There is one thing on which our lives depend. It is woven into the very fabric of our culture. It sustains us. It is the lifeblood of any venture we attempt–from the construction of a skyscraper to the discovery of new physical laws. It gives us the power to act just when we think we have run out of steam. It gives us the will to go on just when we feel that it is impossible. It is our god, the great god coffee.
Our cities are filled with coffee shops–franchises trading in specialty brands, offering a dozen different varieties. Coffee is enormous business. Last year alone the coffee sales in the US totaled over 19 billion dollars, amounting to just about 6 million gallons of coffee, or 424 cups per person–making coffee second only to water in terms of consumption. Coffee has taken on a special significance in our culture.
The reason for coffee’s popularity is self-evident. It enhances your mind’s ability to function, whether by keeping you alert when you begin to tire or by giving you an extra edge whenever the need arises. It is this attribute, more than its taste, or availability, or Starbucks’ marketing campaign, that explains coffee’s popularity. It is its ability to boost your potential that creates its demand.
Coffee fuels productivity on all scales–from the zealous businessman trying to make the day last 25 hours–the conscientious scientist reviewing the latest discoveries–the sleep-deprived student rushing to his morning class after a coffee drenched night studying for a midterm. Its chief role is in situations where time is a key variable.
Coffee allows a man to act beyond his immediate means–it allows him to surpass his biologically given nature and gain greater control over his mind. Coffee increases the duration of man’s waking hours by allowing him to defer the need to rest.
Coffee does to a mind the same thing credit does to an economy. Credit allows an entrepreneur with limited resources to create wealth on a larger scale, by allowing him to use existing resources belonging to someone else–in exchange for interest–resulting in greater long term earnings. So too coffee allows a man to use energy that would have otherwise not been available to him, in order to allow him to function for just long enough to complete a crucial task. This flexibility allows a man to achieve a greater capacity for productive work in the long term, at the expense of some discomfort in the short term.
In the case of the credit, there is the implication that somewhere there is a creditor ready to collect the debt when it is due. In the case of coffee, the creditor is simply ones self–with reality as the repo man. With credit, the bank will do its best to put a stop to any vicious cycle of borrowing and default, but with coffee that responsibility lies with the drinker. And this is where the wider significance of coffee becomes clear.
Caffeine, like any drug, effectively circumvents the body’s automatic control mechanisms. When there is a disconnect between the behavior of your brain and your conscious mind’s intentions, coffee allows you to make the call. When your body demands you sleep, while you consciously decide to stay awake, you simply drink a cup of coffee and force your brain to conform to your wishes. The reason this step is at all necessary is that, while our conscious minds are able to project long-term, the brain and body only behave in accordance with the short term.
Our body is incapable of knowing that a certain action will be beneficial in the long term, while being extremely detrimental in the short term. An ideal example of this conflict is a surgery. For its duration, the surgery is utterly destructive, only realizing its benefits within days, weeks or even years of its end. As a result our body is in excruciating pain for the whole process (unless inhibited by drugs). Our conscious mind on the other hand knows for certain that although the surgery will be harmful in the short term it is ultimately good, and even necessary. This is why we allow a surgeon to give us the anesthetic, totally subverting the pain mechanism of our bodies.
Unlike animals, men have the distinctive ability to see the long range consequences of our actions. If a dog owner attempts to give a dog a needle, or even try and wash the thing, the dog will do everything in its power to stop the dog owner–it will jump and twist and moan because the long term effects of a given action are simply beyond its grasp. So coffee, or aspirin, or morphine–drugs in general–are our means of conforming our brain’s activity to the full context of our knowledge. In effect it is the last step in our evolution of control over our body.
This should be the great pride of our culture–that coffee shops dot our towns, our campuses, our concrete jungle. This is representative of the value of an active mind. From the physicist to the janitor, all must exercise their mind to be even remotely productive. This is what made us what we are. The mind is the source of wealth, and our love of coffee is a direct result of that fact. Coffee per se is not responsible for all of western civilization’s glory, but it is symptomatic thereof.
We have a healthy obsession with efficiency and coffee fits nicely into the picture. We strive for ever greater heights, ever more momentous achievements, and having attained nothing short of godlike powers we have now become our own limiting factors. Nature will not suffice–not in the caves it once provided us for shelter and not in the sleep cycle we inherited from our chimp cousins. We have built the world we wanted, with tools commanding nature, and now the time has come to rebuild ourselves–to bring the once automatic functions of our body into the scope of our volition. Thus, coffee; a simple tool for audacious men not content to let nature take its course.
Vecheslav Silagadze lives in Waterloo, Ontario. He’s a student at the University of Waterloo, majoring in Elecrtical Engineering.