Palm Oil And the Modern World

Thanks to Eric Loomis for sharing this Rainforest Action Network video about the horrors of the modern palm oil industry, which underpins so much of the processed food we eat every day.


Palm oil is one of those things that we rarely think about. It is ubiquitous-seeming, and feels healthier than high-fructose corn syrup, or any of the other corn products for which we as Americans are essentially born to be depositories. But like so much about modern capitalism, it has pernicious global effects which go unseen to the vast majority of its uses.

Centered mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, the palm oil industry has destroyed millions of acres of jungle, which contributes to climate change, and more immediately to massive, out-of-control fires in Indonesia (which themselves heat up the world by what they blackly project into the atmosphere). It’s gotten so bad that, despite it being relatively lucrative, Indonesia is moving to ban plantations.

I say “relatively” because, basically, the amount of lucre you see depends on who you’re related to. If it is to the President of PepsiCo, then it’s a damn good deal. If you are a Bangladeshi immigrant whose passport has been seized and who has a company-store-type debt to “employment recruiters” that would make an Upton Sinclair villain seem like Eugene Debs, not so much. If you are a local worker who has to recruit your unpaid and now uneducated children to help you meet insane quotas, not so much. If you are anyone working in squalid, slave-like conditions where your health is the cost of the job and where you are disposed of when no longer useful, not so much.

Not for nothing, but Indonesia and Malaysia have long been the hidden periphery of jihad, for some reason being a good place to attract recruits who have differences of opinion with the presently-constituted modernity. It’s not all directly connected, but it isn’t on a different page altogether.

That’s the web of modern capitalism. When I buy something with conflict palm oil, I am directly contributing to the immiseration and slavery of people thousands of miles away, whose only crime was being born in the wrong country. I’m contributing to massive, ruinous deforestation and climate change. Not only that, but these massive plantations take away arable land that will be needed as desertification increases, the world heats up, and the population continues to grow. If the world seems unstable now, wait until hundreds of millions are out of food. These are the choices we make.

Luckily, the knowledge gives us power. There are ways to try to avoid it, shopping consciously. It’s very hard to give it up 100% though, which is where activism has come in. PepsiCo, which imports 750,000 tons a year, is looking to change its standards. Cargill, not exactly a liberal bastion, has put pressure on a company who has a “children make the best workers” policy. Regardless of whether or not these are sustainable, they show the public pressure works.

It works best, by the way, when it turns into political pressure. As we’ve discussed, it isn’t impossible to impose supply chain standards, including labor standards and environmental rules, on American companies (or companies that want to sell in America). If Pepsi wants to use palm oil, they can demand equitable treatment for the people who harvest it. What’s going to happen? Are the people running the plantations going to stop selling? On principle or something?

It’s a politically-winnable issue. The main issue is overcoming the eye-rolling pushback (even on the left) when people bring up “labor rights”, and the weird notion that the people buying goods can’t demand change, whether that’s you buying Lay’s or PepsiCo buying palm oil.

We also have to overcome the fatigue we all feel when we look at the enormous interlocking set of stacked labyrinths that make up modern capitalism and see the effect we have. It’s easier, and always tempting, to throw our hands up and say “that’s just the way it is” and try not to think about it. But it’s a manmade system. It can be changed.

Programming Note


Today is Wednesday, softball day, which means I have two choices.

  1. Go outside with friends on a beautiful (if meltingly hot) summer day, run around, have some laughs, and then go for pizza and beer in a fierce and successful attempt to negate any exercise, or;
  2. Watch Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and Newt Gingrich, who I’ve ranked in order of loathsomeness (and that list began with Mike Pence and didn’t even end with Ted Cruz)  tell enormous lies in an attempt to elect the worst candidate in American history? Knowing that I’ll be watching said candidate speak tomorrow? And that I’ve already spent two summer days inside watching more or less the same, but not from five of my top-30 least favorite politicians, and 3 of the top 3/4 (depending on what you call Trump)?

It’s a close call!

Zika, Planned Parenthood, and the Escherian Cynicism of Mitch McConnell


“V” Is For Whatever I’m Told It Is For Today


Mitch McConnell might be the purest, most craven politician working today, a man with nearly zero principles other than power. Chris Christie’s speech was one of the more dishonest pieces of political theater you’ll see, but Mitch’s was pure nonsense politics. He illustrated perfectly the reasons why most people detest everything that has to do with politics.

