Coffee: Back to the Future

The bean that may well save us all

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Today: Will coffee survive climate change?

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I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

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Last week’s most popular Action Step was rethinking food systems by reading the Paradigms of Agriculture.



Can’t sleep with it, can’t operate as a human being in the year of our lord twenty twenty-three without it.

Caffeine comes in a wide variety of sources, including tea, soda, and other terrifying processed drinks.

But today let’s focus on what Jack Aubrey’s friend Alexander von Humboldt called “concentrated sunshine”:


Two billion cups consumed every day.

An estimated 154 million adults (75% of the US population) report drinking coffee, and half of adults drink it every damn day.

Because of exactly how it works in our brains and how prevalent it is, coffee effectively rewrote humanity’s baseline consciousness.

“Don’t Talk to Mom Before Her Coffee” trinkets made Etsy what it is today, coffee fueled the Industrial Revolution, gave us confidence (and, seemingly) energy -- all conveniently harvested and laboriously produced on the backs of millions of slaves on the other side of the world.

The slavery is a little less now (and historically, a blip compared to sugar plantations), but the brutal conditions remain -- and it’s getting hotter every day.

Can coffee, the world’s second-most consumed beverage (after water, the other liquid we can’t operate without), survive climate change?

From what we can tell, which isn’t much, the Chinese have been drinking tea for a very long time, maybe since the 200’s AD.

Coffee seems to have gotten its start a thousand years or so later in East Africa and across the Silk Road and Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. It’s probably not coincidental that Muslim scholars relied on it to, you know, invent math.

“(Coffee) seemed to be tailor-​made for a culture that forbade alcohol consumption and gave birth to modern mathematics”.

- Wolfgang Schivelbusch

I’m not kidding. The word “algebra” is derived from the Medieval Latin, from Arabic “al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa al-muqabala”. Al jabr seems to translate to “reunion of broken parts”, which is also not coincidentally what happens to my wife every morning when pry open her eyes and deliver her a hot coffee with an extra shot of espresso tucked right inside.

Alcohol, as those Muslims scholars could tell you, is a nightmare. More on that later.

Anyways, caffeine paralleled colonialism. The English stole the recipe for tea from the Chinese and coffee eventually made its way to Venice and London, to coffeehouses, fueling conversation and the Enlightenment, checking the power of the monarchy, and playing no small part in the Industrial Revolution.

We didn’t just make a whole bunch more shit in the Industrial Revolution -- we made a ton of it at night, for the first time. Sure, gas lights helped, but the night shift doesn’t exist without coffee, enabling us to reverse our circadian rhythms and eventually guarantee free two-day shipping with Prime.

Caffeine is a drug virtually every one of us uses every single day. It improves mental performance, it improves athletic performance, it improves memory and gives us confidence where just moments ago there was none.

As long as you don’t drink 10-100 cups a day, coffee seems to reduce the risk of a few cancers, diabetes, dementia, and -- vitally important for Americans in particular -- cardiovascular disease.

Coffee doesn’t actually give us energy, which is something I didn’t understand until basically last week: it specifically blocks adenosine, the neuromodulating molecule that accumulates in your brain during the day, naturally topping up before bedtime.

But caffeine blocks it from being fully transmitted, so you never get the signal and thus don’t think you’re tired, and viola, you can continue being employed.

The problem is eventually your caffeine is metabolized, all the accumulated adenosine breaks through, and we crash, super hard, immediately going into withdrawal.

Unless we have another cup of coffee.

“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”

— Albert Camus

Most of us are addicted to coffee, and most of us are fine with it. We are fine with it as long as we have steady access to it, to prevent spending too long in withdrawal.

It is so much of our collective baseline that most of us forget it creates an altered state. It is so much a part of us that any of us can spot a fellow addict in what is hopefully for their sake, for everyone’s sake, temporary withdrawal. Just look for the longest line at the airport, a queue of disgruntled would-be travelers, risking hundreds of dollars and their flight to wait in a forty-five minute line for their ritual seven dollar three-pump milkshake with a little coffee thrown in -- the only known cure for the same headache they had yesterday at this exact same time.

"We want to do a lot of stuff; we're not in great shape. We didn't get a good night's sleep. We're a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup."

— Jerry Seinfeld

Coffee creates the exact conditions it alone solves.

You -- because I am of course describing you, too, as something like 90% of humans (including kids, because we are terrible) consume sort of caffeine -- you are no longer getting ahead by drinking coffee every day. You are simply keeping from falling behind.

