Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Why Is Sustainability Important? Stories from Childhood of Building Blocks and Cemeteries

This post is loosely inspired by my original post: Sustainability: Why Is It Important For Tea?

Sustainability is a key driving value in my life, and I included sustainability in the purpose statement of RateTea.  It’s an idea that guides choices in virtually all parts of my life.  What exactly is sustainability?  It’s not the same as environmentalism, a distinction I’ll explain later.  Wikipedia has a long page on sustainability, but it starts with a very simple sentence:

Sustainability is the capacity to endure.

Sustainability is an idea that captures whether something can be continued indefinitely, without adverse consequences or depleted resource forcing you to stop what you’re doing.  Using up a non-renewable resource is obviously unsustainable, but there are many other reasons that can cause something to be unsustainable–basically, any practical constraint that forces you to stop.  Sustainability is a working concept–it’s about what you can keep doing.  Something is unsustainable if you can’t keep doing it.

Sustainability is a simple idea, easy for children to understand.

I remember thinking about sustainability as a kid, long before I had a name to attach to the concept.  As a very young kid, I naturally encountered limits.  I would regularly play with wooden blocks, and I learned that there’s only so high you can stack individual blocks before they become unstable and fall over.  Stacking blocks on top of each other is unsustainable.  The higher you want to stack them, the broader a base of supporting blocks you need.  Because there’s a limited supply of blocks, there’s a limit on how high you can build.

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s at the heart of deep ecological concepts, like how a food web is structured, or the idea of the carrying capacity of an ecosystem.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child.  Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child. Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Another idea I remember thinking about as a kid, that got me thinking about sustainability, was the idea of cemeteries.  I saw a lot of cemeteries as a kid, and I noticed that people seemed to view them with reverence, leaving them as-is and protecting them from development even as everything around them changed.  Somewhere along the line, I asked the question: since people keep dying, wouldn’t cemeteries eventually fill up and wouldn’t we run out of space to bury people in?  My parents explained to me that they do, and that cremation represents an alternative to being buried and taking up space in a cemetery.  The cultural practice of burial in cemeteries is unsustainable.

There was a Guardian article about how the UK is already running out of space in cemeteries, in which the head of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management acknowledges: “Cemeteries are unsustainable.”

Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia

One of my photos of Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia.  Cemeteries have gotten me thinking about sustainability in multiple ways: first as a kid, and later, as I conducted a bird survey of this cemetery, for eBird.

To show you how complex sustainability can get, even though the idea of a cemetery with burial of people is inherently unsustainable, the cemetery pictured above is promoting a different sort of sustainability–as an island of greenspace in a highly developed urban area, it provides valuable habitat for birds.  As a volunteer surveyer for eBird, I gathered a year’s worth of data on this site, surveying it weekly (gathering several data points for most weeks), allowing eBird to produce graphs of what species can be found at this site year-round.  The results are exciting; I and a few other birders have currently recorded 109 species of birds found in this cemetery.  View the data for yourself.

The lesson that I take from this is that the world is complex, and even if something is unsustainable for one reason, it might provide some other benefit which might promote a different sort of sustainability.  In this case, the space used up for a cemetery created a protected greenspace, effectively immune from urban development, that ended up providing greater ecological value for birds than the surrounding urban area.

The Difference Between Sustainability And Environmentalism

As I explained above, sustainability is a very simple concept, one that I think even young children can grasp with ease.  But it can be very complex to implement.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that humans depend on their environment for food, clean air and water, and other products and ecosystem services.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, is a little trickier to grasp; look at how there’s a lack of a clear definition in Wikipedia’s article on environmentalism.  What exactly is “the environment” anyway?  And how do you preserve and protect it?  I think that in order to grasp what environmentalism is in a meaningful way, one needs a certain degree of scientific and/or cultural knowledge…central concepts in environmentalism are ecosystems, biodiversity, and cycles of water, air, and energy.  Each of these concepts takes a certain degree of knowledge and intellectual sophistication to even partially understand.

