I like beer. But I’m not so sure how I feel about civilization these days. When I think that humans taking control of the Earth has killed whole seas, is melting permafrost and may just end the whole thing in a mushroom cloud of thermonuclear Armageddon, it doesn’t make me want to enjoy a cold tumbler of a hoppy IPA. It makes me want to swig Gordon’s Gin straight from the bottle.
So why, then, did the Discovery Channel have to go and try to ruin my enjoyment of beer as an innocent, Earth-friendly pleasure?
I know the Discovery Channel didn’t mean to do it. They thought they were boosting beer by connecting it to civilization’s early accomplishments like farming and the pyramids with their hour-long documentary, “How Beer Saved the World.”
So when the show’s historians and anthropologists go on to explore the theory that a thirst for beer, rather than a hunger for bread, successfully tempted hunter-gatherers to start tilling the soil of the Fertile Crescent so they could grow not wheat to bake but barley to brew, it’s supposed to make beer into a hero. If that led to the invention of farming, the rise of cities and the creation of mathematics and writing, then we should take beer more seriously. And if the frothy stuff went on to help start the American Revolution or end child labor, that’s only to beer’s credit.
But in these days of economic and ecological collapse and peak oil, it’s hard to keep up that kind of optimism about human progress and the march of civilization. And that can take the head off any brew.
Bringing it all back home
Just take the American Experiment, for example.
We may like to post noble quotes from the founding fathers on Facebook about restraining the power of corporations and bankers. Still, I’d like to think that Jefferson and Franklin were quaffing an ale (even if it was served, old-timey style, at room temperature) at a Philadelphia publick house while they brainstormed righteous pamphlets to tweak the nose of George III.
But if beer was so instrumental in American history, does that mean it also shares blame for such innovations as killing Indians, enslaving Africans and setting up an empire of shopping that’s left no corner of the Earth safe from its bottomless hunger for oil or for places to dump its garbage?
I started home brewing a couple years ago as a way to learn a useful, low-tech skill that could help give my family some resilience in an uncertain future. Oh, and insure my beer supply.
Now, to learn more and hopefully brew better tasting beer, I’ve moved away from convenient home brew kits with cans of malt syrup and hops already thrown in, to all-grain brewing, which requires hours more time per batch to boil and strain your own malted barley and then add in your own hops. Only time will tell if the result is worth the extra trouble.
But do I now have to worry that I’ve taken up a hobby that’s responsible for alienating humans from nature?
I’m going to have to ferment on this one with my next batch of Cream Ale.
It may be that making and drinking suds are pleasures that I’d have to give up if the people around me ever returned to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But in that unlikely event, I’d probably have bigger problems than my own moral complicity in the project of civilization.
Meantime, I wonder if it’s the act of farming or cultivating or civilizing that’s so bad, or rather, if it’s just the huge scale of our fossil-fueled industrial growth economy?
Size does matter.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice