Freedom at a price

The quick fix promised by soft drinks leads to corruption

When passing moral judgement, we often find it hard to distinguish cause from effect. Do violent movies produce nasty people, or do nasty people demand violent movies? Do pubs cause drunken hooligans, or do drunken hooligans gravitate to pubs? Does fast food encourage gluttony, or does gluttony give rise to fast food?

That kind of question is faced by all who strive, against hope, to defeat the plague of rubbish. Along the boundaries of Scrutopia runs a narrow lane used as a short cut by local traffic. Every two or three months, I devote some hours to cleaning up the verges, the local council having long ago abandoned our lanes to the plastic glacier. And always the question arises in my mind, whether bestial selfishness is caused by the drinks whose aftermath I am collecting, or whether it is bestial selfishness that requires these drinks.

Either way, I cannot avoid the conclusion that two drinks above all others are associated with the degeneracy of the British people, namely Lucozade and Coca-Cola. And, because I am a charitable person who wishes to think well of my fellow human beings, I tend to the view that we should not blame the drinker but the drink.

There is something about these fizzy sugar-solutions, with their childish flavours and logo-branded bottles, that elicits the "me" response in people who otherwise act like grown-ups.

The quick fix at the plastic udder, the exhilaration of bubbles in the throat, the burp of satisfaction as the liquid settles, all serve to narrow the drinker's perspective, and to obliterate the thought of a world beyond me and mine. And the self-satisfied gesture as the bottle is tossed from the window of the car - the gesture which says, I am king of the space through which this body travels, and f*** the rest of you - is exactly what we must expect, when childish appetites are indulged in private at every moment of the day.

But what should we do about it? I loathe the Labour philosophy which holds that we are entitled to ban everything of which we disapprove. I wish people to bear the full cost of their freedom, because that is what life is all about.

However, it is not the addict of fizzy drinks who bears the cost of this habit, but the rest of us, who have to contemplate the disgusting aftermath of his vice. In the soft-drink business we see one small part of the huge environmental problem that threatens us: the problem of externalised costs.

Still, there is comfort in this for the wino. I have found beer cans, water bottles, whisky halves and soda cartons along our verge, but never once have I found a wine bottle. Just as we should blame the bestial potion for the bestial character, so, therefore, should we see, in the considerate behaviour of our winos, the moral virtue of the stuff they drink.