Updated: 3 days ago
If you’re a human on earth right now above the age of 5, you probably know what it’s like to get high on trimethylxanthine. This stimulant, also known as caffeine, is the most popular and widely used recreational drug on the planet. It’s so pervasive and accepted that many even give it to children in the form of soda. What, if any, are the consequences of this?
Growing up, I never really questioned coffee as something that I wouldn’t want to use. Pretty much every adult I knew drank it, most restaurants had it, and even some of my peers growing up consumed it in the form of lattes, frappes, and ice cream. Once I was in high school, I started consuming coffee a couple times a week, once in college I started drinking it everyday. Then from there I never looked back- until recently.
I attempted to do some fasting from sugar and caffeine and was met with way more challenge than expected. Noticing my struggle, a friend recommended Michael Pollan’s audio book “Caffeine” and my third eye was blasted open. I strongly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about where our caffeine habits came from and what it does to us. This book prompted the manifestation of this article.
It appears that the way our world is now, probably would be vastly different if caffeine wasn’t popularized around the late 18th century. It has not been “essential” in human life that long if you think about it. It was only about 300 years ago when the popularization of coffee and tea really hit. It unfolded right in the sweet spot of the industrial revolution and age of enlightenment in Europe. Worker productivity and human philosophy launched forward. It seems we can attribute many of the modern convenience & technology we now experience today to this pivotal time. This poses my question: at what cost?
Caffeine has undeniably benefited many. It has also taken an undeniable toll on many that cannot be repaid and unfortunately still continues. Unfortunately, with the boom of coffee came a massive industry that could operate under a shadowed veil. The coffee plants requirement for certain climate & conditions aligned exactly with areas that colonialists could exploit. Slaves were either imported or unfortunately created from indigenous people of the chosen areas. Work was gruesome and physically demanding while living conditions were often intolerable.
Today this is still demanding work and unfortunately modern slavery still exists. Coffee farm workers, unless Fair Trade, often make below living wages or are in a cycle of debt that they cannot escape from. Trafficking as well as child slavery is a persistent concern especially in Brazil. Some of the worst plantations are “black listed” by many major American corporations however it still slips into the supply chain.
From a human rights standpoint coffee carries a lot of baggage. From an environmental standpoint it also is problematic. 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also major coffee producers. Forest is cleared for growing and often doused with pesticides & herbicides. To process the coffee, often wood is burned for fuel (more forest), copious water is used, and coffee pulp waste is often dumped in rivers. Not to mention the billions of single use plastic containers that people get on the go or the single use coffee pods used in homes and offices.
Finally, the last implication with caffeine that we may want to look at is it’s impact on deep sleep. Also known as delta or slow wave sleep. This is thought to be the most restorative and regenerative sleep for our minds and bodies. When we drink caffeine, even early in the day it reduces this crucial time. This actually makes it more addictive because we don’t feel as rested and more eagerly reach for another cup.
All and all this drug has positive impacts on our lives and also has a cost. To me, after thoroughly educating myself, it seems reducing our consumption of it is important. For those who don’t want to do that or don’t seem to have the space in their life not to be caffeinated there are better choices. Look for Fair Trade labels & for Rainforest Alliance certification. They aren’t perfect solutions, you can research why, however they guide much needed change in this industry.
Another shift we can make in a positive direction is considering methods of caffeination that are less wasteful and more intentional. One thing that any of us can do is bring our own mug to a cafe or restaurant. Using a ceramic mug or stainless steel thermos is actually better for your health as well as the environment. Nearly all paper cups contain a thin plastic lining which makes them almost impossible to recycle as well as pose chance for chemicals to leach into our hot beverages.
Even better is making coffee & tea at home because we can control a lot more factors. Using a french press eliminates the need for a paper liner or tea bags. If using a k-cup type of system we can opt for refillable pods instead of disposable plastic. Finally, do your research to ensure the coffee & tea you’re sourcing come from a company you align with. If you’re going to do something often or everyday, be mindful the impact adds up over a lifetime! Whenever possible choose to support companies that also want to support you (the planet & people) back.