By Madison Baugh
All around the world are different cultural identities and values that vary from nation to nation and influence our perspectives and decisions daily. No cultures are the same, but all humans are similar, in that; all humans must abide by the societal expectations and standards of their culture. To be a byproduct of the culture one is brought up in is inevitable for everyone, whether they believe it or not. The novel Ishmael describes this notion that we are living in a single story against our will; this is the story of Mother Culture, which teaches us that “civilized” humans are humans that get fed and live long, happy lives. Humans are essentially forced to live in this single story that is infringed upon them from the day they enter the world until the day they leave; so, in a sense, humans are all the same, in that we are all prisoners of one cultural standard that has existed since the beginning of human civilizations. Within the standards of Mother Culture, there are sub-cultures which humans adapt to depending on where they have lived in the world. These sub-cultures are where perspectives about values such as religion, citizenship, and ethics stem from and what makes humans feel so disconnected from those who have not learned from the same sub-culture as their selves. Every culture has different commodities which it values more than others, and which are beneficial to that culture’s environment and economy. While, the importance of different commodities varies from culture to culture, one of the few commodities which is valued highly throughout cultures all around the world is coffee. Coffee being the second most demanded commodity in the world represents how it is not just valued in different sub-cultures, but as a subset of Mother Culture. What makes it different from culture to culture, is the methods of consumption that a culture uses to value coffee. In Italy, coffee is most commonly consumed in the form of espresso and is valued so highly that coffee is provided at every café or convenience store and serves as a commodity important for social interaction. The United States values work status and the pro-work perspective, which encourages individuals that spending all their time promoting their own success through working long hours is what will bring them happiness. Coffee is a staple in this cultural idea because it’s caffeinating affects reinforces people to work long hours and it is very much marketed to the working class. Whether coffee is valued for free-time purposes or for working purposes, it is a staple in many cultures in the world. One significant similarity between the cultures that were just mentioned, two hot spots for coffee consumption, are that coffee is not produced in either of these locations. People too easily do not recognize the connection between the commodities which they consume from their local markets and where they come from. In these nations where coffee is valued at so high but is not produced, consumers are not aware of the environmental impacts and injustices occurring in developing and undeveloped nations where coffee is produced and multi-national corporations with power over the coffee industry are thriving, while self-sufficient farmers are being pushed out of their only livelihoods and forced to work for CEO’s that live thousands of miles away. So, where does coffee come from? What role has it played in the global economy and what does it reveal about the social institution of capitalism? What purpose does coffee and its methods of production serve as a part of the eco-system and are current methods of production fulfilling its purpose in the eco-system? These are the types of questions that will be discussed throughout this report.
The history of human’s discovery of coffee dates to a legend that has been told for thousands of years and is said to have taken place in 800 A.D. in Ethiopia, where the story of Kaldi the goatherder begins. Kaldi noticed his herd moving quickly from coffee shrub to coffee shrub and once he tried the red berries which the goats were feeding on, he too was moving quickly from bush to bush for more. The tale tells how a monk witnessed Kaldi and his herd’s response to the red berries, so he picked some himself and brought them back to his fellow monks, where they were said to be “uncannily alert to divine inspiration” (National Geographic). In other words, they were probably what we would call now as hopped up on caffeine. While it is hard to confirm whether this legend is true or not, it is true that coffee was first founded and produced in what is now known as Yemen and Ethiopia. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Africa and Arabia were the sole locations for commercial coffee production and coffee consumption became a ritual in Muslim religion. Early methods of coffee production were extremely beneficial for the environment and the quality of the coffee. Shaded canopies were the prime location for coffee growth which promoted a biodiverse environment and improved the soil. The shaded canopies and diverse tree species created an ecological environment for species of all kinds to thrive from and in turn to serve all parts of that ecosystem. Coffee production existed only within the Arabian Peninsula until the 1600s, when coffee started to be traded as a world-wide commodity. Holland was the first European nation to own a coffee estate and for a long time, the Dutch East Indies were the most important region for coffee trade. In the early 1800’s coffee was smuggled into the Americas, where in Martinique a single sprout grew into a family of 18 million trees throughout 50 years. Soon after coffee seeds reached Latin America, the area became the home of the New World coffee industry, especially because coffee production thrived so much in that environment and labor was inexpensive. Around this same time, a fungal disease called coffee leaf rust, spread throughout the coffee plantations in the Old World and devastated most of their farms, causing coffee prices to rise drastically, while prices were extremely low in the New World, aiding the boom of the coffee production industry in the Americas.
