Could you live without coffee? International bestselling author and journalist Omar El Akkad has a lot to say about the topic. His new podcast, Without, which launched June 7th, discusses the things we may lose, those we should be losing, and things that can still be saved. His most recent episode focuses on – you guessed it! — coffee, and how climate change is fundamentally altering where and how this sweet morning nectar of ours is grown.
The show is a thought experiment, challenging listeners to think about what the world would look like if something we’ve become used to in everyday life is no longer here. Coffee is a commodity that has become so ingrained in our culture that we consume 450 million cups of joe every day. But there’s a great threat to the sustainability of coffee due to deforestation, primarily in Africa and South America, where coffee is grown.
El Akkad sat down with Beyondish to answer our burning questions.
Tell me where the idea came about for Without.
My wife is a chemistry professor. A few years ago she was telling me about a conversation she had with one of her colleagues about phosphorus, an element that’s a pretty key component not only in modern mass farming, but literally in people. It’s in our bones and teeth and DNA. We’re not going to run out of this stuff anytime soon, but whenever we do, there’s a good chance millions of people will starve to death. I was fascinated by this material most people don’t really ever think about, and yet it would have cataclysmic consequences for human life were it ever to go away. Then it dawned on me that a lot of my thinking over the past decade has been on similar lines – what happens when something we’ve taken for granted goes away. From there, “Without” was born.
How do you choose the individual topics?
We try to vary the topics along a number of axes – from commodities to social structures, things that are very much disappearing right now to things that won’t run out for a long time, real-life examples to thought experiments. But something all the topics tend to have in common is an underlying statement about how we live today. The first episode, for example, is nominally about sand, but it’s also about overconsumption, whereas the second episode is nominally about coffee, but also about power imbalances, the way a bean that earns a Vietnamese farmer 68 cents a kilogram might earn a high-end coffee shop on the other side of the planet $45 for the same amount. We look for interesting topics, but also what they say about the kind of societies we’ve built.
What does the research process look like for each episode?
Highly serendipitous, for one thing. We start out with questions we want to find the answers to, but inevitably, researching those questions ends up taking us in all kinds of unexpected directions. The research for the phosphorus episode began with some academic papers and eventually led us to the tiny island of Narau, where colonial powers discovered a massive reserve of the stuff and completely changed the fortunes of that place. For the same episode, we ended up talking to a researcher working with farmers in Washington state and a refugee who ended up in an internment camp in Narau. None of that was planned at the beginning of the process. It’s the most fulfilling part, going places we never expected the research to take us.
Talk to us about coffee. We live in a society so dependent on it. And climate change could have a big impact. What are some important things you address in the podcast?
More than 100-million people around the world depend on coffee to make a living. And yet it is, like a lot of commodities, an incredibly asymmetrical market in terms of both power and profit. In the coffee episode of “Without,” we ended up looking at a lot of the factors related to climate change that are making life much more difficult for coffee farmers – drought, frost, a debilitating disease called coffee rust that’s killing off crops, the need to physically move to higher elevations as the planet warms – but also how commercially lopsided the coffee industry is to begin with, how little of the profits actually make their way down to the folks who do the growing.
What should we be aware of and is there anything we can do to help?
I don’t expect anyone who listens to the podcast to then go out and become a full-time activist, but my hope is that with the coffee episode and indeed, with most episodes, that folks will at least be motivated to learn a little more about where the stuff they consume comes from, who makes it, and how much or how little they get in return. In the case of coffee, that would include learning a bit more about what designations like “fair trade” or “sustainably grown” actually mean, because like a lot of seemingly positive designations, they can take on a whole bunch of different forms.
What does a world without coffee look like? Will we turn to something else?
My poor producer Emile – who decided to be our guinea pig and go without coffee for the duration of making this episode – ended up doing just that. He did indeed find himself grasping for anything else to fill the void, and that anything ended up being chicory, which it turns out is a coffee replacement that dates back at least to the Napoleonic era. There’s been all kinds of substitutes tried out over the centuries in times when coffee simply wasn’t available, and they range from stuff like chicory all the way to sticks and reeds.
Will you delve into other food or drink topics in later episodes?
Without giving away too much, yes, yes we will.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned regarding living without something?
We’ve come across all kinds of fascinating technologies and areas of research, but what has fascinated me the most while working on this project is what it says about being human at this moment in time. One of the people we talked to for the antibiotics episode mentioned that for most people on the planet, antibiotics are this seemingly permanent thing: they’ve always just been around. But that’s not the case. They’re actually a very recent development in terms of human use, and it may well be that right now we’re just living through this very short, very fortunate moment where they’re available to us. That idea comes up a lot – that we’ve taken so many things for granted and assumed they’re always going to be around, but that’s simply not the case.
Is there one thing you couldn’t live without?
That’s an easy one. Books. Always books.
NEXT ON THE DISH