There are a lot of examples of humans misunderstanding how to protect natural ecosystems; for example, for many years we suppressed forest fires in much of North America, thinking it was protecting the forests; now we know that fires are a natural part of the cycle of life for many wild ecosystems, and that fire suppression can cause great damage in the long-run, sometimes culminating in catastrophic wildfires of unprecedented scale.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator of the Agapostemon genus.  I took this photo inside Woodland Cemetery, not far from the other picture above.

Sustainability encompasses environmental issues, because humans depend on the environment, so if a practice damages or destroys aspects of the environment that we depend on, it’s not sustainable.  But this is only one part of sustainability.  Practices can be unsustainable for human reasons, such as if a particular policy or practice causes political unrest or social upheaval.  So the two concepts, while they are closely related, are definitely distinct and to some degree independent of each other.

Does this have anything to do with tea?

I think the answer to this question is: “Yes and No.”  So far, I haven’t talked about tea at all.  This is because my reasons for believing in and living by the idea of sustainability have nothing to do with tea.  If tea did not exist, I would be just as committed to sustainability as I am now.

But at the same time, sustainability has everything to do with tea; the way I see it, sustainability has everything to do with anything that involves human choices…it’s a fundamental, common sense idea that informs every aspect of my life, so of course I want to apply it to tea.

How does sustainability manifest in my thinking about tea?

This is a potentially boundless question, but some of the ideas I think of most often are:

  • Using (and promoting) loose-leaf tea as a way of minimizing packaging; choosing loose-leaf as often as practically possible
  • Being aware of, and raising awareness of, issues of biodegradability and compostability of tea packaging; seeking out companies that use packaging with less environmental impact
  • Looking at how tea is produced, and looking at its impacts on the environment; buying and highlighting teas that are produced in the most environmentally-sustainable ways
  • Looking at the economics of tea production, and how it affects the communities in which tea is produced; buying teas that promote sustainable economics in the communities of production
  • Thinking about how we enjoy tea, and its impacts on mind, body, and culture; enjoying tea with others, relaxing and clearing my mind as I enjoy tea alone, so as to keep a healthy mind and promote a sustainable culture
  • Thinking about what incentives the structure and design of RateTea sets up, so that it can have as positive an influence on sustainability in the tea industry as possible

What do you think?

  • Is sustainability also a driving value in your life?
  • How do you think about sustainability as it pertains to the world of tea?  Are there any major ideas that you think I missed in my list above?
  • How did you come to embrace the idea of sustainability?  Was it common-sense to you, and was sustainability merely a word that you assigned to a concept you already understood and were committed to?  What life experiences or ideas led you to understand the importance of this concept?
  • Do you make a distinction between environmentalism and sustainability?  Can you think of examples of aspects of sustainability that have less to do with environmentalism?  Can you think of any aspects of environmentalist movements that are perhaps unsustainable or divorced from the idea of sustainability?
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Locally Grown Tea and Herbal Tea – Sustainability, Ecology, Economics

This is an update and rewrite of an original article, Locally Grown Tea, which was published Nov. 23, 2009, on my tea blog.

There are a wide variety of issues relating the topic of sustainability and tea.  RateTea’s page on sustainability and tea summarizes most of these issues. Topics like fair trade, organic certification, and composting are ones that most people in the tea world are familiar with, and that a fair amount has already been written about. This post is about a different issue, one that people in Western countries don’t think about much, which is the topic of locally grown tea.

People don’t talk much about locally grown tea in the U.S. and Western Europe. It’s generally assumed that tea grows in warm, tropical climates and needs to be imported in these countries. But this is not strictly true; as I will show below, the reasons tea is imported are a complex combination of economic, historical, and ecological factors. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a relatively hardy plant, and while it generally likes a humid subtropical climate and can also be grown in humid tropical regions, it can be grown farther north than many people realize.  Many of the famous tea-growing regions, such as the Darjeeling district of India, or nearby Nepal, are located at a high altitude where the temperature can actually get fairly cold and sometimes drop below freezing in the winter.

The zones where tea cultivation is commercial feasible are also restricted by the humidity and rainfall; tea likes a wet climate, especially during the growing season.  Most of the regions important in tea production have a strongly seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the Asian monsoon in India and China, and the bimodal seasonal rainfall pattern characteristic of Kenya.

