Monday, June 27, 2011

The Best Teas, or the Most Diversity? The Value of Diversity

The illusory search for the "best" teas:

When I was younger, I used to believe that the purpose of sampling and reviewing foods, products, businesses, or anything, was to distinguish good from bad, and to help identify the "best" ones, or at least my favorite ones (which could be defined as the ones I like best). As I began to learn about business and economics, I started to think that the role of reviews in business is to guide shoppers to the best products, so that the businesses creating or supplying a higher-quality product for a reasonable price thrive.

But whenever I have sampled anything, whether it is restaurants, teas, or anything, I find it very difficult to pick a single favorite, or even 10 favorites.

As I began to learn more about both ecology, culture, history, and current events, my worldview started shifting. I realized that in many aspects of life, there is no such thing as "best" on the level of individual products, people, cultures, foods, or businesses, species, and indeed, the best results for society as a whole often emerge when there is a great deal of diversity.

In many aspects of life, there is no such thing as "best"; when you look on a broader scale, diversity is usually better than uniformity.

The picture above shows a deciduous forest in Delaware, much like the forests in Pennsylvania where I grew up. I chose this picture because natural ecosystems were what most helped me to understand the true value of diversity.

An example from ecology:

As an example from ecology, the total biomass (mass of all living things) in an area will tend to increase as you increase the number of different plant species in that area. For example, if you have a garden plot with a single species, and you carefully exclude all other plant species, and let the plot grow to its maximum size, it will tend to grow less total biomass than if you allow two species to grow, and that will tend to grow less total biomass than if you include three, and so forth. It's not always true as a strict rule, so much as it is a strong correlation or trend. Biomass and biodiversity are two different measures, and are independent to some degree, but they tend to be strongly related.

If you are a gardener, this concept is important. You can often achieve a higher total yield by mixing many crops in a small plot, than you could by growing the same crops separately. This higher yield comes as a result both of increased productivity and biomass as a whole, and decreased pest problems (pests spread most quickly through a monoculture). While this complicates commercial harvesting, it poses little problem for home gardeners who harvest by hand.

Back to tea:

I have noticed that I tend to prefer different teas at different times of day, different times of the year, in different weather, or when in different moods. I also sometimes tire of certain teas, while at the same time becoming more enthusiastic about other ones. Most people, even those who are strongly habitual in their food or drink habits, experience some degree of these shifts or changes.

Diversity in tea gives us the ability to better match the tea we choose to drink, to what we want to experience, both in terms of taste and the effect of the tea on our mind and body. It also helps us to experience a broader range of aromas and flavors. It also helps tea to appeal to a broader range of people: people inherently have different tastes, and when there is more diversity in teas, tea as a whole will reach and satisfy more people.

Back to the world again:

I would encourage people to think about diversity in other aspects of your life, as well as in tea. How is your community enriched, culturally and otherwise, by people from different cultures and backgrounds? How is your yard or garden made more beautiful or more productive by the biodiversity in what you plant there? How is your health sustained or enhanced by eating a diverse diet? How is your workplace driven by the diversity of skills and abilities of your different coworkers? How is your life enriched by the diversity of personalities and experiences of your friends and family members?

Diversity is not a politically correct buzzword; it is more like an essential fuel that we require and cannot do without. It is necessary not only for us to live rich, interesting lives, but even necessary for ecosystems to exist and sustain us, and for our society to function at all.

1 comment:

  1. Alex, this is an excellent thought-provoker. I find my life so enriched by people from other cultures, evn within our own country. It is such a gift to have friends from around the world. We have lived in places where people's lives were set in concrete when they married and only did certain things on certain days. Boring.
    Any nutritionist will tell you your health has a better chance if you eat a wide variety of foods. As to tea, for me, it is a voyage of discovery and I am thrilled there are so many to experience. I also find myself liking certain teas at certain times and having them gain and lose ascendency in the favorites list. I once tried to name my 10 ten, but failed. I hadn't even moved out of the blacks by the time I got to the 10th.
    I am sitting here looking out the window at the birds and feeling very pleased there are so many different kinds, as well as hearing the owls and woodpeckers in the woods, and the call of the wild turkeys.

    Among thoughtful agriculturalists, there is a growing concern about the lack of diversity in food crops. That lack is what caused the infamous potato famine in the 1800's - everyone grew the same potato, so when the blight hit, they were all wiped out and many starved. Just two years ago, the Northeast was hit by that same blight, which also affected tomatoes - the source was big box stores and garden centers, which lack diversity. We lost all our potatoes and tomatoes in just a few days. Thankfully, there are a number of organizations that are saving seed to preserve this vital necessity. I guess the biggest is the Seed Saver's Exchange, from whom you can purchase many uncommon food and flower seeds, as well as give them ones you haved saved over the years.