You drink your coffee in the morning and then probably again too late in the day, sleep poorly and tempt depression because of the ridiculous half-life of coffee, go into withdrawal from lack of coffee, and then yell at your kids to pack their own lunches until you’ve had enough to keep the adenosine at bay.

It’s like steroids in sports. Where early adopters used steroids to get ahead, eventually everyone did them so they didn’t fall behind. That’s your brain and body on coffee, constantly trying to stay out of caffeine withdrawal, an actual diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is a vicious, beneficial circle we are entirely willingly dependent on.

If you thought the Fremen of Arrakis had an addiction problem, you should probably have a long hard look at the person in the mirror.

“But”, you say, “the Fremen function at such a high level because of the spice. Spice enables a superhuman level of fighting ability, of focus, it is permits interstellar travel, it is the bedrock and downfall of empires!”

We, too, send coffee to outer space, where every ounce of payload costs a gazillion dollars but spacewalks require obscene focus for hours on end.

We send it to the bottom of the ocean with submariners, who drink it by the gallon as they work never-ending eight hour shifts next to a balmy nuclear reactor and don’t see the sun for months at a time (a horrific biological experiment on its own).

It is a physiological requirement and a perk of even the least-woke employers, because it makes us better workers. And once having had it, we are terrible workers -- usually complete pricks, really -- without it. Thus the kitchenette. There is no going back, unless you really try to get off of it entirely, something experts like Michael Pollan simultaneously recommend and do not recommend at all.

“I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now.”

— Little Women

We are better workers with this entirely legal psychoactive drug because it enhances something called our “spotlight consciousness”, or more practically, your ability to finally crank out those marketing briefs, legal memos, or overdue TPS reports. The same TPS reports that form the backbone of capitalism.

The same capitalism, btw, which evolved from basic silver and gold mercantilism to urbanized mass production of tanks and fucking widget spinners and Squishmallows, free trade that stockpiled vast capital and -- for a time -- encouraged union power, wage labor, and weekends, all by way of the Industrial Revolution.

But I’m being disingenuous -- coffee itself didn’t fuel the Industrial Revolution. The slaves in Brazil and Central America that planted and harvested it did.

But like the Industrial Revolution, there’s some obvious pros and cons with coffee. Are we more productive workers than we otherwise would be? Basically! Did the Industrial Revolution lift a whole lot of folks out of poverty? Yep! Are these benefits equally distributed? Negative.

As we discussed last week, coffee has both co-benefits and exists as a threat multiplier, the costs of which we’ve (per usual) declined to calculate, much less pay.

Like our dwindling freshwater (or, again, alcohol) or air pollution, coffee is a problem because of the aggregate personal “footprints” driving systemic ones -- carrying massive societal, cultural, and economic impacts.

All of which could be radically impacted by climate change, which was instigated by -- you guessed it -- the Industrial Revolution.

You don’t get to pump a bazillion tons of pollution into the air for a couple hundred years and not pay some sort of price. 

It turns out, of course, we’ve been inadvertently paying the price in a bunch of ways this entire time.

One fun expense item is global heating, which drives an increasing number of droughts around the world, and which threatens a number of crops bred to thrive in more temperate conditions.

But coffee is even more of a pain in the ass than, say, rice or peaches. The 11 million hectares of Arabica and robusta (and 122 other species) harvested every year across the Americas, Asia, and almost seventy other countries implies a robust and varied supply chain, it seems as if coffee is ubiquitous, a strategic commodity we cannot do without, but in fact coffee plants require very specific altitudes, soil, temperature, and water.

If you’re thinking “wait aren’t soil, temperature, and water in deep shit”, you’d be correct, which is why some probably-coffee dependent climate scientists reluctantly suggest 50% of the aforementioned coffee regions won’t be able to actually grow the plant in a couple decades.

50%. Half.

“Among the world’s 124 coffee species (a team of scientists) have concluded 60% are at risk of extinction in the wild.”

To say nothing of how expensive coffee would get, and, further, how productivity itself may stall out as billions can’t afford or even access their daily coffee at all (I didn’t spend a thousand words above explaining how being on coffee is now our default productive state for nothing) -- the people and infrastructure required to produce as much coffee as we do are in deep shit, too.

Drought doesn’t just affect coffee. It directly affects soil health and other surrounding biodiversity (they’re called ecosystems for a reason) and the people who have traditionally relied on them to feed their families directly or indirectly from the profits of their work.