The following map shows the world’s humid subtropical zones, where most of the historical tea-growing regions are located.  Tea can also be grown in a few other climate zones too, including humid tropical climates, tropical wet-dry areas, and moderate maritime climates:

A map of the world's humid subtropical regions

A map of the world’s humid subtropical climate zones.

This map is taken from Wikimedia Commons; the original was by Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A. (University of Melbourne).  The map is Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The continental U.S. and western Europe have a number of areas suitable for growing tea.  In the U.S., there are two commercial tea plantations whose tea can be easily purchased:

In addition to these two tea gardens, I have also heard of a small commercial tea operation in Alabama, although I haven’t been able to find its tea for sale anywhere and I do not know if it is still in operation.

Individual gardeners and Botanic gardens have cultivated specimens of the tea plant in much colder regions, on the east coast north to Delaware and perhaps even farther north, and in slightly drier regions as well, like wetter parts of California.  These regions are not necessarily suitable for commercial tea production, however.  The Southeastern U.S. and the Gulf Coast, together with a small moderate region of the Pacific Northwest are probably the only regions in the continental U.S. whose climate would work well for tea cultivation.

Why Locally Grown Tea (or Locally Produced Anything) is Beneficial

Locally grown produce, and locally produced goods,, including tea, promotes sustainability in a number of ways.

  • Reducing transportation costs –  In the case of tea, which is lightweight relative to its price, these costs are not huge, but anyone who has bought tea online and paid the shipping costs knows that they are not negligible.
  • Promoting self-sufficiency – Local production helps make each region less dependent on the outside world.  While complete self-sufficiency is not a goal that everyone wants, some degree of self-sufficiency can be important for stabilizing the world’s economy, by protecting each region from economic fluctuations in other regions.
  • Diversity – Diversity is especially noticeable in tea production, as with any type of food product based on freshly harvested plants.  Because the conditions in which tea (or any plant) is grown, impact its flavor, and because the climate and soil conditions vary from one region to the next, each area will produce tea (and other types of produce or food products) with its own unique characteristics of flavor and aroma.
  • Education and awareness – There is something illuminating and highly educational about being able to physically visit the place where an agricultural product is produced, and see how the plants are grown.  When food plants are grown locally, people can visit the farms and gardens where the plants are grown, and see them for themselves, getting a sort of awareness and knowledge that cannot be obtained from books or the internet alone.

Locally grown tea is not widely available in the U.S. and western Europe, so these benefits are typically not available with respect to tea drinking and purchasing.

Why So Few Locally Grown Teas in Western Countries?

Above I demonstrated that climate alone cannot fully explain why only a negligible amount of tea is grown in the United States.

One tempting answer to this question is in the economics of labor costs, and differences in wealth between different countries.  Most tea is picked by hand, which creates prohibitive labor costs in countries with high wages.  The United States and the countries in Western Europe are very wealthy.  To give you an idea of how wealthy, you can check out the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita, a measure of the average spending power per person, for various countries.  According to the World Bank’s figures, the United States is about $48K (measured in international dollars), the UK about $35K, and Germany about $39K.  The major tea-growing regions, on the other hand, are much poorer.  India’s PPP is about $3.6K, China’s about $8.5K, and Kenya only $1.7K.

Chart of Purchasing Power Parity

PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is a relatively good coarse indicator of wealth.

Japan, however, proves that economics cannot explain everything.  Japan’s PPP is on par with most of the countries in Western Europe, yet it is a major tea producer.

I suspect that the other main explanation is historical.  Once an industry gets established in a country and becomes culturally important, the country will find ways to keep that industry thriving  Japan is known for high-quality teas which often fetch a higher price on the market than the bulk black tea that constitutes most of the output of many of the major tea-producing countries.

Locally Grown Herbal Teas – A Closely Related Subject

For some reason, there is often a disconnect, or at least a weaker connection than I would expect, between connoisseurs of true tea, and enthusiasts of herbal teas (or, more technically, herbal infusions or tisanes, a word I don’t use much).  But I am interested in both, and in fact I became interested in tea primarily through herbal teas brewed from plants that I would grow myself in my parent’s garden while I was growing up.  Here is a picture of two of my favorite plants, Apple mint (or Wooly mint, the plant with fuzzy, rounded leaves), and peppermint, the plant with darker, narrower leaves.

