After today’s lunch, I set the communal coffeepot to brewing in the break room closest to my desk. Someone whose face is familiar but whose name I’ve never heard was heating up her lunch in a nearby microwave and commented, “Coffee in the afternoon? Uh-oh.”
I responded, “I’m an addict, I acknowledge this.”
A few moments later, I had the thought to say, “The last socially-acceptable addiction, and that will likely change in our lifetime,” but it was one of those thoughts that came just a few beats too late to avoid being awkwardly inserted into a conversation, or as a more apt description of this exchange, a smattering of small talk. I lack the sociability to maintain small talk with complete strangers and small talk lacks appeal with my friends.
At some point in my life, I will likely be the crotchety old man still shakily sipping the imported poison his nurses insist will be the death of him. I will be the last vestige of a time when the drug caffeine was as ubiquitous as the smog-producing internal combustion engine. My grandmother was born before the drug cocaine was completely criminalized in the United States; just a few years before her birth, cocaine was still sold as a “pep pill” to give its users energy. If this correlation to coffee in the late-20th and early 21st centuries isn’t clear enough, let me point to the Folgers Coffee jingle, “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup (in your cup).”
I am, of course, only speculating that I will see the end of socially-acceptable caffeine addiction in my lifetime. To my knowledge, there are no bills being considered by any legislative bodies to criminalize or even regulate caffeine. But there is a common understanding that caffeine is an addictive drug which can be abused in such a way as to harm the human microbiome. I pause in my typing to take another drink of my afternoon coffee.
When do eras begin and end? How do we define an era? Is coffee addiction an era unto itself or is it just one chapter in the era of human chemical dependency? For that matter, is chemical dependency a bug of humanity or a feature? There is archaeological evidence of humans imbibing alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, coca leaves, opiates, and other mood and/or mind altering drugs since time immemorial, some of these even before humans bothered making marks on objects to record thoughts about the world around them, probably colored by whatever drug the writer was using at the time. Coffee as a drug cannot be traced so far back. The only solid evidence of coffee usage goes back to 15th century Africa, though even that does not point to an origin. The story of the 9th century Ethiopian goatherd who tried eating raw coffee beans after seeing his goats leaping joyfully after eating them is probably apocryphal. Coffee, along with Greek philosophy, was spread from the Ottoman Empire into western Europe and, along with Greek philosophy, spurred political and intellectual upheaval.
Maybe the era of coffee began in 15th century Africa and can be separated from the other substances humans have imbibed. Maybe the era of coffee will end in my lifetime and I will be one of the last to mourn its passing. My great-great-grandmother (5 generations ago along my maternal line) died when I was around 5 years old; I still remember her. She dipped snuff (a form of tobacco usage) from the time she was 13 years old to roughly a year before she died. Our family’s mythos includes the idea that she died because, when she was put into a nursing home a year before she died, they took away her snuff. She saw many things which may be called eras begin: cars, air travel, humans landing on the Moon, computers, the Civil Rights movement, two World Wars, proliferation of nuclear power. When she was a child, her family came to Texas in a covered wagon; when she died, there were humans living in low Earth orbit. Much of this may have passed without her notice; I’m not sure. Does an era happen for people who don’t experience it?
John Green, an author of whom I’ve already written, has a podcast called The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which he rates two things that have either affected human life, been affected by human life, or more often, both. Often, Green uses this as a way to talk about history he finds interesting or as a confessional, but behind it all is the idea of the Anthropocene Era, that modern humanity’s millennia roaming the face of the Earth has caused change to the planet on a geological scale, or at least to such a degree as would normally be achievable only by geological events.
Human are not the only animals with language, society, or even technology, though some understandings of these words are too narrow to accept the actions of other animals. But we are the only animals we know of that have developed societies which have developed technologies that allow language to pass so quickly and broadly around the world that new societies are forming new languages faster than new technologies can keep up. If this were the only way in which we humans had developed beyond ourselves, perhaps there would not be sufficient evidence to call our effect an entire era. And if that was all we did and we hadn’t earned an era named after us, perhaps we would not have to worry so much about that era coming to an end.