Monday, July 24, 2006

The cafe society twelve years on...

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':

'I like to start each day with a cup of strong Italian style coffee. It is one of the modest passions that I have in my life – at least that is what I tell myself. I also tend to navigate my way around parts of London and Sydney, two cities I know reasonably well, by the quality of the coffee shops. So what have my coffee drinking habits to do with managing complexity, or more particularly managing sustainable development? The connection was brought home to me in a very challenging way in a short story from Alan Durning of Seattle (below) which I read as part of my preparations for writing this course material. What do you make of his metaphor about there being ‘a world in my cup’.

Ecological backpacking in Seattle – the ghost of coffee’s past
by Alan Durning
My name is Alan and I am a compulsive drinker. Coffee is my brew. I used to drink it daily, sometimes hourly. I drank it by the pot ... cappuccinos, frappacinos, even Folger’s drip. Now I’m on the wagon, drinking locally grown herbal tea. You see, this terrible thing happened. A dream straight out of Scrooge. I saw where my coffee comes from. It started one morning in the kitchen. As I poured the beans into the grinder, I suddenly found myself in a clouded forest on a mountain above the Cauca River in Colombia. The lush vegetation was disappearing all around me as a coffee plantation grew. Farm workers were spraying the trees with pesticides made in the valley of the River Rhine in Europe. I began to choke on the poisonous fumes when I was transported ... to New Orleans. Burlap sacks of coffee beans were being unloaded from a freighter burning oil from the Orinoco River Valley of Venezuela. It was like a spin on the house that Jack built: the freighter was made in Japan out of steel forged in Korea from iron mined in the lands of Australian aborigines. Workers were pouring the beans into a roaster, which was fuelled with natural gas piped in from Oklahoma. Out the other end, my beans poured into bags of nylon, polyester, and polyethylene – plastics from New Jersey – and aluminium foil from a smelter in Oregon. That smelter was powered by electricity from dams that have nearly wiped out wild salmon in the Columbia River. Suddenly, I was in my kitchen again, but hovering by the ceiling, looking down. My beans, now disintegrating in the grinder, had come to my home inside a brown paper bag made from pines in the northern Rockies. On the trip from the supermarket, my car had burned a sixth of a gallon of gasoline, spewing carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organics into the air. The gas had come from Alaska’s North Slope by way of Prince William Sound and a refinery in northern Washington. Hovering above myself in the kitchen, I watched as I took that first sip of the day. But from my cup came pesticides, oil, molten steel. My ecological wake. And it wasn’t just the coffee. My T-shirt. My newspaper. My radio. The wake of it all washed over me. I buckled under its weight. Then my bathroom scale appeared, flashing 115 pounds. My daily consumption of natural resources. I fell to the floor, crushed and bloated. I can’t shake this dream. I’ve gotta find a way of using less. Can we make things better? Figure out better ways of getting around? Get stuff from closer to home? I don’t know, but I do know this, my name is Alan, I’m a compulsive coffee drinker, and there’s a world in my cup.

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.
Reading with jetlag

John McGahern's novel 'That they may face the rising sun' contains some of the best prose I have read in years. Although based in Ireland it evokes my own rural upbringing in central-western NSW - particularly in the way he deals with time, place and relationships. It was ideal reading for jet-lagged hours of wakefulness upon my return to Oz. One short exerpt particularly captured my attention (p.170): 'When it was considered carefully, all Frank Dolan had done was to be too honest and too self-expressive. Each quality alone was dangerous enough: combined together they were a recipe for disaster'. This reflection arose when Frank Dolan 'lost' a sure bank loan because he was not prepared to play the game - to 'stretch the truth' to meet the needs of the 'banking system'. The story is germane to contemporary organisational life - and perhaps close to the bone when it comes to my own circumstances and that of my colleague, John Naughton, whose well selected gift the book was.

One excerpt in my other reading also reminded me of John, a committed Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge - in her 'The Knox Brothers' Penelope Fitzgerald, citing her father, Eddie Knox (circa 1910) says: 'This shocked Owen [Seaman, the influential editor of Punch], who controlled the politics of England entirely in verse. He had, indeed, a strong sense of vocation, and I remember his saying sadly about somebody or other, 'he is the kind of man who doesn't take his humour seriously'.