Coffee quickly became an extremely important commodity for export in the Americas and individuals that could afford to get a head start on leading in the industry, mostly rich, European men, did not hesitate for their chance to obtain power over this ever-growing product. It is expressed in the article titled “Coffee Production in a Time of Crisis: Social and Environmental Connections” that, “the capital generated by coffee exports since the early to late-1800s also allowed already established local economic interests to accumulate huge fortunes and entrepreneurial initiatives to gain footholds in national and international sectors”. This represents how coffee production and exportation is an example of how free-market globalization mainly benefits people that are rich and powerful enough to get a foothold in the industry in the first place and how the capitalist system is developed to benefit the rich, Europeans which created the system. Furthermore, in the 1900’s the International Coffee Agreement was created with the purpose of stemming communism and creating prices and quotas that satisfied the producer and the consumer but, when the ICA fell apart in 1989 so did the market for coffee. From this an overproduction glut in the coffee industry became a rising issue which has led to world prices being driven down, farmer’s taking the biggest hit, and foreign exchange being cut for producing countries at a drastic decline. Not only has globalization of this product had a major impact on the economy of the nation’s where coffee is produced but it has also had a major impact on the environment of where the production takes place. Since demand for coffee has increased by tenfold in the last 50 years, due to a rising population, methods of production have changed to keep up with the high demand, to methods that produce the product faster, but also destroy the environment faster as well. This shift in production is represented through this quote; “coffee's natural, evolutionary habitat is the understory layer of forests in East Africa, a shady shrub-layer environment. Taken from this setting for commercial production, it is now planted in deep forests, open fields, and every kind of shade condition in between.” (Coffee Production) Open field methods of coffee production have not only caused major environmental issues of deforestation, but the lack of shaded canopies and tree diversity has also led to a major loss of biodiversity. Today, multi-national corporations have monopolized the industry of coffee production so that the CEOs are the only people who benefit from the globalization of the product. While a few CEO’s are making massive profits, millions of farmers in developing and undeveloped nations are forced out of their livelihoods and forced to work for the Taker culture that is represented in Ishmael, instead of being able to live a sustainable lifestyle. Also, while consumers and CEOs abroad are not witnessing the environmental impacts and injustice that are taking place where coffee is produced, the individuals that live in these countries are feeling these effects through the depletion of their resources and the loss of biodiversity.
When observing the environmental injustices that are interconnected with capitalism, one must examine the world through the lens of the political economy and its harsh realities. The first thing that is necessary to understand why capitalism and environmental injustice are so closely connected is to understand that capitalism is a system that can only fail because of the overaccumulation of wealth that is put into the hands of few. The beginning of capitalism is marked in the industrial age where a law was passed that approved the privatization of land in England, pushing smallholders who once worked for themselves off their land which forced them to work for the individuals rich enough to accumulate the privatized land. From this privatization came a system where land owners paid their workers for their labor but were able to take 75% of the profits for themselves. Underpaying workers is now a standard for the capitalist system, because cheap labor means more money for the business owner. Globalization stems from the capitalist’s searching for a way to make the most profit by paying as little as possible for labor and commodities because in places where the economy is weak, labor and commodities are inexpensive, giving the business owner the opportunity to profit even more. The crisis of this system comes from the cycle of uneven distribution of wealth that is inevitable when most people in the world are forced to work for a few who pay the many laborers of the world as little as they can. This cycle “limits the capital available to circulate” (Environment and Society 104) which is a problem that is evidenced in the coffee industry when looking at how little money goes into the economy of where transnational corporation produce coffee compared to the developed nations where the product is consumed. Through Asia, Latin America, and Africa there are about 25 million coffee producers working on 11 million hectares of land and about 100 million individuals depend on the crop for their livelihoods. The statement, “in a market where the international "C" price quoted on the futures market is, say, $0.85 per pound, the farmer might receive $0.20 to $0.40 per pound” (Coffee Production) represents how the first crisis of capitalism is occurring in the coffee industry and how it is forcing millions of individuals out of their livelihoods due to their price of production being twice as much as the profit they could make. This is caused by transnational corporations, such as Kraft’s Foods and Nestle, having a monopoly over the global industry of coffee production so that their production costs are much lower than the smallholder farmer’s, giving capitalist’s the opportunity to make a large profit from cheap labor in a distant country where they do not have to see the horrible effects of the system that puts wealth in the hands of few and leaves anyone, smallholder worker or farmer, without a chance to make it in the capitalist system. This is evidence of how the crisis of this system is that it only benefits a few and harms many.
