June 22, 2007

One cappuccino, hold the morality

The coffee I drink, I have learned, is "ethically grown." Who knew? I don't think the beans per se have much of a sense of ethics, and I rather doubt the plantation worker involved in nurturing the beans thought they had developed a moral compass of their own.

No matter what, you can't dress up the fact that growing and harvesting coffee, like most other crops, is a very hard job, and the foodstuff's successful move along the food chain is a result of hours of sweat, put in by someone who may or may not be literate, have access to proper nutrition, health care, and education, or ever dreamed a place like Wonderland existed.

I have visited sugar-cane plantations and rice paddies around the world, and I suspect the closest either came to the topic of ethics was the concept of a fair price for goods produced. Given corporate purchasing mentalities, I rather doubt the subject came up at all. If you are a peasant living at a subsistence level, you do what you have to in order to survive, whether it be earth-friendly, good for the environment, or will just see you through the night.

I grew up smelling charcoal burning in the Haitian countryside, knowing the mountains had been deforested by people who needed wood to cook the food they ate. Soil preservation was was not at the top of their list, and sustainable agriculture remains dream I hope can be fulfilled, although I have my doubts.

But I digress: the morality police have moved from dairy, produce, and meat sections (organic is good; any protein or vegetable with a price tag accessible to middle-income families seems to lack this sanctimonious designation) into my coffee cup. Am I supposed to feel good about the coffee grower's life? Am I immoral if I don't give it much consideration, or simply amoral?

I understand the principles behind the ethical growth concept; I just don't believe they will apply in the fields of the world any more than child labor will cease in sweatshops here and abroad. (You don't have to leave Manhattan to find a garment sweatshop; your airfare to Indonesia would be better spent improving the conditions down the block and determining what the root causes of our own social ills might be.)

I say all this as someone who grew up benefiting from Third-World labor, from so-called emerging markets. My family didn't care about politics so long as business was good. Whatever else you may say, and I can argue either for or against exploitation, our company offered jobs in places where there were damn few opportunities, and a weekly wage was welcomed.

We gave jobs to people living in a dictatorship. We didn't pay first-world wages; the workers, in turn, didn't have first-world expenses. I don't think a credit card was ever used along those shores. If you have no electricity and live in a country where news is controlled or censored, where sustenance is at a premium and school a luxury, chances are your consumption levels are not going to interest anyone selling any product more expensive than beer. Gas and oil were also dear, and personally owned cars the providence of the few elite.

When the 17-year reign of the dictator ended, courtesy of the U.S. government, all hell broke lose. Now, that island has no jobs, no tourism; disease runs rampant, and our state department has a longstanding travel advisory listed for this country to the effect of, go there at your own risk. Diplomats consider the assignment purgatory, and U.S. embassy personnel are required to comply with a very specific curfew.

At the same time as we have revised "give a hoot, don't pollute" for the 21st century to include any recyclable products such as plastics, our manufacturers are wrapping their goods in so many layers and in such child and adult-proof packages that it is hard to care whether my plastic container is labeled 1 or 101.

You want to talk morality? The ethics of coffee growing? Reuse of plastic soda bottles? Spare me. When we create one universal page for the land, the people, and the size of our carbon footprints, give me a call. With contradictions abounding, I won't be waiting by the phone.

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Anonymous MetroDad said...

Wouldn't even know where to start with this post. Felt like it could have been written by me. All I can say is, "amen, sister!"

Simply put, most of the 3rd World workers whom I've met could give two shits about organically-grown coffee. Food, shelter, education, and medical facilities? Yeah...just a LITTLE more important to them.

11:59 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

Then there's the whole other issue of finding a really GREAT coffee at some local place and feeling guilty about buying it.

Thanks for letting me drink it in peace!

9:17 PM  
Blogger Chana said...

An utterly fascinating post. I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog!


1:01 PM  

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