Coffee as Metaphor

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Typically perceptive piece in the FT magazine by Tim Harford in his Undercover Economist column. This one on coffee, as sold nowadays, as a metaphor for the nature of the economy and the nature of the way we need to view the micro decisions that shape the way the world is – with special reference to global warming heating:

The curious thing about the cappuccino, I observed, is what a remarkably complicated product it is. The milk came from a methane-producing dairy herd, probably somewhere in the UK but perhaps further afield. Behind the scenes stood the farmers, the cattle breeders, the manufacturers of refrigerated tanker trucks and countless unknown others. The coffee was steamed out of Brazilian beans using a machine of Italian manufacture. The machine was electric, although whether the electricity came from coal or gas or tidal power I have no idea. The complexities are endless.

It sounds like those who he was debating with were not impressed / non-plussed, so he continued:

I’d like to defend the humble cappuccino as a unit of analysis. Our human economy may have to change substantially to respond to global warming. Yet what is our economy if not the sum of all the cappuccinos?

This is more than a rhetorical point. Our economy – and its emissions of carbon dioxide and methane – is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of all the everyday decisions we make as consumers, producers, entrepreneurs and the rest. If the economy must change, those decisions must change. And a moment’s thought about the cappuccino suggests what a tangled prospect that is.

The piece is basically an argument for putting a carbon charge on things and then letting the market decide. I’m feeling sway by this argument, given the alternative which is bureaucrats and politicians –

telling us what light bulbs we can use, how many flights we can take, or whether our cappuccinos should be made with UHT milk. That bureaucratic approach is not appealing when you add up all the flights and light bulbs and cappuccinos in the country, reflect on the intricacies of their production and the subtle trade-offs that inform our choices to do this or buy that.