Apple mint and peppermint against a wooden fence

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) in the garden at my parents’ house

Herbal teas, encompassing virtually any plant used in tea other than the tea plant, grow virtually everywhere that plants grow, from the tropics to the arctic. Different arrays of plants can be grown in different regions. North America and Western Europe, in particular, are the origins of a countless variety of delicious herbal teas which are familiar in Western traditions, and which are ingredients in the mainstream brands of herbal teas found in a typical supermarket.

Many of these can be easily grown in your own garden or backyard. Many plants used for tea, such as mint, are aggressive in certain climate zones, and can be grown in massive quantities with minimal effort. In addition to growing tea yourself, many herb teas are available locally–not just through small retailers but also from friends and neighbors who might have more gardening space (or expertise) than you do.  And for caffeine lovers, there is even a caffeinated plant, Yaupon, a close relative of the plants used to make Yerba mate and Guayusa, which is native to the Southeastern U.S. and is a good bit more cold-hardy than the tea plant.

If you are a tea enthusiast, but want to support the idea of locally-produced teas for reasons of sustainability, economics, or becoming more connected to and aware of what you are drinking, you would do well to explore the world of herbal infusions.

What do you think?  Please share your feedback with me!

Here are some questions for you; please answer either here, or on a follow-up blog post of your own:

  • For tea drinkers in Western countries: do you ever think about locally-grown tea?  Have you ever tried one of the few teas grown in your own country, or in a Western country?
  • For gardeners: have you ever tried, or would you ever try to grow the tea plant?
  • For tea drinkers: are you also interested in herbal teas?  Would the promise of promoting sustainability and becoming more connected to what you are drinking make you more interested in or more likely to buy, grow, or drink herbal teas?
  • For gardeners: do you grow any herbs that you use to make herbal teas?  What are your favorites?
  • And for anyone: have you ever tried the caffeinated drink made from Yaupon?  I’ve tried Yerba Mate and Guayusa, but not yet Yaupon.


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Teacology – A New and Old Tea Blog

Hello!  I’m Alex Zorach.  You may know me from my Blog of World Changing Ideas.  I’m no newcomer to the world of tea, nor to tea blogging.  I run RateTea, and I also have had a long-standing blog hosted on blogger, with the uncreative but descriptive name Alex Zorach’s Tea Blog.

Why a new tea blog?

I decided to start this blog because I was frustrated with Blogger’s lack of spam control in recent months.  I receive tons of spam comments on that blog, and blogger’s built-in filter is terrible, missing most of the spam and wrongly sending a lot of legitimate comments to the spam folder.  But this is only the smallest problem with spam.  I am more distressed by Blogger’s failure to crack down on spam blogs.

 My experience blogging on WordPress.com has shown me that the WordPress team is really on top of blog spam.  When I’ve reported a spam blog, it’s been taken down within a few hours, accompanied by a personalized thank-you note from WordPress staff.  This treatment is professional and really makes my day whenever I receive these emails.

With Blogger, I report the spam blog and often check in weeks or months later, only to find that it’s still up.  I’m concerned that the poor control of spam on the blogspot domain is negatively effecting the reputation and search visibility of my tea blog.  I also am attracted by the greater community features WordPress has to offer.  My experience with my other WordPress blog has shown me that it’s easier to connect a new blog with new readers, and that new posts have more visibility.

So I’m going to try publishing here.  I’m going to start by sprucing up some of my old posts with new commentary, new ideas, and/or new images, and publishing them here.  I hope people enjoy it!

This blog:

What is this blog going to be about?  Tea, and Ecology.  Tea, with an ecological approach.  Ecology, with examples related to tea world.  And, everything, with sometimes direct and at other times tangential connections to tea.  And it will always be written from an angle of sustainability, as sustainability is something I am committed to in all aspects of my life.

Can you say heck yeah?  Heck yeah!