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Coffee, Not Love is “the Drug” By Mrs Vera West

     To set the scene, how about Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug (1975), with the (at the time) handsome Bryan Ferry as lead singer? No, wait, cancel that. I actually listened to the lyrics in the first time since 1975, and suddenly realised that Bryan was singing about something other than holding hands at a Sunday school picnic. Oh well, I will just have another cup of coffee instead:

“Michael Pollan laughs and says, yes, he's on drugs while conducting this interview. Okay, he doesn't use those exact words, but he acknowledges that he has a "tall, takeout container" of half-caff coffee at his side as we discuss, via phone, his latest project, simply titled "Caffeine," available only as an audio book from Audible. Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "The Botany of Desire," "In Defense of Food" and "How to Change Your Mind" - in which he has explored our complicated relationship with food, plants, drugs and many other things we take for granted - has turned his imposing analytical skills to caffeine, the most popular mind-altering chemical on the planet. Caffeine would transform the world around us in ways large and small, magnificent and horrific. It would stimulate and focus the mind in a way that would influence the workplace, politics, social relations and "arguably even the rhythms of English prose," Pollan writes. But the cultivation of, and trade in, coffee and tea plants (and the sugar used in both) would also enslave countless people and lead to the East India Company opening an opium trade with China. The drug trade was good for British coffers, but it crippled a great empire. Once business executives discovered caffeine could improve worker production, coffee became capitalism's silent co-conspirator. Pollan delves into a Fair Labor Standards Act case from the 1950s in which a company, Los Wigman Weavers, made 15-minute coffee breaks mandatory, but refused to pay workers for the breaks.

The courts ruled against Wigman, ushering in a law that requires employers to pay workers for short breaks. Historically, Pollan says, drugs that favor business have fared better under U.S. law than those that don't, though the increasing legalization of marijuana counters that trend. "I think there is a kind of a bias against drugs that interfere with the smooth working of the economic machine," the author says. "As soon as you get into jobs that involve machines or numbers, alcohol is a challenge. And we did try to ban alcohol, without success. I just think it's too deeply rooted in everyday life to take it on. But in general, you find that the drugs that increase productivity are the ones that are most supported in our society." With "Caffeine," though, Pollan wanted to separate what's good for civilization (and business) from what's good for humans as a species. He spent considerable time with sleep researchers, most of whom don't touch caffeine because of what it does to the body and the quality of one's shut-eye. Coffee, in particular, has become the solution to the problem that coffee has created, Pollan notes in the book. "There is no free lunch," Pollan says, laughing at the memory of his struggle without caffeine. "You know, these drugs give us something, and they take something, too. I think, on balance, the advantages exceed the disadvantages. I'm drinking coffee, and it's not just because I'm enslaved to it. I get a lot from it. I get a lot of pleasure, and I'm convinced it helps me with my writing. Getting off it certainly hurt my writing."

     Ok, we see the people each morning on the way to work, frantically getting a cup of expensive coffee to get themselves going. They simply would not be able to wake up without it, and it is drunk, cup after cup, day after day, year after year. The health effects? Why, drinking more than four cups a day can kill you!



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Tuesday, 26 May 2020
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