The long breath goodbye

“I breathe in the same particles of air that gave voices to humpback whales, and that lifted the wings of bald eagles, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms, whirled in high mountain snows…air that has passed continually through life on earth. I breathe it in, pass it on, share it in equal measure with billions of other living things, endlessly, infinitely.” –  Richard Nelson, The Island Within

When we are born, we inhale and then give that breath back, exhale, at the point of death.

Life is but a sequence of breaths, some shallow, some deep, bringing us a step closer to eternity. We never possess the air that we breathe. We merely borrow it, lease it during our adventure on this planet we call Earth.

At a 2019 United Nations summit, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered the following message to global leaders through their inertia over the climate crisis: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

Over the past few years, as our world examines a future without fossil fuels, climate change has captured headlines. Deforestation and fires have challenged our ability to recycle air with the Amazon being exploited for economic reasons. And, while countries do have a mandate to utilise their resources for the common good of their people, there lies a greater reality on the edge of our consciousness. How will future generations judge us? What will be our legacy as stewards of our little planet, this tiny object we call home, being propelled through time and space at unbelievable pace?

Do we, as the people of today, carry a responsibility to provide or hand over a world in at least as good a shape as we found it, to the people of tomorrow? Or, do we just focus on our generation, our selfish wellbeing and say “to hell with the rest”? “Après moi le deluge” as the French would say.

And yet, underneath the shell of our blue horizon, life as we know it goes on as if decisions had no consequences. However, within the confines of this azure wonder, it is the air that we breathe that links the whole of creation. It is the only commodity we share with all of humanity without prejudice or hierarchy. When it comes to breathing, we are truly all equal.

Even in our little coffee world, the forces of Mammon have infected the air that we breathe. In times gone by, coffee plants grew among trees, in the shade, as part of a balanced eco-system linking insects and birds to people and trees. However, it has now been deemed to be more productive to grow coffee plants under the sun, leading to deforestation and a serious compromise to the air that we breathe, as coffee is mainly produced in rainforest dominated regions.

While we appreciate the notion that plants require sunshine for photosynthesis and oxygen production, coffee has been traditionally grown under a lush canopy of trees where rich soils removed the need for chemically produced fertilisers and, more importantly, dangerous pesticides. However, sun cultivation was introduced in the 70s to increase the yield, which led to economic improvements of the regions. This unfortunately required the introduction of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides as well as initiating the deforestation of large swathes of random rainforest, which was replaced with symmetrical rows of coffee plants.

In figure 1 you can see all of the parameters that impact the coffee value chain.

Of all of the factors that impact the environment, there are two that provide most of the negative ramifications: cultivation and consumption (see figure 2).

Beyond this, the fact that the average cup requires approximately 140 litres of water to be produced, from irrigation through to processing, is concerning. Coffee also produces an inordinate amount of waste derived from separating the coffee beans from the cherries to produce a pulp. This pulp used to just be dumped into local rivers, contaminating the environment with significant amounts of waste, disrupting delicate ecosystems with organic contaminants. However, greater awareness as well as technological advancements have led to the reutilisation of the pulp to produce new beverages, as well as flour for baking.

So, where does this leave organisations involved in the world of coffee, trying to promote fair trade as well as a social conscience? Ecological practices require further investment, which local farmers can ill afford to make, in view of plunging revenues. Can we increase productivity and yield without detrimental environmental impact? I would hasten to doubt it, as history dictates that every gain has an inherent cost or compromise attached to it. If the only way to increase production is deforestation or the use of fertilisers or pesticides, does the end, once again, justify the means. If not, how do we escape this self-destructive cycle, this yin and yang tension that separates our economic reality from the voice of reason?

This morning, while walking my dog Rocco among the sunny Hertfordshire rolling hills, I started thinking about life encompassing three potential phases of wealth- survival, prosperity, and, ultimately, greed. As my predatory Doberman was sniffing around for prey, survival of the species became a comprehensible urge. It made sense to me. Prosperity is having the ability to own property, have holidays, and live a life beyond bare necessities without dabbling into luxury. That also made sense to me. Greed, on the other hand, is this relentless aspiration for more, the unquenchable thirst that seeks to accumulate wealth with neither rhyme nor reason. That did not make sense to me.

Actions devoid of life-giving purpose lead to the destruction of the soul and nothing more.

Greed for the sake of greed is a dark force that negates the human spirit, the common good. Greed leads to economic disparity and social inequity that, in turn, gives birth to a loss of hope, fear, and eventually, civil unrest we can witness the world over today.

Greta Thunberg was right to be angry, but the environment is nothing more than a symptom of our age, a fruit not a tree. The root cause, the tree of it all, is human greed: the desire to acquire and accumulate wealth for the sake of wealth, to live with the false sense of belief that we are better than the rest of the tribe, winning the rat race at any cost, and becoming top rat. Today’s society values success above all else, even if in the process of this eponymous victory, we lose our social responsibility, our consciousness, and, in the end, our humanity.

Unlike the movie Wall Street in which Gordon Gekko uttered the famous words, that “greed is good” and “money never sleeps”, greed is not only bad, but it is destructive. Ultimately, greed leads to death … the final breath.

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