Environmentalism In An Earlier Age


Many would view the recycling and minimizing of materials used in production – everything from paper, metal, glass, plastics – as a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly one can see the roots in 1960s philosophies such as the green movement, “small is beautiful”, save the land, etc. The world-wide environmental movement with its current emphasis on climate control is a macro expression of this, its unifying theme.

Irony: environmentalism could not have emerged but for the untrammelled industrial and natural resource development of the past. Only a society which gained a certain degree of material comfort could indulge in the idea of restricting consumption, scaling back. This, however, is a parenthetical observation in the context of this post.

So when you see brown napkins at Starbucks, proudly advertising a high degree of materials recycled, and similar initiatives by burger behemoths and national coffee shop chains, you know it’s gone mainstream.

Companies use good environmental citizenship as a selling point, it’s vital in packaged goods industries today. Websites are a good source of information, of whether producers are state of the art on being green.

In brewing, craft breweries but also large established ones frequently advertise efficiency in use of energy and raw materials, re-cycling but often much more. Sierra Nevada’s website is most informative on the many steps the company took to promote energy efficiency at its new plant in North Carolina, for example.

Ontario’s bottle return system has proved efficient to re-use almost all the glass used to sell beverage alcohol in Ontario. In general, bottle deposit and return was an early method around the world to promote conservation. To some degree the impact has been lessened by greater use of cans and plastic bottles (PET especially) but some laws in some areas promote re-use of these materials as well.

If there is one area in brewing studies where you would not expect to see an emphasis in these areas, it is the historical arena. After all, images of factories from the mid-1800s until the 1950s proudly showed factories belching black smoke in the air, or similar emissions from locomotives bringing their refrigerated product (more energy) to market. That was a time when the public was impressed with such sights, it spoke to material and human progress: good things to eat or otherwise enjoy, jobs for residents of factory areas, a healthy municipal tax base for better roads and infrastructure.

It was only in the 1950s, and perhaps too in the wake of atomic energy and its war applications in 1945, that people started to think unhinged industrial expansion needed re-consideration. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was a landmark in changing peoples’ thinking. There were a number of precursors, however. The idea of conservation, as it was called, has roots in the 1800s.

The U.S. national parks system and a similar system in Canada attested to the concern to preserve the environment from total depredation. Michael McClure’s poem, For The Death of 100 Whales in 1955, had a decided influence as well on initiatives to stop over-fishing and protect endangered species. He recited the poem at the historic Six Gallery reading that year in San Francisco. (Allen Ginsberg read his Howl, there, as well).

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It’s true.

gloriagrahammichael_mcmclure2004Yet, earlier eras promoted industrial conservation and recycling, sometimes. It’s a natural human impulse to save, economize, indeed it is good economics. A simple example is intelligent use of left-overs in a household. But did we see examples of the Starbucks napkins, say, in the 1940s, or production of glass bottles from re-used glass? Not exactly perhaps, but there was a major recycling effort well before our green era, one notable for re-use of paper, and in a brewing context.

During WW II, many American breweries shipped beer in what appear to have been second-hand cartons originally made for Anheuser-Busch. In other words, a brewery allowed competitors to use its cartons to sell their beer. If you look at pictures, the Budweiser logo and design were usually still evident. A new label was stamped or pasted over with evident haste. This link via DPLA shows some 20 examples of this practice.

This must have resulted from wartime conservation, whether prompted by legislation or a voluntary effort, I can’t say. But it is striking to see, something most producers would not abide even in today’s hyper-environmenal era, understandably. It’s hard to know why there were enough cases from A-B for this purpose, i.e., presumably A-B still had enough to ship its own product. Maybe A-B had a surplus under long-term supply contracts, perhaps resulting from government limits on its own production.

Seeing the trade marks of different companies juxtaposed on a case of beer makes me wonder if a special law was passed to protect the parties’ trademarks from dilution or misuse. E.g. one of the brewers was Peter Doelger: presumably Doelger couldn’t use the Budweiser name after the war, and vice versa, simply because both producers had tolerated a period when their marks were shown together on a case of beer.

The two world wars provided in general an early example of conservation and recycling. Paper, metals, rubber, glass, were collected and re-used, often to produce war materiel. The re-used Budweiser cases example was just one of thousands of wartime conservation measures, but a fascinating one in retrospect and a laudable example of intra-industry cooperation.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from DPLA at the link given in the text. The second, of Michael McClure, is copyright Gloria Graham and was sourced from his entry in Wikipedia, also linked above. Ms. Graham’s image is used pursuant to this Creative Commons licenseAll intellectual property to or in such images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.