30 April 2009

Collective Coffee, Collective Problems



I'm an American-born college student who is privileged to spend a semester abroad in Thailand studying development issues. My apartments in Thailand and in the U.S. have electricity, air conditioning, and running water. In the mornings, I like to stop in the local mini-mart and buy a box of chocolate milk. The electricity powering the computer I'm typing on may have been generated from one of the many gigantic hydropower dams along the Mekong river and it's tributaries. Those dams may have destroyed the fishing livelihoods of villages living downstream from the dam. I'm not sure. Sixty-six different types of minerals (and thousands of tons of soil and rock) have been extracted from the earth to make the computer I'm using to type this blog. The chemicals used in the mining process may or may not leach into the groundwater and affect nearby communities; again, I'm not sure. My chocolate milk box says Thai-Danish on it, but I'm not entirely sure what that even means or even where it came from. My current understanding of my role in development is as a consumer, more confused than not.

I know that when I go back to Tulsa, Oklahoma where I go to school, I will opt to support local businesses, as opposed to giant, mega, box stores. Here too, my role is to use my dollars to vote for small, local development. But in the back of my head I'm still torn: is voting with my wallet still buying into the current system? Is there another way to opt out?

I think that the world is at a critical threshold. World trade is plummeting, shareholders are ousting corporate board members, and tax dollars are propping up corporations that would otherwise fail. In short, the economy is headed for the crapper. A lot of people are suffering because of short sighted policies made by the perverted wedding between corporate America and the government. Wallets are shrinking, and banks are more hesitant to give out small business loans. So how does this affect my role in development? My theory in a nutshell: A world plagued by global problems would do well not to pursue "global solutions". Development that centers on the locality of a place is becoming more, and more important.

My case in point: my favorite coffee shop in Tulsa, The Collective, had to close on April 06, despite "struggling against the downturn in the economy." (www.thecollectivetulsa.com) It was some of the saddest news I've heard since my time in Thailand. It's so frustrating because local businesses are exactly what we need, but we're caught in a catch-22 of sorts. The Collective was only one of the few coffee shops in Tulsa that used local, organic products as much as possible, as well as Fair Trade coffee and teas. Now I have to bike the extra two miles to the Coffee House on Cherry Street to get my dose of Fair Trade coffee; but what about the people who don't or can't? What about the demographic that's opting out of Fair Trade because of the same downturn that closed the Collective?

As much as development needs to be specific to a locality, it's also connected to the larger world. My biggest fear is that in this "economic downturn" people of different localities may be pitted against each other. Like the Tulsan buying free trade coffee to save a few cents, and the Fair Trade coffee bean grower in Guatemala who has seen sales drop. Development needs to foster that solidarity between localities. And so, community ties must be strong in the coming years. As a student, I will work to develop and maintain those ties within and between the university and the city of Tulsa.

Jenny Hardy - University of Tulsa

3 comments:

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JT said...

Ah the world of consumption, "fair" trade (no such thing...in my opinion)...keep on blogging.

JT

Catherine said...

Jenny,

Reading about this coffee shop makes me want to visit Tulsa even more. Hearing you talk about it over last unit's homestay made me wish I could go there. It also made me think about places like that near Vassar.

I work at a coffee shop a block from campus in Poughkeepsie. It is called the "Crafted Kup". It just opened two years ago. The owners are this couple who live locally. The coffee we sell is organic and mostly fair-trade. We have tons of different kinds of tea. Harney and Sons (the brand of tea we sell) comes from the Hudson Valley. We compost all the expired food and coffee grounds at the Vassar Farm. The cups we use are able to be composted. The coffee isn't cheap, but it is much less expensive that Starbucks. It is close to Vassar's campus, so students can walk there easily (as opposed to that Starbucks that you need to drive to).

It is a pretty great place to work. I completely support the way the business is conducted. But over the two years that I have worked there, I have seen the business struggle. The pricing of drinks and food is fair. The owners aren't only concerned with profit, but are concerned with social responsibility and providing good service.

Even when the economy is at its best, small businesses struggle to survive. Small businesses don't always fit into our international globalized capitalist system of commerce. With times of economic insecurity, small local businesses are struggling even more. I'm not sure how to make supporting local businesses like the "Crafted Kup" more of a priority on my campus, but I agree with you that we need to keep these businesses alive.

--Catherine