Another major issue with capitalism is that it relies on the overexploitation of Earth’s resources for capitalists to make the most profit. This is representative of the second crisis of capitalism because if Earth’s resources are continued to be viewed as a commodity that are at the will of humans’ wants and needs, then it is inevitable that “environmental conditions are not just a limit to economic production, but that the pollution of nature by capitalist enterprises also threatens the health and wellbeing of the Earth and the workers who live on it” (Environment and Society 106). Commodification of nature has not only disconnected humans from their Earthly instincts, such as working with the ecosystem, but combined with the commodification of laborers, it has created a disconnection between the products we consume and where they came from. These crises of capitalism combined create the issue of environmental injustice which is extremely prevalent in the coffee industry. While, white and wealthy neighborhoods have the money and the power to resist the exploitation of their area’s resources and the pollution of their neighborhoods; poor areas and nations are unable to prevent these issues that are brought to them through capitalist’s efforts to keep their costs as low as possible. For example, “In Nicaragua, 200,000 temporary and 45,000 permanent workers have lost jobs. Families of 30,000 small producers currently suffer chronic hunger, and at least seven banks—potential sources of credit—have gone out of business. The lack of income on the farm has prompted massive rural-to-urban migrations, swelling the poverty belts around Nicaragua's major cities. For those trying to cope in the countryside, the collection and sales of native animal life and plants, as well as firewood, is placing increasing pressure on natural resources” (Coffee Production). Not only does this example represent the infringement of Taker culture upon Leaver culture, which forces individuals to leave their self-sustaining livelihoods to work for the transnational corporations or else they will die from the starvation that comes from not abiding to Mother Culture. But, this example also represents the major impacts the crises of capitalism have had on the economy and the health of the individuals suffering from the environmental injustice that is interconnected with globalization and capitalism. The uneven distribution of wealth and land that comes from a system that was designed as such, creates issues that are further worsened by relocating production to undeveloped countries where smallholder farmers and workers are pushed out of their livelihoods and profits do not support the economy where the products are being produced and the resources are being depleted. Environmental injustice implies that it is not only the economy that is being so negatively impacted by globalization and capitalism, but it is also the land in which those people live on which is being destroyed, affecting the biodiversity of that area and the resources that the people of that land have depended on for thousands of years.
Another important lens to look at these issues through is the lens of environmental ethics which is also interconnected with the issues of environmental injustice. Before the industrial age the main method of coffee production was beneficial to the environment and promoted biodiversity. This method of coffee farming took place in areas shaded by trees, with much tree diversity. The shaded environment provided a place for species to thrive, which caused ecological processes to thrive. Shaded tree diversity also has many benefits for coffee production. Some of which were that, “diverse plantations are likely to attract higher abundance and diversity of pollinators and benefit coffee in terms of pollination services” (Shade Tree Diversity) and shaded tree diversity promotes the well-being of multi-trophic interactions, such as between predators and pests, which decreases infestation rates. This evidence reveals that increased biodiversity positively affects the production and quality of coffee. While this information reveals the benefits of shaded tree diversity in coffee production; the most common method of coffee production now is on unshaded land for fast production of large quantities of coffee. “The global demand for coffee continues to grow by 2% annually (ICO, 2016), and in pursuit of increased short-term productivity, traditionally shaded coffee plantations are being increasingly intensified and converted to more open sun coffee systems. As a consequence, coffee grown under relatively species-rich shade trees declined from 43 to 24% between 1996 and 2010” (Shade Tree Diversity). This represents why transnational corporations have changed their methods of production and the drastic loss of shaded tree diversity that came from this change. The major environmental issues that came from this change in production include mass amounts of deforestation and massive loss in biodiversity. Since sun cultivation has become the dominant method of coffee production, about 2.5 acres of forest in just Central America have been deforested and about 37 out of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates are places where there are high rates of coffee production. As demand increases, the capitalist system will push for more deforestation to make room for sun cultivation methods of production, while disregarding the necessity of the forests to the Earth and to the people that depend on its resources. This is evidence of the environmental injustice that comes from globalization and capitalism because the individuals making the decisions to destroy this land are not feeling its effects and nor do they care, if they are making a profit. Even though, deforestation is not being immediately felt by the consumers and CEOs living abroad from where deforestation is occurring, the major loss of trees is having a major contribution to climate change and eventually it will negatively impact everyone.
