Saturday, August 7, 2010

From the Ground up: Part 1. Coffee is a consumable.

Coffee is a product, a consumable.
Behind every cup of glorious, aromatic, (perhaps even angelic) coffee are processes: Horticulture, transport, trade, electricity, water purification, ceramics, plastics, dairy production, employment, genetic engineering, hair styling (for the particularly hip people who work in Greensborough plaza) etc. Not every coffee sits upon each of these processes, but no coffee is without at least three or four of them. It is therefore inescapable that coffee is the end to which many other processes are the means. The humble cup of coffee apart from being a simple component in our day is yet a 'telos' of its own.

The consumption of coffee keeps people in business, others employed. It keeps human beings fed, keeps communities financially viable and necessitates geographic exploration and environmental stewardship. In pursuit of diversity it demands scientific investigation. Somewhere in a lab there are people which flex their hulking intellects temporarily away from their predilection for board-games and steam engines to the fineries of elaborately delicate chemical articulation in order to enhance even just another smidgen, a whiff, a infinitesimally small (some say sub-atomic) bit of 'zing' in my coffee. And I believe that it is a beautiful and truly blessed thing that they do.

But, unlike Yoda, coffee has a dark side. It cannot be denied that coffee may attribute to a myriad of negative effects: high blood pressure, restricted weight loss, caffeine addiction, staining of teeth, withdrawals, headaches, sleeplessness, restlessness etc. If it is unethically resourced is can lead to environmentally devastating effects, it can cripple local economies and attribute to the cycle of poverty. Just as it is a thing of beauty, it may also oppress.

In short, coffee is an inanimate object which can be positive or negative depending on application and resourcing. Furthermore, the intention upon which its stewardship operates seems to be the most significant factor in determining the ethical / moral effect of coffee at each stage in each process.

A danger exists, then, in the ignoring of the processes behind the resourcing of coffee. This is highlighted by blogger John Dyer on donteatthefuit.com. He draws upon Albert Borgmann’s book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press). Dyer argues on Borgmann’s behalf that as consumers participate less and less in the processes which actually give them the end product, there is a growing sense of ‘compression’ of perception with regard to the stewardship surrounding the processes, and a decreasing emotional and social concern. Simply put - a lack of involvement results in a lack of interest and, eventually, a lack of concern for the flow-on effects of the resourcing processes.

The intention behind the isolation of the consumer from the resourcing processes is of most ethical concern here (whether on the part of the producer or the consumer). Perhaps to highlight this we could ask the following: isn’t it in the best interests of my health and the health of my family and community to know how the elements of our diet were produced? Why would I not want to know? Would it remove ignorance as an excuse for poor health? Would I have to admit I am knowingly digesting things which are unhealthy?
Would I have to admit that I am placing the pleasure of the experience over the long term benefits?

Whether I like it or not, somehow knowing the process causes me to weigh up how much my intention was reliant on nothing more than just pleasure. The more I know about something I partake of and its effects, the more I must weigh the teleological (final / ultimate) ends of those effects against what I believe to be good and true and beautiful. If I partake of something which I enjoy, but it is ultimately neither good or true or beautiful, then I am – in at least a technical sense – a hedonist, concerned foremost with my pleasure.

Is this perhaps why some people who rely on these processes for their income seek to distort my understanding , either by romanticising the process or by making illegal the documenting and publication of the process? If I – the producer – must rely on your – the consumer’s – emotional and ethical detachment in order to make sales, then irrespective of how theatrically conspiratorial it sounds, the truth is hidden to make money (incidentally, there is no shortage of blogs about this). You see, if I really knew what I was digesting, or the effect my dietary decisions had on the world around me – the processes and their implications – I would likely decide differently.

If I discover that something I enjoy is available or cheap only at the discomfort, detriment, pain or poverty of another person will I stop? Will I refuse to accept the subjugation of another person for my pleasure? I would like to say yes. At the moment, the decision to purchase is made easy in a way by the romanticising of the processes, and the cultural consumer detachment which is so prevalent in the west, and which if I am honest – appeals to my laziness.

So...

Will hedonism ultimately prevail when I sit down to sip my coffee or will the increasing awareness of the processes behind it cause me to seek to find comfort in the experience of a more genuine stewardship than off-the-shelf instant gratification.

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