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History in six drinks


When you next raise some beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, or Coca-Cola to your lips, think about how it reached you in space and time, and remember that it contains more than mere alcohol or caffeine. There is history, too, amid its swirling depths.

Tom Standage, 2007[1]

Apart from water, the most popular drinks in human history have been based on plants and plant products.

The human preoccupation with the drinks discussed in these articles shares much with the hisory of spices. The trade associated with them has changed the world but this was driven, not so much by necessity, as social desire.

The drinks described in the following six articles gained social acceptance because they were liquids that were safe, flavoursome, and to varying degrees psychoactive due to their alcohol or caffeine content. All began their commercial lives through being socially respectable medicines and their mode of preparation eliminated the debilitating contaminations so often conveyed through municipal water supplies. Only in the nineteenth century was the microbial source of disease detected so that more enlightened methods of sanitation and water purification could be introduced.

There is a downside to the story of the relationship between humanity and the drinking of fluids. Three of the world’s six major drinks are alcoholic and though moderate drinking can help us relax and provide a pleasant sense of euphoria:

In 2004, the World Health Organisation estimated that excessive alcohol consumption was killing just over 3% of the world population and harming another 4% … alcohol causes from 20% to 30% of all cases of cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy, oesophageal, and liver cancer[2]

In developing countries the supply and purification of water remains critical. About 1.2 billion people still lack reliable water supplies when, according to the World Health Organisation, about 80% of illness is related to water contamination of some kind and young children are especially susceptible. As water shortages increase in some areas due to depletion of aquifers, increasing consumption, and the effects of climate change (especially on agriculture) there is also concern for a water resource war where supplies run across country boundaries.

But for the developed world, just as tap water is both safe and in good supply the use of bottled water has rocketed and continues to grow. Plastic bottles of water are widely believed to be both safer and healthier than tap water when evidence for this is slim.

The title for this article is adapted from that of a book written by Tom Standage – A History of the World in Six Glasses.

At first glance categorising world history under the headings Beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola appears idiosyncratic and fanciful, a contentious Eurocentric classification category … a boozer’s diversion or ‘Clayton’s Drink’ – an excuse to think about drinking when you are not actually doing it.

Scratch beneath the surface and there is more substance … albeit liquid substance. In the life-support sequence breathing/drinking/eating fluids rank medium to high. Drinks have always lubricated social interaction and, like (spices), have been used as a symbol of social status, in religious ritual and social rituals of births, marriages and deaths, the lubrication of business deals, for the delivery of life-saving medicines and death-dealing poisons. All societies resort to substance-abuse as psychotropic relief from the daily round, giving us a tantalizing glimpse into other possible mental worlds and of our specially chosen drinks three contain alcohol and the remaining three contain caffeine.

Most importantly for us these drinks (all of which have played an important role in the world’s social, environmental and economic history, this confirming their connection to sustainability) – and all these drinks are produced from plants.

Before proceeding due homage must be paid to that archetypal, primordial and fundamental liquid drink … water … essential to all life.

Water has always determined the siting of human settlements on mountain streams, river-valleys and coastal townships.

Water covers about 71% of the planet: it is a vital constituent of the earth’s biogeochemistry notably the hydrological cycle which brings our life-giving and oblutionary rain. About 70% of global water use is diverted to from the environment to agriculture of which about 10% reaches the crops making water supply a critical factor in food security.

About two thirds of the human body consists of water. A human can survive on a minimum of about 5 litres of water a day while 50 litres is sufficient for simple living including washing and the water embodied in the products we use. You and I probably use a total of about 150 litres a day.

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