Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Way I See It #288

Regarding the feel-good flash-essays written on the side of Starbucks cups: Normally, they are just nothing statements, advancing the niche brand of warm-fuzzies capitalism. But today, mine was so earnest, so naively paradoxical that I couldn’t help but call attention to it. Reading the cup, I felt like Alice marveling at another Wonderland absurdity and looking for somebody else to agree that it’s crazy ... but she only has the Cheshire cat, who does nothing to confirm her sanity. Ok, here it is:

The Way I See It #288

“My cousin in Tibet is an illiterate subsistence farmer. By accident of birth, I was raised in the West and have a Ph.D. The task of our generation is to cut through the illusion that we inhabit separate worlds. Only then will we find the heart to rise to the daunting but urgent challenges of global disparity.” – Losang Rabgey, Ph.D. National Geographic Emerging Explorer and co-founder of Machik, a nonprofit helping communities on the Tibetan plateau.

It would be monstrous to disagree with the sentiment behind the statement on the cup. How can anybody not want children to hold hands in a circle around the world? But does it not seem completely ridiculous, absurd, insane to be trying to end global disparity on the side of a $5 cup of Venti Caffee Mocha with skim milk and whip cream? Do the suits at Starbucks not realize that if we replaced global disparity with global equality, nobody would be able to afford luxury coffee? (Don’t believe me? it’s already happening, check out this NY Times article about the rising price of grain.) Or maybe they do realize that, but are banking on the assurance that nobody else will.

American rates of consumption are already ecologically unsustainable, and it would be disastrous if they were multiplied by the rest of the human population. So any economic increase in poor countries will eventually mean a decrease in American wealth. And as we’ve already seen, the first thing to go is frivolous spending. It’s pretty funny to think of Starbucks writing its own demise on the side of its cups in such a cute font. Again, I’m not writing this blog to make a political statement. But we rich Westerners should think about whether we really would sacrifice our expensive coffee (among other luxuries) so that the rest of the world can have an improved standard of living. I’d like to think I’m that good of a person, but I don’t know if I am. On the contrary, I’m the jerk who actively fears that somebody in my family will need me to give them an organ. Cause I really really do not want to go through my life with only one kidney. Nor would I want to sentence a family member to a lifetime of dialysis.

Another thing, this essay works on the assumption that somehow it is better to be a Western doctor than a Tibetan sustenance farmer. And, since you’re reading my blog, you should be painfully aware by now how fatally wrong that assumption could be.

PS. For what it’s worth, the bottom of the cup comes with this disclaimer: “This is the author’s opinion, not necessarily that of Starbucks.”

5 comments:

Biochemikerin said...

From the cute little conscience-soothing sentiments Starbucks seems so fond of, one almost can't tell that very little of their coffee is fair trade certified, and they certainly don't brew it on demand. For a corporation with that much buying power, could do better than printing those quotes on cups, but I suppose teaming up with Apple and bottling their own brand of water are more profitable. Sigh.

js said...

Hey, coincidentally I just did a post about Starbucks too. But for a totally different reason... a friend insisted that I buy her a cup of those overpriced coffee but I did something different. I gave her a virtual mocha frap instead. So am I contributing to this company's profit skimming tactic? Hehe... I hope not.

Jens said...

Haha, there's some healthy liberal guilt!
In the foreword of the Ben Bova book you gave me, he says, "It would take the resources of four Earths to make everyone as wealthy as the average American." (And then, because he's Ben Bova, he says, "So let's go and get them!")
But that is an interesting way of looking at it. Four earths! Wow! The average American, you know, has the equivalent of over 200 slaves toiling nonstop for his personal pleasure - the equivalent in ready goods available and energy consumed.
You hear, of course, that Americans, 5% of the global population, use 30% of the world's wealth; it doesn't really feel like that when you're a miserable grad student, but travel opens one's eyes to the relative affluence of even a minimum-wage American. Giving up $5 coffees is the tip of the iceberg! Think of that, college students, next time you're calling for the end of the American Empire! It may be unjust not to practice fair trade! It may be unjust to exploit the third world! But do you really want to be poor?!
Of course not.

Miserable Grad Student said...

To Js:
I don't think you have to worry about giving free advertising to an entity as ubiquitous as Starbucks. But your photo does look tasty...

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