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Cheap beer and violence

Yesterday I had dinner with Chris O'Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. To grossly oversimplify, O'Brien looks at brewing practices around the world to show how they often reflect some of the tenets of environmental activism -- use of local and naturally grown ingredients, development of craft knowledge, building community tradition, supporting sustainable agricultural practice, etc. I mention this not merely to shamelessly plug his book, but because I wondered what he would make of these findings (via Mind Hacks) by the Violence and Society Research Group correlating the level of violence to the price of beer. Cheaper drinks leads to more violence-related injury, and I'm guessing that is not the kind of revolution O'Brien wants to see fermented (despite what Lenin said about breaking a few eggs). Here's how Vaughan at Mind Hacks summarizes it:

The researchers examined admissions to 58 hospital accident and emergency departments over a five year period and found that as the price of beer increased, violence-related injuries decreased.

In general, studies have found that alcohol consumption increases both the risk of being a victim of violence and the perpetrator of it.

There are three main theories on why alcohol and violence are linked: i) due to the drug effects on the brain; ii) because people use alcohol as an excuse for violent behaviour; iii) because people who use alcohol might be more likely to be violent, perhaps due to personality factors like sensation-seeking, impulsivity or risk-taking.

It's easy to blame the nature of alcohol itself for the behavior of those who abuse it -- it lowers inhibitions, impairs judgment and distorts perceptions and can induce psychosis if routinely abused. But part of the problem is -- and this line of thinking is inspired by O'Brien's book -- that culturally, alcohol is regarded as a commodity, something to be industrially manufactured with the intent of having the most units of it consumed. The link between cheap beer and violence may be a matter more of the cheapness than the beer -- the economic incentives that distort our natural impulses. Once beer becomes a industrial product whose only significant metric is units sold, it's inevitable that marketing campaigns will be devised to increase sales, efforts that distort the nature of alcohol use and pervert how a community might otherwise deal with it in a benign and controlled fashion. And of course, one can point to the relentlessly competitive nature of capitalist society as generating stress that leads individuals to abuse alcohol -- to consume unnatural amounts to relieve unnatural amounts of social pressure to be efficient and productive, or to compensate for the inconsolable exclusions that derive from class conflict and status seeking. In other words, one probably shouldn't blame an inert substance like beer, which is what it is, for the uses human beings end up putting it to. A different set of social arrangements, a different set of cultural practices with regard to alcohol, would very likely divorce beer consumption from violence.

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