community—is determined not by what you are capable of doing or what you are permitted to contribute but by what the magic of the economy allows you to buy for yourself. This arrangement allows for the illusion of much greater independence from those around us; you can walk into a mall and experience the fantasy of being able to become whoever you want, immediately, through a series of well-considered purchases.

So in prioritizing sustainability and localized production over expanded consumer choice and identity construction, different values would have to be disseminated. Privileging local community and small-scale sustainable economies would have to seem like something other than vain utopianism (local communities, theoretically invested with richer and more-binding traditions, could possibly be more repressive than decentralized “open” societies) or nostalgia for a less complicated time. And people would have to reconceive the ways in which they understand their own potential and value—not in terms of how many options they can supply themselves with but in terms of how satisfying the relationships in their lives can be made (or some such rot).

That’s where Chris, if I understand him correctly, believes companies like Sierra Nevada can play a part. He found it odd that Sierra Nevada wouldn’t make more of an effort to link its product with the environmentally conscious manner in which its made. This might serve to take the taint of wishful thinking away from such sustainability projects as the one Sierra Nevada is engaged in and make it clear that it could be a feasible and natural part of the economy with which we are familiar. But the minute the brewery begins promoting itself as a green business, it instrumentalizes environmentalism and makes it serve as marketing tool, a reputation builder, rather than an end in itself. This could have the effect of alienating the very audience who remains skeptical of environmentalism by making it seem the province of the privileged, the latte liberals, the coastal elite, etc. They won;t buy into sustainability once it seems like its something people want to congratulate themselves for, once it seems a means to an individualist end—this seems to take the narcissism of consumerism and larders some hypocrisy on top. To put it in terms Jon Elster uses in Sour Grapes, a reputation for environmentalism is a necessarily a by-product and not something that can rightly be the aim of a set of practices. Publicity would undermine the perceived purity of Sierra Nevada’s motives. Instead, it must rely on people like Chris to spread the word of its greenness for it, protecting it from seeming to exploit environmentalism, reducing it to a trend. But then, any advocates must also be careful not to become too strident as well. Elster cites Stanley Benn, who argues that “political activity may be a form of moral expression,” but this must be tempered with care that it not become merely moral self-expression, “middle-class radicalism” as most forms of commodified rebellion expressed in shopping endorsements or lifestyle choices turn out to be. As Elster points out, “there is no such activity or kinesis as ‘acquiring self-respect,’ in the sense in which one may speak of the activity of ‘learning French.’ ”

The point here is that one must be a true believer to make proselytizing a worthwhile action; the minute one begins to consider how what one is doing makes one come across as the sort of person who does such things, then all is lost. One becomes a vanguard hipster who’s trying to pass for a fellow traveler—the social relations at stake are reduced to ego politics, and one’s praxis is a dim reflection of the system one pretends to want to change; one become a second-rate entrepreneur marketing a self-image. When the sincerity of your motives are in question, even if it is it seems as though it is through no fault of your own, you risk doing active harm to the cause you espouse—like Janeane Garafolo on the campaign trail in 2004. And once you become overly self-conscious about the effects you are trying to achieve, and how it reflects on you personally, your motives are suspect. What sets someone like me apart from someone like Chris is that I am riddled with these kinds of thoughts constantly, cursed with perpetual self-consciousness, while he strikes me as someone who never questions his causes or puts him own interests out in front of them. Were I to consciously try to emulate his m.o. though, I’d be compounding my probelm, still trying to achieve through direct action a state of mind that is essentially a by-product of thinking entirely of something else.


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