As I heap a few tablespoons of Coffee* into the Coffee maker, I register a flash of panic from my primitive, Western-constructed mind. The Coffee plant Coffea arabica, once endemic to Ethiopia, is now grown widely across the world in tropical and sub-tropical latitudes between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. During the year of rewilding in which I will neither buy nor consume anything grown outside the French Broad River watershed bioregion, Coffee will definitely be off the menu. My Lizard brain flashes this awareness as a threat, and I feel a consumerist impulse to go out and buy just one more bag.
The ½ bag of remaining Coffee triggers an awareness that this plunge into wildness will probably occur more abruptly than I can prepare for. At stake, a few days of unpleasant caffeine withdrawal. I think of Coffee’s homeland, Ethiopia, ravaged by civil war; homeless Ukrainians, displaced by a war waged by a greedy billionaire despot, not knowing if they will have a country to return to. I think of the Indigenous peoples both of this region (Cherokee, Catawba, Creek, Choctaw) and across Earth, whose lives and ways of living were and continue to be annihilated by the inexhaustible wants and needs of self-indulgent white people (Ghosh, 2021). I think of a world, once populated by endless expanses of Old Growth Forests, diverse Prairies, and Oceans teeming with life, and I wonder: How did we ever convince ourselves that the privilege of Coffee, and all the other consumer goods we feel entitled to, represent wants so great as to justify the slaughter of the world?
As a white settler, living on stolen Indigenous land in Asheville, NC, I am deeply complicit. I have indulged unhealthy relationships with food, alcohol, television, media, and stuff to the full extent that my privileged middle-class status will allow. For Westerners, the human and ecological costs of our pampered lives are out of sight and therefore out of mind, as we wreck the world, piece by piece with oblivious abandon.
The Coffee I am drinking has a complex life cycle history beset with impacts prior to ending up in my cup. Although Coffee is a shade crop and can be grown underneath a forest canopy, the 11 million hectares it now occupies worldwide have been dramatically transformed from diverse ecosystems, supporting countless more-than-humans, into utilitarian agricultural enterprises, focusing exclusively on the production of a single species to the disadvantage of all others (Somarriba & López Sampson, 2018). In the worldview I am increasingly beginning to embrace (one that has been simply taken as essential truth by the vast majority of the world’s Indigenous people), this slaughter of sentient beings in a sentient world, for the sake of a few enslaved species useful to Western humans, represents a holocaust** of unparalleled proportions.
Deforestation impacts are compounded by extensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which contaminate watersheds and imperil the lives of any animals relying on the same resources. Energy and labor-intensive processing may include human rights abuses and the combustion of considerable quantities of fossil fuels. Packaging has its own separate supply chain history of environmental impacts, depending on the materials used. Then more fossil fuels are burned to ship the coveted beans from the tropics to the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union where two out of every three bags of Coffee produced are consumed (Salomone, 2003). Most of these impacts cannot be remedied by “organic,” “sustainable,” or “fair trade” practices, rendering these labels somewhat absurd.
And Coffee is only one thing that I consume regularly. Contemplating the impacts of everything I have consumed over the span of a 57-year lifetime boggles the mind. Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) says:
We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth (p. 383).
I have a lot of work to do to make up for a lifetime of taking. The year of rewilding will be the first time in my entire life that I will finally tip the scales the other way, leaving the world truly better off for my presence in it. The prospect both excites and terrifies me.
Ghosh, A. (2021). The Nutmeg’s Curse – Parables for a planet in crisis. University of Chicago Press.
Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.
Salomone, R. (2003). Life cycle assessment applied to coffee production: investigating environmental impacts to aid decision making for improvements at company level. Food, Agriculture and Environment, 1(2), 295-300.
Somarriba, E., & López Sampson, A. (2018). Coffee and cocoa agroforestry systems: pathways to deforestation, reforestation, and tree cover change.