The coffee economy itself is not directly responsible for social unrest and repression; we should not confuse a correlation with a cause. Inequities and frustrations built into the economic system nonetheless exacerbate conflicts. Compared with many other products developed countries demand in cheap quantity, however, coffee is relatively benign. Laboring on banana, sugar, or cotton plantations or sweating in gold and diamond mines and oil refineries is far worse. The vast majority of coffee is grown on tiny plots by peasants who love their trees and the ripe cherries they produce.
As the anthropologist Eric Wolf observed in his classic 1982 work Europe and the People Without History, "the world of humankind constitutes . . . a totality of interconnected processes." Coffee provides one fascinating thread, stitching together the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, medicine, and business, and offering a way to follow the interactions that have formed a global economy.
(Clarence-Smith 1-22; Talbot 12-13) While this history has concentrated solely on coffee, similar stories could be told for other products. The European countries extracted furs, silver, gold, diamonds, slaves, spices, sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, opium, rubber, palm oil, and petroleum from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. As North America, taken over by white Europeans, developed industrially, it too joined the conquest, particularly of Latin America.
Over 22 percent of the world's production is consumed where it is grown. Brazilians have grown so fond of the beverage that some experts predict Brazil will eventually become a net importer of coffee. Caffeine is the most widely taken psychoactive drug on earth, and coffee is its foremost delivery system. "Today, most of the world's population, irrespective of geographic location, gender, age, or culture consumes caffeine daily," writes Jack James, author of two books on caffeine. "Global consumption has been...