Another negative impact that comes from sun cultivation and deforestation is the loss of biodiversity in those environments. Shaded tree methods of coffee production “harbor a diverse collection of plants, 59 insects and other arthropods, 60 birds, 61 mammals, 62 and, though little work has addressed them, reptiles and amphibians” (Coffee Production) representing how much diversity is lost when deforestation occurs, and sun cultivation is the main method of coffee production. If Earth’s resources are continued to be viewed as commodities for which capitalists can do with them what they please, the second crisis of capitalism will continue to occur causing humans to deplete Earth’s resources from themselves and all the species that dwell on the planet. The root of this issue is the disconnection that humans have from the land and where the products they consume come from. In the book Ishmael it is discussed that the cultural mindset of the world needs to shift for humans to reconnect with their purpose in nature which is to work with it and not against it. Capitalism encourages humans to work against nature and not serve their purpose in the ecosystem, when the reality is that humans are a necessary part of the ecosystem, especially as an apex predator. Deforestation is contributing to climate change, which will inevitably cause a global epidemic eventually and the less biodiversity of species there is in the world, means the less of a chance any species has when the Earth faces the epidemic of human’s faults. Humans so easily connect with the ideologies of their culture such as religion and nationality creating connections and empathy between those who share those same ideologies. If it is possible for humans to find citizenship within their nation or their religion, it is possible for humans to find citizenship with their Earth, creating a connection to every human and species that shares the Earth with them. This mindset is necessary to changing the social institutions that have been in place for centuries, which encourage the anthropocentric mindset that the Earth is supposed to serve humans, therefore they can use it how they want. If the cultural mindset can shift to an ecocentric one, humans have a chance to save the Earth and its biodiversity, including themselves. This mindset is necessary to understanding where the things people consume come from so that they can take a stand against environmental injustice and the degradation of the planet. By examining coffee production through the lens of environmental ethics, individuals can become aware of the environmental and societal issues that are interconnected with capitalism and globalization.
Coffee will always be in demand and therefore, capitalists will continue to use the cheapest and fastest methods of producing it while disregarding the lives and the Earth that overexploitation affects the most. While, it seems that capitalists and transnational corporations have control of the coffee industry and its production methods, there is a push being created through specialty coffee companies which promotes shaded tree methods of production and increased profits for smallholder farmers and workers where coffee is being produced. These specialty coffee companies are identified as such because they meet the requirements necessary to be considered sustainably certified. The requirements include that the coffee is “produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole” (Coffee Production). The movement towards sustainable coffee production methods that combat issues of environmental injustice and environmental degradation provide hope for progress into a more sustainable coffee industry. Progress to sustain the Earth and its people while still producing the second most demanded commodity in the world means that it’s production will benefit the people and the places from where the coffee is produced. Mother Culture teaches humans that capitalism and globalization are good and necessary for humanity and that we must abide by its laws. By examining the coffee industry through the lenses of political economy and environmental ethics it is revealed that a major cultural shift to the ideology of global citizenship, which promotes connectivity and empathy between all species that live on this Earth and the Earth itself, is necessary to protecting everyone and everything.
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