I had a cup of coffee. Black.
Of course, to make the coffee I had to get some water from the tap. And for that, water had to get to the tap (and I had to have a tap).
And I needed electricity to run the coffee maker (and, yes, I needed the coffee maker).
And I needed the coffee, which in this case was grown in Colombia, which required a boat or a plane to get it to my supermarket (which required a supermarket).
And grinding the beans required a steel blade which required a steel mill and, previous to that, iron ore and huge equipment to extract the ore from the ground, and railroads to get it to the steel mill.
All of which required a tremendous amount of accumulated ingenuity.
I’m not saying Ben Franklin didn’t have coffee, and he certainly had tea, so, yes, one could have done it a simpler way. After five billion years, the planet and its inhabitants had evolved by Franklin’s day to the point of organized agriculture, and cooking-by-fire and horse-drawn transport. But I don’t think there was running water.
There he was – old Ben – on his roof, flying a kite in a thunderstorm (now there’s something his mother should have warned him about), trying to make sense of – and, who knows, someday perhaps harness – electricity.
This wasn’t very long ago.
I would like to see someone write book called, quite simply, A Cup of Coffee. It would have a chapter on each element that’s involved – or at least as many as could fit (decaffeination? color printing on the sides of coffee cans?). And it would be written for a broad audience – who of us is not intrigued by how the world works? – but especially for high school kids.
And there would be two points to it. One would be to teach a lot of stuff, like how running water works and how coffee is grown and what steel is (and who Bessemer and Carnegie were) and how hot it has to be to melt – and why whatever it’s in doesn’t melt, too (or, OK, but how did they forge that?) . . . so it could be a somewhat painless, maybe even fun, high school science text.
But the bigger point would be to show the centuries of astonishing effort, sacrifice and genius that have gone into the simplest things we take for granted. The hugely complex interdependence of our world. And the cataclysmic tragedy it would be if, having come this far, we allowed our most primeval of fears and hatreds and superstitions to screw it all up.
It’s just a cup of coffee . . . but it’s a darn good cup of coffee.
Please feel free to write this book.