How coffee fueled the Enlightenment and the Union Army victory
Not long ago, author Michael Pollan quit cold caffeinated turkey. He wasn’t keen on giving up his daily coffees and green teas, but, as he reported a story about caffeine, several experts told him he couldn’t understand its power – why caffeine withdrawal is even included in the famous “Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” – until he waives it.
The experts, he found, were right. Pollan found himself severely mentally handicapped for weeks on end, and even after that initial withdrawal subsided, he still felt noticeably beside himself. When he returned to caffeine after three months, he felt like he was using an illicit drug.
It was “almost like my cup had been spiked with something stronger, something like cocaine or speed,” Pollan writes in his new book “This Is Your Mind On Plants” (Penguin Press), now available. âI looked around, admiring the scene of the soft sidewalk, the kids in their strollers and the dogs dragging them around looking for crumbs. Everything in my field of vision seemed pleasantly italic, filmic.
Pollan goes so far as to claim that the stimulant created the modern world.
âIt is hardly an exaggeration to say that the arrival of caffeine in Europe has changed. . . everything, âhe wrote. âCoffee and tea ushered in a change in mental climate, sharpening spirits clouded by alcohol, freeing people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, thus making possible new types of work and, arguably, new types of work. new types of thinking. , too much.”
He notes that coffee first arrived from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula in the 15th century, at a time when the Islamic world was more advanced in science than Europe. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire had hundreds of cafes, and some historians have linked the rise of Java in the Islamic world to the advent of modern mathematics.
At the start of the 17th century, Europe’s first cafÃ© opened in Venice, and thousands of people quickly followed, creating a new kind of intellectual space. âYou paid a dime for the coffee, but the information – in the form of newspapers, books, magazines and conversations – was free,â Pollan writes.
Political conversations in cafes were so powerful that in 1675 in England, King Charles II decided to shut them down. He gave up his efforts after 11 days, seeing how addicted his compatriots were to caffeine. In France, cafes were a place of rebellion; the crowd that took the Bastille and started the French Revolution first gathered at the CafÃ© de Foy.
The Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual movements were also fueled by coffee. Voltaire is said to have drunk up to 72 cups a day. Diderot relied on it to constitute the Encyclopedia. Balzac attributed its literary proliferation to coffee and he went so far as to consume it in powder form, rather than letting brewing dilute it.
And, of course, the caffeine also helped to dramatically improve the production of lower-income workers. The minute hand on clocks was invented at the end of the 16th century and its use increased as coffee consumption became widespread, which Pollan writes is “surely more than a coincidence.” As work shifted away from physical outdoor efforts to more nuanced indoor activities, “a new temporal discipline that coffee and tea could help enforce” emerged.
In America, one of the first employers to use coffee to increase productivity was the Union Army during the Civil War, when soldiers were each given 36 pounds of joe per year. Economic blockades deprived the Confederate troops of coffee – giving the Union a winning advantage, historians have theorized.
Humans began to consume tea long before coffee – it was used as a medicine at least as early as 1000 BC – and it has had similar historical significance. Pollan writes that the popularity of tea in the second half of the first century AD in China coincided with the golden age of the Tang Dynasty. Tea became widely available to Westerners in the 1800s. In England it helped laborers work long hours under harsh conditions and, when sweetened with sugar, provided a cheap source of calories. âIt’s hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution without it,â Pollan writes.
But caffeine has also fallen victim to the productivity it has enabled. Industrial growth and pollution have led to climate change, which is now seriously affecting finicky coffee trees. Some estimate that by 2050, around half of the area used for growing coffee will no longer be suitable for cultivation.
“Capitalism,” Pollan writes, “having benefited enormously from its symbiotic relationship with coffee, now threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”