Perhaps it is just Melbourne but I am almost overwhelmed by the number of coffee shops, cafes and restaurants. Is the early 21st century cafe society sustainable? According to a SMH article Australians are still way behind the Finns in per capita coffee consumption and clearly out in Oz suburbia and rural areas Nescafe fans still persist! I hate to think how many empty shops there will be if there is a significant downturn in the economy. Don't get me wrong I underwent withdrawal symptoms 12 years ago after moving from Sydney to Milton Keynes! In 1994 London was little better than MK, but somewhere along the way both London and MK changed and a good coffee ...with half reasonable (if too expensive) food was possible. But somehow Melbourne almost has too much on offer. In the street outside my partner's office, where five years ago there was only one coffee shop, now there are five.
There is also the vexed issue of the 'world in my coffee cup'. As I wrote a few years ago in our Open University course, 'Managing complexity. A systems approach':
Ecological backpacking in Seattle – the ghost of coffee’s past
by Alan Durning
Alan Durning was Executive Director of Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle. This commentary was first heard on the radio show ‘Living on Earth’ on KPLU, adapted from Alan’s This Place on Earth (Sasquatch Books) and I have taken it from the book Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World. Sustainable Living & Global Equity in the 21st Century, London, Earthscan, p. 67.
If you are not a coffee drinker like me then Alan’s story may not be as personally challenging as it was for me. To me the story lays bare the systemic connections between my behaviours and the implications of that behaviour when it is aggregated. If I imagine his story as being about a ‘system to satisfy my passion for drinking coffee each morning’ then I have to conclude that it is an effective system, most of the time, in achieving the transformation ‘passion unmet to passion met’ for me. But, his story also reveals the extent to which resources have to be used to achieve the transformation as well as the number of activities undertaken. His story makes transparent what I intrinsically know but choose to ignore in my passion for drinking my daily cup of coffee. Despite the unanticipated and undesirable outcomes of this set of activities and my heightened awareness of the emergent properties from these activities, which have long-term undesirable effects, at heart I do not want to change my behaviour! So what are the implications of my position? Well, I console myself by believing that my coffee drinking habits are not at the top of the list of sustainable development issues of which I am aware. Alan generalizes in his story about getting off this ‘consumption kick’, and that, for me, is part of it. But is it enough?
The more I engage with sustainable development issues the more complex I perceive them to be. Drinking coffee is not an isolated and individual act, it is also a social act. This is why we have coffee shops and can talk of a ‘cafe´ society’. Another way of saying this is that there are many stakeholders with an interest in maintaining an interconnected set of activities, which I might recognize as the system I have described above. Many of these stakeholders will have a passion for coffee as I do but others will have different interests and will probably look at the same set of interconnected activities and recognize it as a different system. From the perspective of a peasant in Colombia it may be ‘a system to eke out a livelihood’, or from the perspective of a concerned natural resource manager or environmentalist, ‘a system to increase the rate of rainforest destruction’'.
This is an example of why systems thinking and practice skills and capabilities are urgently needed.