Are Wine Marketers Contributing to Climate Change?

terroirMaster of Wine and all-around intellectual John Atkinson has a thoughtful and forceful challenge to the wine industry’s contribution to climate change. His premises are unassailable; his conclusion, debatable.

After pointing out that the planet is retaliating for our profligate ways through climate disruptions, he lays part of the blame at the feet of marketing:

The technological advance from horse-drawn plough to tractor follows an established logic of incremental improvement, but it’s harder to find a precedent coming out of the past for products that, when launched, so precisely conjugate desire with satisfaction in the way, say, the iPhone 5 did for iPhone 4 users. Marketing’s aesthetic and affective lessening of the barriers to repeat purchase (the law of diminishing returns) gives brand owners an alternative strategy for profit and proliferation; one that avoids costly R&D.

Bottled water, gin,  and the latest I-phone iteration are good examples of “pimped up versions of past inventory”, encouraging the over-production that now threatens life on earth. Then he asks the big question:

At a time when we have client presidents and prime ministers, can marketers handle a brief that reins back on occasionality and the incessant multiplication of products and lines? Can they recoil from stimulating and directing our emotions, or is the human psyche destined to darken into a collective death-drive?

My short answer would be “no”, they can’t handle that brief anymore than capitalism can figure out how to profit while reigning in growth.

Then he turns to the wine world where he argues that marketing and consumerism have us in that death spiral. He argues that the marketing of wine scores and maximum peak experiences encourages winner-take-all markets that benefit Petrus but not Puglia. Wine marketing has shown little ability to improve the prospects of lesser-known regions.

But he saves his big rhetorical guns for the virtue-signaling that now accompanies the marketing of  “organic”, biodynamic” and “terroir”.

Terroir is a useful concept to have available when we’re sensitizing ourselves to the fine differences within and between regions; but its more ardent proponents have now added climatic resilience to its burgeoning powers. This move strikes me as either wishful thinking or Canuteism. Most vineyards are already struggling with their new burden of heat, and I just can’t see how ploughing between rows or spraying with horn silica is any better than the sticking plasters of mulching and shorter maceration. [Nota Bene: King Canute was an 11th Century Danish warrior king who conquered much of Northern Europe and Scandinavia.]

It’s hard to argue with the premises here. It’s nice to be nice to your little plot of land (and benefits to farm workers, wildlife, and downstream/downwind farms by avoiding chemicals are nothing to sneeze at). But buying or cultivating “wines of terroir” will do nothing for climate change. It is just a way to sell more (hopefully) good wine. It’s that overproduction problem again.

But I find his conclusion less than persuasive.

Rather than argue the toss about countries and industries, the responsibility for behavioural change is switching more and more towards us. The argument that the wine industry is better than the fashion industry is really no argument at all. We need to face the fact that our industry is too big, too sprawling and too wasteful, even if everything is shipped round the globe in bladders and containers.

There is a logic problem here. If lovingly cultivating your vineyard and promoting your wines will not halt climate change, neither will cutting back on wine purchases or plane flights. The problem of climate change is a collective action problem. Our individual actions make no difference unless everyone else is doing the same. Thus far, the only mechanism we have for solving collective action problems is government. That is its purpose. There is of course nothing wrong with being on the side of the angels. If virtue is where you plant your flag, do so proudly. But it won’t solve the problem.

Now, granted, changing social norms can be powerful. But individuals don’t spontaneously decide to start cooperating; that usually requires some coercion. Since the threat of eternal damnation has gone bust, I don’t see a mechanism for manufacturing moral seriousness and so far the threat of extinction hasn’t worked. The only way out of this mess is a massive, green infrastructure build out and the technologies of carbon capture. That will require government and lots of it.

If we cannot get rid of clowns like Trump and Bojo we will not solve this problem. And we will need all the wine we can get.

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