Coffee Alan Durning Essay Help

The Consequences of a Cup of Coffee

by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning
Northwest Environment Watch, Free Press contributors

The following article about a Seattleite's typical cup of
coffee was condensed and reprinted from the new book
Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things.
For more info visit the NW Environment Watch website
or call (206) 447-1880.

The buzzing would not go away. Without opening my eyes, I hit the clock radio. My brain managed to hold one coherent thought: caffeine.

Beans. I staggered into the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee. It took 100 beans - about one-sixtieth of the beans that grew on the coffee tree last year. The tree was on a small mountain farm in the Antioquia region of Colombia. The region was cleared of most of its native forests at the turn of the century.

Dense, manicured rows of Coffea arabica trees covered the farm. For most of this century, coffee grew on this farm in the shade of taller fruit and hardwood trees, whose canopies harbored numerous birds. In the 1980s, farm owners sawed down most of the shade trees and planted high-yielding varieties of coffee. Biologists report finding just five percent as many bird species in these new, sunny coffee fields as in the traditional shaded coffee plantations.

With the habitats of birds removed, pests proliferated and coffee growers stepped up their pesticide use. Farmworkers sprayed my tree with several doses of pesticides. Some of the chemicals entered the farmworkers lungs; others washed or wafted away, only to be absorbed by plants and animals.

Workers earning less than a dollar a day picked my coffee berries by hand and fed them into a diesel-powered crusher, which removed the beans from the pulpy berries that encased them. The beans traveled to New Orleans on a ship. For each pound of beans, about two pounds of pulp had been dumped into the river. As the pulp decomposed, it consumed oxygen needed by fish.The freighter that carried my coffee was made in Japan and fueled by Venezuelan oil.

At New Orleans, the beans were roasted for 13 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The roaster burned natural gas. The beans were packaged in four-layer bags constructed of polyethylene, nylon, aluminum foil, and polyester. They were trucked to a Seattle warehouse in an 18-wheeler, which got six miles per gallon of diesel.

Bag. I carried the beans out of the store in a sealed, wax-lined paper bag and a large brown paper sack, both made at unbleached kraft paper mills in Oregon. I brought them home in my car; it burned one-fifth of a gallon of gasoline during the five-mile round-trip to the market.


I drink two cups a day. At that rate,
I'll down 34 gallons of java this year,
made from 18 pounds of beans.
Colombian farms have 12 coffee
trees growing to support my
personal addiction. Farmers will
apply 11 pounds of fertilizer and a
few ounces of pesticides to the trees
this year. And Columbian rivers
will swell with 43 pounds of coffee
pulp stripped from my beans.

from Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things

Grinder. In the kitchen, I measured the beans in a disposable plastic scoop molded in New Jersey and spooned them into a grinder. The grinder was assembled in China from imported steel, aluminum, copper, and plastic parts. It was powered by electricity generated at Ross Dam on the Skagit River in the Washington Cascades.

Water. I poured eight ounces of tap water. Originally it came from the Chester Morse Reservoir on the Cedar River on the west slope of the Cascades. An element heated the water. The brew trickled into a glass carafe; I poured it into a mug with a "Made in Taiwan" sticker hidden underneath. Later, I washed the mug, using much more water than I drank from it.

Sugar. I measured out two teaspoons of sugar. It came from cane fields - former sawgrass marshes - south of Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Water that used to flow across these marshes and into the Everglades is now drained into canals and sent directly to the ocean. Populations of all vertebrates - from turtles to storks - have fallen 75 to 95 percent in Everglades National Park.

Cream. I stirred in one ounce of cream. The cream came from a cow in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle. The cow liked to wade into a stream to drink and to graze on streamside grasses and willows. As a result, the water got warmer and muddier, making life difficult for the coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Wastes. The cow's manure was rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. The soils of the cow pasture were unable to absorb all the manure, so it washed into the stream when it rained. The infusion fertilized algae, making life still more difficult for the fish.

Two hours after I finished my morning cup, my body had metabolized the coffee. Most of the water and some nutrients passed into the Seattle sewer system. They traveled to Seattle's West Point sewage treatment plant on the shores of Puget Sound, next to Discovery Park. An underwater pipe carried the treated liquids a mile into Puget Sound. The flushing of the tides would eventually carry the liquids into the Pacific Ocean.

The Coffee Tree
The tree, like most Western Hemisphere coffee, was descended from a Javanese seedling brought to the Caribbean in 1721. This seedling in turn descended from Coffea shrubs in the forests of Ethiopia. In 1970, windborne spores of African coffee rust landed in Brazil and began to spread north, triggering panic in the Latin American coffee industry.

Breeders went to the dwindling forests of southwestern Ethiopia - coffee's evolutionary home - and found wild varieties resistant to 27 of 33 known types of la roya ("the rust"). They returned to South America and crossbred commercial and wild strains.

Governments also reacted to la roya by "technifying" coffee farms - removing shade trees, introducing new varieties, and boosting chemical use. Ironically, la roya has not spread as feared, probably because the cool temperatures and the dry season in most Latin American highlands limit its growth.

What to Do?!
Find some shade Coffee grown under the shade of mixed trees which require few or no chemical inputs: the leaf litter replenishes soil nutrients, and the variety of tree species benefits birds and discourages pest outbreaks. Many brands of shade coffee - often labeled as organic or cooperatively produced - are available.

Go local, Organic mint tea is grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley with no chemical inputs and requires much less energy to be processed and transported (200 miles to Seattle) than coffee.

"With the habitats of birds removed, pests proliferated and coffee growers stepped up their pesticide use."

Related Stories:
Our Company, Starbucks
Not Just for the Birds
Starbucks Replies

Also see:

An interview with Alan Thein Durning


"Taming the Auto, Reclaiming the City"
(info on Durning's group NorthWest Environment Watch)

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Contents this page were published in the May/June, 1997 edition of the Washington Free Press.
WFP, 1463 E. Republican #178, Seattle, WA -USA, 98112. --
Copyright � 1997 WFP Collective, Inc.

Alan Durning (born 1964 as Alan Bresler Durning, then Alan Thein Durning from 1991 to 2008) is the founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch), a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Washington, U.S.

Durning grew up in Seattle, spent his high school years in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and attended Oberlin College during the mid-1980s. From 1986 to 1993, Durning worked as a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. In 1993, Durning returned to Seattle and founded Northwest Environment Watch.

Durning is the author or coauthor of dozens of books and articles. His published books include:

  • How Much Is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth
  • This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence
  • The Car and the City
  • Misplaced Blame: The Real Roots of Population Growth
  • Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things
  • Tax Shift
  • Green Collar Jobs: Working in the New Northwest

Durning's newspaper and magazine articles have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, and the Utne Reader. Durning has been a commentator on National Public Radio and has lectured at universities, conferences, and at the White House.

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