And so millions of people, mostly across the Global South, are already on the move, migrating north from...everywhere...because you can’t farm shit out of parched land.

Wide-reaching increases in poverty levels across coffee growers are already a thing. As labor leaves for literally any green pastures at all, planting, harvesting, production, and shipping capabilities dwindle, too, reducing and eventually eliminating entire markets. You only have to play Tradle so many times to understand how important coffee exports are to a huge variety of countries.

This is the part where I want to emphasize, again, that Earth’s second most-popular drink, a necessity to individuals and economies the world over, is already under threat. Climate change, like COVID and AI, is a test for all of our choices up to now -- from how we price water, how we run our governments, to how we power our automobiles and homes, to how we (or how we don’t) insure homes and businesses. There are myriad, almost innumerable weak links in the chain, a vast, impossible to fully envision network of interconnected systems.

So with everything else going on, it can seem relatively silly to sweat where your next Pumpkin Spice K-Cup or Iced Brown Sugar Oat Milk Shaken Espresso comes from, but again, I think I’ve made it clear, it’s not silly at all. I’m not fucking around here. I didn’t ask myself, “Hmm should I write about boba tea or coffee this week?”

“If I couldn't three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish, I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat.”

— Johann Sebastian Bach

Coffee is an absolutely essential commodity, and we have fucked around and are now finding out. Arabica and robusta are so damn picky that relocating them to more suitable climates or tinkering with farming practices isn’t going to save anything.

Enter: Liberica excelsa.

“Farmers in one of Africa’s biggest coffee exporting countries are growing a whole other variety that better withstands the heat, drought and disease supersized by global warming.

“Even if there’s too much heat, it does fine,” said Golooba John, a coffee farmer near the town of Zirobwe in central Uganda.”

If Arabica and robusta are fussy, Liberica is not. Indigenous to West and Central Africa, it was popular in the 1800’s: robust, high yielding with huge fruits, seeds, and trees that live a long, long time, fairly pest and disease resistant, and growing fruitfully in warmer, lower elevations. Huzzah! In 1870’s Southeast Asia, Liberica was the only option as coffee rust “annihilated” Arabica across the continent.

So what happened? Why isn’t it everywhere? Well, Brazilian Arabia absolutely exploded, so that, but also...Liberica excelsa tastes not great, compared to Arabica (robusta also doesn’t taste ideal, which is why it’s usually blended with Arabica).

Or, it didn’t taste great. Apparently, it tasted less delicious then because of particular post-harvesting techniques (pulping, washing, fermenting and drying) around the relatively huge fruits, which -- great news -- we can do differently today.

And we are, as coffee scientists “encourage farmers to improve the harvesting and drying of their Liberica crop” making for far better flavor:

“Contemporary assessments for Liberica indicate high levels of natural sweetness (a positive attribute for coffee quality), a rich, bold mouthfeel, low acidity and flavour notes of chocolate, jackfruit and other tropical and non-tropical fruits.”

The caffeine content more or less matches Arabica, even if that’s still way less than robusta.

The market for Liberica is growing. You can find it online and in some independent shops. But it is a two-sided market, so — even with climate change — farmers can’t commit to turning over their entire crop it unless the demand is there. And the demand won’t be there unless we talk about how coffee itself is at risk, and ask our independent shops to order it. It’s how we guarantee they can continue doing what they do — powering civilization, and hopefully making a living wage along the way.

Coffee is not dependent on Liberica, nearly every underutilized species is being tested for commercial viability, but with the overall market growing like crazy (since 1990, the total production of major coffee-exporting countries has risen from 5,593,800 metric tonnes to 9,903,180 metric tonnes in 2020), the biggest players have to get more involved.

Starbucks -- buyer of 3% of world’s coffee and certified union-busters -- is co-developing more resilient species of Arabica.

And like anything else at risk because of climate change, we have to go further. We have to protect the soil, we have to protect Uganda’s low-elevation forests, where excelsa grows. Yields don’t mature until 5-6 years after planting, so we have to take kitchen-sink action, now.

And of course, we have to stop new emissions everywhere, as fast as we possibly can. Like everything else, we can have gratitude for what coffee has done for us and for the people who provided it, and an indebtedness to build a better, more resilient system in a warming world.

✏️ Go Deeper

  • This Is Your Mind On Plants by Michael Pollan (Bookshop)

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