Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kingfisher in a Can or Kingfisher in a Bottle: the Perils of Personal Responsibilty

It's been a busy week down at the dhaba. Since Facebook hosted our "virtual launch" on Tuesday, we've had close to three hundred customers according to the fellows over at Google Analytics. Small potatoes, but we had to start somewhere. Thanks to everyone who's posted or otherwise passed on our link.

While we're on that subject, someone must have given us a big shout-out in the Great White North, because a bus load of nearly 50 Canadian eco-tourists stopped by the dhaba on Wednesday! I suspect the good people over at the Dogwood Initiative might have had something to do with that. There are lot of serious struggles going on in Canada these days, and we promise to look at those issues more carefully in upcoming posts. A special thanks also to Known Turf and the Plastic Graduate for their blog plugs.

Twitter was a bust--instead of tweeting, I think the guys and I will try spending a rush hour or two on the Moolchand flyover next week holding a sign. While standing in real traffic might not not generate a lot of web traffic, I bet it would beat tweeting in the dark!

I promised some dirt on Shah Rukh Khan--and I don't want to let you down. But SRK's not going anywhere, and more pressing matters have presented themselves: climate change is not only threatening to undermine our nation's food and water supplies, as we suggested last week--it may be endangering the world's supply of wine and beer! Just the other day, an article in the New Scientist said that climate change might undermine the quality of European beer! Czech pilsners are particularly in peril. And as if that weren't enough, the New York Times cited a new report which finds global warming may have a "critical effect" on high quality wines. These stories have had the environmental sector of twitter space buzzing nervously for days.

Here in Delhi, as we navigate our way through the crowd of guys waving 50 or 100 rupee notes
at the counter of our local Wine-Beer shop, most of us aren't thinking about the expensive imported wines--or even the Czech pilsners. If we aren't feeling like hard liquor, it's most likely a cold beer we are after. Personally, I like Kingfisher Extra Strong. The only question I have to answer when I reach the front of the line is: can or bottle? I've never been able to taste the difference between the two, so I've always chosen bottles over cans. The bottle gives a slightly better value for the money, and I've always assumed it was the more environmentally friendly choice.

I did some research on this question, "just for fun". I found that there is a columnist at Slate Magazine, who gets paid to think about these kind of things in more detail than you can imagine. He actually looked at the can/bottle question, and he explains his findings here.

As it turns out, I was right--the bottle of Kingfisher is better. Why? Because we do such a good job of recycling/reusing bottles in India (thank you, kabaadi walla), and because Kingfisher is brewed and bottled in plants near Delhi, as I learned on page 58 of this 462 page document. Glass is much better than aluminum in that scenario because aluminum mining and smelting is dirty and energy intensive. However, aluminum is better if your beer comes from a very long distance away, because aluminum is so much lighter than glass and thus takes much less energy to ship. So if you ARE drinking that Czech pilsner, better buy it in a can -- or better still, a keg!

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I found this exercise extraordinarily frustrating. Researching and writing this post took so much time that I didn't have time to drink the can and bottle of Kingfisher that started it all! How can anyone be environmentally correct, if it takes so much energy to figure out what being correct means?

Of course, it's impossible! Yes, we should do what we can to be responsible: buy locally, buy less; recycle and reuse--the regular stuff. But words like, "environmentally conscious", "green" and "personal responsibility" are a bit like Teacher's Day and Friendship Day: too often, they are rituals with no real meaning.

In fact, companies love the idea that environmentally responsible individuals are all that is required to save the world--because then companies can go on doing whatever they want to do. But personal responsibility alone will never be enough. We also need to expect governments--local and national-- to do their share by making sure the price of products in the market reflects the true cost of their environmental impact: from the mine to the dump.

In that scenario, local, environmentally friendly products would become cheaper, while imports and other unsustainable products would become more expensive. Let's not kid ourselves; we'd have to give up a lot of things we like. But it would be good for the environment, good for local job creation, and in the long run we might end up with a world fit to give our children.


  1. Out here in the great northwest of the US of A we have many microbreweries, most produced in bottles. Taking your advice, I immediately went out and bought a dozen cases of some of the finest local ales and stouts I could find. Now I'm chuggin' them down, knowing I'm helping the environment.

    (BTW, Can't recall if Kingfisher comes in a can or a bottle here, but I'm glad the dhaba's serving some booze.)

  2. This new login gadget is confusing. Hmm. No time to figure it out. Thanks for stopping by, Platistic. Yep, we serve booze, but we ask that you bring your own and sit in the corner away from the lights.

    There was a great discussion over on facebook about this post. I won't do it justice here, but it was pointed out that it's not just the consumer end we need to be concerned about, but the producer. One example given was the fact that Kerala imports large amounts of rice from Punjab. This is only economically feasible because the GOI, thought Indian Railways gives a huge subsidy to the Punjabi rice. Thus, the local rice growers are undercut. I argued that the rising price of rubber and other cash crops in the international market has something to do with this, as well. But in any case, the market, together with Government policies have clearly been undercutting the local production of rice in Kerala. So, yes. We need national and international policies that support sustainable, local production, not policies that undercut it.


  3. I know exactly what you mean - my brother and I once spent the better part of a morning trying to decide whether flying was less carbon intensive than a car - we had to talk about marginal consumption, incremental rate of fuel burn, and physics questions about energy required to transport etc etc. Too much time.

    It's true that we can't blindly accept what companies tell us - for example, wtf is "clean coal" ?!!!

  4. Yep. It gets way to complicated. And clean coal? I'm with you. What is it. BTW, my friends who follow this stuff closely say that flying is nearly always worse than any other way of going--especially jet flight. Has to do with keeping the plane in the air and where the co2 is released, I guess. That's one worth looking at more.


  5. It's an interesting question about the airplane and how to dole out blame for the carbon generated. One can equate it to public transport and say that the aircraft would have gone anyway with or without you and so you're really responsible only for the incremental fuel used to take you which is highly negligible.

    On the other hand, if enough people don't fly, then maybe that plane wont' take off at all. So it's a bit of a pickle as to how to apportion blame


What do you think?