The last time I was in Zimbabwe, if you wanted beer "to go", you needed empty beer bottles. Zambezi Lager came in thick, green, reusable longnecks, and stores were not allowed to restock more beer than was on hand in empty returnables. You can see that this sort of socialized recycling has an inherent problem with entropy, since one lost or broken bottle diminishes the amount of beer available at that location unless replaced at the expense of another. Enterprising backpackers have solved the question of which came first, the beer or the bottle, by ordering their Zambezi Lager at restaurants and then absconding with the empties for later use.
This is a classic Catch-22. You can drink your beer at the store in Zimbabwe, but to walk out with it requires the prior possession of an empty bottle that by rights you can't have without having first bought a beer, which requires an empty bottle that you can only get...by buying a beer. Most black Zimbabweans no longer can afford Zambezi Lager anyway, and stick to brewing their own yeasty concoctions from sorghum and sugar and drinking it out of plastic, liter measuring cups. The mega-conglomerate South Africa Breweries now owns the Zambezi brand.
Zimbabwe adopted this inconvenient recycling bureaucracy, not from an overdeveloped environmental ethic or as some petty manifestation of Robert Mugabe's despotism, but because the Zimbabwean economy simply could not produce enough glass to bottle its beer. There was a time in the late 1980s when the pressure to divest from apartheid South Africa sent foreign companies scurrying to set up shop in Harare and Bulawayo. South Africa's subsequent liberation opened its vast market of 34 million people to multinational reinvestment. With Mugabe increasingly unstable, the volatile issue of land tenure and the seizure of white-owned farms, an already shaky situation in Zimbabwe headed for collapse.
For a while, Mugabe's government kept price controls on three staples: bread, beer and cigarettes. With these comfort items cheap and subsidized, the people might grumble but they wouldn't revolt: that is, if you don't count the persecution of the rival ZAPU party back in the early days of Independence. It was a common sight in the early 1990s to see Zambians pushing modified shopping carts over the bridge at Victoria Falls to load up on Zimbabwean bread. Later in that decade when price controls were discontinued, the empty carts started going the other direction.
In America, cheap fossil fuel has been our security blanket. While other countries endure petrol prices above $7 /gallon, we are significantly put out by $3 gas. Naturally, everything is relative, but our economy has been so hardwired to artificially low fuel prices that plenty of folks are taking a real hit in the thermostat this winter. The cost of transportation with oil routinely above $60/barrel, and of everything manufactured from petroleum products - or with power produced by them- has spiked dramatically and shows every sign of staying high.
We need to wean ourselves from the soiled teats of the petroleum sow. Yet the money saved in fuel economy with a new hybrid car is thousands less than is spent to get the fuel efficient vehicle. We need alternative energy sources, and New York is now seriously considering putting 2 million acres of abandoned farmland back into production for ethanol. But it is not as if that vacant land stayed still. It has, more than likely, either been carved up and developed or is maturing to forest with increasing significance as woodland. There are not enough family farmers left in the Empire State to put all those reclaimed acres into more corn for the gas tank as part of their operations, so we're looking at vast, industrial farms to reap this dubious harvest.
Then there is biomass, using wood chips for thermal and electrical production. A good idea, you say, and certainly there are countries like Finland where vast scotch pine plantations and boreal forests are clearcut on heavy rotations to produce prodigious amounts of stumps, slash and chips that are efficiently harvested and conveyed on electric railways to electric plants powered by wood. There is essentially no unmanaged woodland left in a natural state left in Finland, yet the forests of the Northeast are vastly different in species composition and structure from those of Northern Europe and consequently, sustain far more biodiversity. Some scientists think we have too little coarse woody debris in our New England forests, not a surplus for power production.
Hydro-power was the mainstay of the industrial revolution in New England. More important than the timber used to frame the factories or fuel the furnaces, water power drove the mills (and the mill-workers) into the last century. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for monitoring over 3,000 dams across the Commonwealth, most built before 1900, and there are many more unmonitored impoundments in our streams and rivers. The electricity that powers my computer comes to me from Northeast Utilities, which has two nearby hydro-plants on the Housatonic River in Falls Village and Bulls Bridge, CT and others downriver.
These dams are not coming out of the Housatonic, although they are apparently for sale. For one thing, the sediments behind them are contaminated with PCBs from General Electric's many misdeeds in Pittsfield, more than 40 miles upstream. Meanwhile, the anadromous fish that used to spend some of their life cycles far up the Housatonic are stuck far downstream, if they return to the river at all. We've got a Salmon Creek in Salisbury, CT but no salmon, alas. We need to remove obsolete impoundments where restoring fish passage is possible, and site our hydro-plants sensitively and not just any old place with a bit of tide or waterfall.
The same goes for wind power. What may be a good site to turn those blades may also be a significant migration fly-way, or a ridgetop deep in an unfragmented forest that would be severely compromised by the huge towers and supporting infrastructure that a wind farm requires. Siting criteria sounds like a good compromise, overlaying the areas of environmental sensitivity with those that have good wind generating potential and seeing what falls out. I'm betting there are few places that are good for wind that are not also good for some desirable species or natural community.
So it all comes down to values. The economic ones are quantified by the free market, but ecosystem services and qualitative costs and benefits are generally left out of those calculations. Our species, like rats in a maze, doesn't tend to modify its behavior until it directly feels the impacts of its actions. And given a catch-22 like how to buy beer in Zimbabwe without an empty bottle, the choices we make about allocating scarce resources are either to take what we want now regardless of future cost, diversify our consumption habits to include more sustainable choices, or to opt out of the market altogether and brew our own beer.