Our Chemical Society
By Matthew Barad, Jun 22, 2017
Anyone who has spent time on a college campus, or even in a high school, knows that caffeine dependency has become a rite-of-passage. Be it student, teacher, or professor, you often hear people bragging about how many cups of coffee it took to finish an assignment, or even more absurdly, how they can no longer make it through the day without 4–6 cups. All told, 54% of Americans drink coffee daily, consuming three cups, or 27 ounces, on average. That’s almost 300 milligrams of caffeine every day from coffee alone.
But coffee is far from the only way we get our fix. A single energy drink, for example, can contain upwards of 500mg. The newest craze, caffeine laced candy bars, has taken campuses by storm. AWAKE brand bars, which are specifically marketed towards students, have been lauded by Wall Street as an incredible innovation. When you take all of these sources together, you find that the average American consumes nearly half a gram of caffeine daily, with younger Americans leading the pack.
It is at this point that you might expect a passionate plea to abandon caffeine, or a critique of those who rely on it. Instead, I view this as just another symptom of our production-focused culture. In this post-industrial hellscape, caffeine is one of many drugs we rely on to function, to survive, and to live.
In the United States today, the average full time employee works 47 hours a week. Perhaps more absurdly, the average part time worker still labors for just over 34. In fact, we lead the developed world in average hours worked, while still refusing to offer paid time off, or even guaranteeing paid maternity leave. And this is in spite of dramatic increases in worker productivity in the last few decades. To put it simply, we are working harder, longer, and being paid less. With such low hourly compensation, and such high demand placed on laborers, it is no surprise that we have become dependent on chemicals to keep us running. Our nation is so grossly overworked that entire brands have been built around the need for stimulants in the workplace.
But as I mentioned earlier, this reliance is built well before Americans enter the workforce. Nearly 70% of college students don’t get enough sleep, just as we face 80 hours of work every week by some estimations. For those students who drink 6–7 cups of coffee every day, it’s not irresponsibility that drives them, it’s desperation.
And just as Americans rely on caffeine to survive, they rely on other chemicals to live. Alcohol is such a chemical. In fact, just 30% of American adults have ever gone a year without drinking, nearly 27% of Americans binge drink monthly, and more than 10% of American children live with an alcoholic parent. Without the time or energy for books, sports, or hobbies, bars have become the spas of the middle class.
Cigarettes provide a similar escape, but only for the poor. Today, low income Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer 18–20% more often than their wealthy counterparts. Facing those same long work weeks — alongside skyrocketing costs of living — alcohol and cigarettes offer some respite from an uncaring nation.
And tragically, heroin and meth have also become staples of impoverished life in the United States. In his best seller, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes how his Appalachian homeland was desolated by unemployment and governmental neglect. He tells the story of entire towns being ravaged first by poverty, and then by the drug use it begot. Indeed, by some measures, poverty alone increases likelihood of abuse by 25%. In this broken world, chemical bliss is a rare refuge for the impoverished.
In 2015, 50,000 Americans died from drug abuse, and another 88,000 from alcohol. These were not casualties of moral failings, nor were these men and women responsible for their fate. They are victims of a homicidal society, which places a person’s production value over their humanity — meaningless sacrifices to the insatiable god of capital.
Contrary to the narrative of progress, we are living in a dystopia. Monday through Friday we pump ourselves full of stimulants so we can scrounge enough to survive, only to spend that money on artificially induced fantasies every weekend. If you truly oppose drug abuse, don’t blame the victims, and don’t ignore the drugs-by-other-names. Just as our society has forced reliance on caffeine, it has dragged many into the claws of opioid addiction and alcoholism. What the world might look like without the pressures of artificial poverty and neglect, I cannot know. But I am certain that there would be fewer deaths, less suffering, and much, much more living. That is the future we must fight for; that is the future we deserve.Like (0)