The evil empire–a little less evil

Starbucks is going all fair trade in the UK.


(I don’t really think Starbucks is evil; but this still seems like a good thing–though I realize there’s debate over the effectiveness of fair trade programs.)

Assorted links with no particular unifying theme

–Lynn on why some people are pro-choice on abortion but anti-gay marriage and the various meanings of “sodomy”

–Matt Yglesias on DC Statehood (bonus: a couple of nifty images of US flags with 51 stars from Yglesias commenters)

–Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle recently appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi show, an excellent program on DC’s NPR affiliate.

–The environmental movement’s curious reticence about meat

Camassia and Hugo on faith and doubt

–Rod Dreher on the Jesus Prayer and mental stillness

–An quote on career and vocation from William Stringfellow

Starbucks and “third wave” coffee culture

–Philosopher AC Grayling on animal research

Evil empire?

P.J. O’Rourke reviews a new book on Starbucks that offers some counterintuitive facts:

Clark is frank about his bias: “Starbucks diminishes the world’s diversity every time it builds a new cafe, and I can’t help but feel troubled by this.” But when Clark looks at whether the towering Mount St. Helens that is Starbucks, with its volcanic eruptions of store openings, has buried the competition, he has the grace — not given to every pundit — to look at what he’s actually seeing. Clark informs us that in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America. Now there are more than 24,000. Fifty-seven percent of these are what Clark calls “mom and pops.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the surest way to boost sales at your mom-and-pop cafe may be to have a Starbucks move in next door.”

This actually makes sense. Starbucks stimulates an interest in “gourmet” coffee where it didn’t previously exist. In my neighborhood, for instance,there are at least six cafes, only one of which is a Starbucks. Which is good for me, because I don’t even like Starbucks coffee that much. (I agree with the line O’Rourke quotes about it tasting like it’s been through “a fire that has been extinguished by a fire brigade.”)

“Green consumerism” vs. consuming less

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story on the new “green consumerism.” Today George Monbiot writes that it’s not good enough to “buy green”; we have to buy less. His contention is that “green” consumption is at this point a supplement to rather than a replacement of conventional consumption and that people have started to by flashy “green” items more as a sign of social status than as concrete contributions to the problem. The result is that individual consumption ends up being seen as a replacement for political action.

Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.


Challenge the new green consumerism and you become a prig and a party pooper, the spectre at the feast, the ghost of Christmas yet to come. Against the shiny new world of organic aspirations you are forced to raise drab and boringly equitable restraints: carbon rationing, contraction and convergence, tougher building regulations, coach lanes on motorways. No colour supplement will carry an article about that. No rock star could live comfortably within his carbon ration.

It does make you start to wonder if consumption is the only response we know how to make to any social problem. Hip articles associated with a particular cause become status signifiers, especially when they’re expensive. You can’t ostentatiously show off buying less stuff.

In theory Christianity should be able to provide resources for dealing with this. Theologically we deny that our identity is grounded in what we buy and consume. And the tradition of living simply as part of the path of virtue goes back at least to the Desert Fathers. But how many churches have addressed this? And how many have encouraged being virtuous consumers instead?

Not that the two should be seen as inevitably opposed. After all, we need to consume things! Things are good! And it’s probably better to drink organic fair trade coffee than conventional coffee. A lot of churches have been good at promoting things like that. But we’re probably less good at evaluating whether we really need the things we find ourselves wanting (I know I am!). What kinds of practices and resources do we have for making those distinctions? (By the way, yes I do need coffee, so don’t ask.)