With all due respect to poet William Carlos Williams, so much depends not on a “red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water” but on a steaming mug of coffee. There may be metaphoric value in a garden cart, but the drink that starts so many days the globe over holds potent power.

Just how much depends on coffee? Java may be second only to oil in fueling the world, if you consider the economic productivity of those who down the 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed daily.

Many developing nations rely on the vital export market that coffee provides. In equatorial regions with few other economic opportunities, coffee farming and production employ roughly 100 million people. There’s always a steaming market for their beans. Even among those who primarily eat and drink local fare, coffee and chocolate are the exceptions to the rule.

Maine has a long tradition of making this exception. An old family friend who lived much of her life on remote islands once told me how her family relied almost exclusively on garden produce, livestock and fish. They would travel to the mainland, she recalled, only when they needed to sell their produce or buy coffee and sugar. Self-sufficiency on a rocky outpost is all well and good, but not without coffee.

Maine farmers are having some success growing plants that like it hot, such as sweet potatoes, but they can’t possibly simulate in hoop houses the rich tropical rain forests that sustain coffee plants. The complex flavors their beans produce encapsulate mountainous ecosystems dripping in biological diversity.

Being sensitive to altitude, humidity and temperature, coffee plants are not especially adaptable. (If truth be told, neither are coffee drinkers – when told to forgo their favored drink!)


Northern climes can produce some herbal teas and coffee substitutes, like Maine-made Beyond Coffee (a blend of barley, rye and chicory), but few of us appear ready to forfeit our morning taste of the tropics.

We may be forced to, though, before long. Trouble is brewing for our beloved java.

First off, there’s a Tweeter in Chief who envisions burr-grinding trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, cutting off the flow of Mexican coffee beans that helps waken our nation. What is he thinking?! Does he want to Make America Late Again?

Beyond potential trade wars looms a far greater threat. Our planet is starting to simmer.

This problem has been percolating for decades. Even now that most Americans hear the kettle boiling, a klatch of cynical politicians openly refutes the looming boil-over. Their campaign urns are generously topped up by fossil fuel corporations, so they deliberately ignore growing evidence of climate upheaval.

Unprecedented floods? Runaway wildfires? Heat waves? Supercharged storms? Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt claims it’s “insensitive” to discuss any underlying climate links. Apparently it’s not insensitive, or foolhardy, to abandon the Paris Climate Accord, gut the Clean Power Plan or revoke rules designed to reduce atmospheric pollution.


Pruitt’s grounds are weak. Science tells us unequivocally that emissions need to be cut soon to keep Earth habitable into the next century. We can end our dependence on oil, but on the planet? Not so much.

As the atmosphere warms, coffee production could move to higher elevations in some settings, as long as the necessary shade trees and pollinators remain. That’s hardly a given, particularly with recent news reports about alarming declines in insect populations. By 2050, climate change could reduce coffee-growing areas in Latin America, the world’s largest coffee-producing region, 88 percent, a recent study suggests.

Threats to coffee harvests extend far beyond warming temperatures. Coffee farms and plantations, like agricultural endeavors the world over, are contending with unexpected pests and more prolonged droughts, broken by intense rainstorms.

You don’t have to live in California wine country, Puerto Rico or the Gulf Coast to realize that the high personal and collective cost of climate change is hitting home. The occasional drip-drip-drip of erratic weather events has turned to a torrent.

Will politicians in the dregs of denial waken to smell the coffee? Maybe those of us reliant on a morning mug of java need to rouse them. Imagine the collective lobbying buzz of coffee drinkers – united across red and blue lines – jolting them into climate action!

Coffee, always a social brew, could be the unifying force we need in a time of rancor and divisiveness. It’s a convivial drink that brings us together to talk, share and plan. Let’s not just do coffee though. Let’s do something for the planet as well. So much depends on that.

Marina Schauffler provides research, writing, and editing services to nonprofit and social enterprise organizations through Natural Choices.

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