Posted on Fri, November 19, 2010 by Jerusha Klemperer
0 Comments | Categories: Books, Contaminated Food, Farms and Farming, Food Justice,
A version of this piece first appeared on Civil Eats
My dirty truth is that I have a collection of Coke bottles from around the world: one from Mexico, one with Arabic script, one covered in unrecognizable lettering and filled with Yugoslavian beach glass (a present from a friend who traveled there with her family in 1990 and brought it back as a present for me). And on and on. I was a teenager when I gathered them, and totally oblivious to the implications behind this international menagerie of emptied glass. This drink was everywhere, tailored slightly through variations in local water and variations in bottle size, but ultimately the same. I loved that I could find it anywhere: the great unifier.
Michael Blanding’s book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, aims to tell the real story behind that happy global picture of people who speak different languages and have different color skin but sway arm in arm singing songs and drinking Coke. He tells Coke’s story from the beginning, starting with the beverage’s origins in 1886 as a snake oil tonic and extending all the way up to its present incarnation as a multinational beverage corporation.
It’s a measure of my tremendous cynicism about corporations that more of this book didn’t shock the pants off of me. The story of the company’s early days, carving out an identity and working to convince the public that this refreshing leisure drink was a necessity, was captivatingly told and a great example of how iconic brands are built. In Coke’s case it was built aggressively with a focus on growth and led by unprecedentedly well-funded advertising campaigns.
Market growth is It for Coke, and Blanding chronicles how the company’s desire for growth eventually led them to bottle tap water, add some secret minerals and corner a whole new market. After all, there is a limit to how much soda one person can drink, right? Actually, that limit might be higher than you expect. One of the more troubling accounts in the book is of a town in Mexico called San Juan de Chamula, where newborns are fed Coke in their bottles, and locals worship their Saints by downing ritual glasses of Coca-Cola and leaving cola offerings at church altars. As one local guide explains it “Here Coca-Cola is cash, poison, magic, passion, pleasure, torture, love and medicine.” But not everyone has welcomed Coke’s presence.
Coke has been the target of several major campaigns, starting with what Blanding calls “The Battle for Schools”: the ongoing effort in this country to get soda out of elementary schools, a battle with which readers of this blog are likely very familiar.
But where things get really uncomfortable (because companies peddling sugar bombs to kids at school wasn’t sticky enough, right?), and where my well-worn jaded shell starts to crack, is in the developing world. The second half of Blanding’s book is devoted to a detailed account of Coke’s presence in Colombia, and its presence in India—and the two long social justice campaigns that have emerged out of their troubles in each country. In Colombia the company is accused of turning a blind eye to—or possibly colluding with—local paramilitary groups who harassed and even murdered union members and leaders at the Coke bottling plant. In India, a country that hasn’t really embraced Coca-Cola like Central and South America have, the troubles have stemmed from the accusations that the company is overtaxing a dwindling water supply and contaminating local soil and groundwater.
The campaign chronicle is dispiriting, a tale of Pyrrhic victories, and the book does not end on a high note. Despite the hard work of local organizers in Kerala; the tireless efforts of the Colombian union SINALTRAINAL; the actions of college students in the mid 2000s rallying around US activist Ray Rogers and his “Killer Coke” campaign, winning against a truculent and wealthy corporation is incredibly hard.
I was left bereft, wondering: when we win a campaign against a corporation, what are we really winning? It’s hard to read about American college campuses canceling their Coke contracts and choosing Pepsi instead as some kind of victory. Instead I remained angry that food corporations are buying our educational systems—whether they be elementary schools with vending machines lining the halls or Universities bound by single company buyouts that leave them chanting “Coke is It” at their football home games.
I’m angry that growth without end or limitation is the only model big business is interested in. I’m angry that the narrative of Coca-Cola is so strong and so deeply tied to our memories of childhood—or to how we worship our gods, as in the case of San Juan de Chamula. But my anger about Coke’s unsettling ubiquitous presence (including my own childhood memories), sparked my own protest as I read the book on an airplane: I let the flight attendant pass without asking her for a diet coke. As small victory–but meaningful, nonetheless.