For Mitch, that’s not a bug: the whole point is to make sure that people despise the government, and don’t want to get involved, and see it as a waste of time. That way he can do the only thing that really animates him: accumulating power so that he can siphon it off to the wealthy.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, don’t forget the tapes of his meeting with the Kochs and other billionaire donors, wherein he basically promised them the store. That made when he said last night that “More than anything though my job has taught me the value of trust. How to distinguish between people who are in this to serve others, and people who are in it for themselves.” the most honest line of the night. Mitch is in this to serve others: just not, you know, anyone who doesn’t use an ivory pen to write a 7-figure ivory check.

(All quotes come from Time transcript)

The rest of the speech was unbearably cynical, and in increasingly twisted and frustrating ways. To wit:

Two years ago voters delivered a clear verdict on the Obama years by sending a freshman class of rock-star Republicans to the Senate, and delivering us a majority that I promise to make you proud of. We never hesitate to confront the President, but we also do the hard work of tackling urgent problems head on. And, we delivered on that promise.

Oh cool: tackling huge issues like inequality, the environment? Well, that’s silly. And unfair. You weren’t elected for that. So: jobs, national security, borders?

We put Obamacare repeal on the President’s desk, he vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it.

Oh- well, that’s not really urgent, is it?

We passed a bill to finally build a Keystone Pipeline, Obama vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it.

That’s…not at all urgent either, even if you think “energy independence” is the most important thing in the world, and that the only way to get it is more oil. Keystone wouldn’t have helped at all. And if you thought it was about jobs, why not pass a jobs bill?

We passed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, Obama vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it.

That’s like the least urgent problem in America. You would have to define “access to health care for poor women” as an urgent problem for that to qualify. You people…

And finally: here’s the most urgent problem they were elected to solve!

And, on that sad day when we lost Justice Scalia, I made another pledge that Obama would not fill his seat. That honor will go to Donald Trump next year.

“I swore I’d nullify an election and refuse to do my job. Leadership.”

Ah, but that wasn’t even the worst part. Here’s the part that leaves you in a sputtering rage, impossibly angry at the sheer inhuman smarm and transparently dishonest posturing that makes politics unbearable.

So, my friends, keep the Senate in Republican hands and we’ll continue this work and the remarkable public servants that I’m proud to lead in the Senate will not let you down. But, put Hillary Clinton in the White House and I promise you this, she will double down on the cynical approach that Senate Democrats seem to revel in these days.

Here’s what I mean. As we sit here tonight, a terrifying mosquito born illness threatens expectant mothers and their babies along our southern coast. And, just last week, just last week, Clinton Democrats in the Senate blocked a bill aimed at eradicating that virus before it can spread.

See…the GOP fought against any Zika funding for months, before realizing a tactic which was to tie Zika funding to Planned Parenthood (and a host of other barely-related weakening of environmental laws). The bill would limit funding for Planned Parenthood, even though Zika was largely a sexually-transmitted disease, and PP was best-equipped to help people. They did this knowing that Democrats wouldn’t support it, because it was one of those bills that did way more harm than good. This is not a matter of debate. They never had any interest in funding Zika defense until someone came up with a way to make it seem like Democrats didn’t care about it. There was no reason to bring up Planned Parenthood, which experts agree was in the best position to help in the fight against the weird and terrifying disease, except that A) saying Planned Parenthood riles up the base, and B) it can make Dems look bad.

To an extent, that’s normal politics: poison pills and whatnot. It is monstrous, but not caring about human lives is par for the GOP course. That’s not fine, but it’s the baseline of where we are at. What is amazing, and what makes Mitch who he is, is to rail about the “cynical approach” of the “Clinton Democrats”.

What can you do? What can you do except sputter at the brazenness, the stone-faced dishonesty? You can point out that he knows his position was such bullshit he couldn’t even fully explain it. You can argue, and say how him saying the Dems are cynical while describing his cynical ploy is the most cynical thing of all, but then you are just haggling about who is worse, and that’s how they win. Because then everyone is sniveling and cynical and craven. That’s exactly what the GOP wants: people to despise the government, treat it as an enemy, and ignore it except when they are angry at it because “Washington is broken”.  That’s how they win elections. That’s how they “continue the work” of making sure that government does nothing except monitor ovaries and bomb foriegners. That’s the whole goddamn platform.

And don’t forget, he was booed because he’s seen as not confrontational enough. That’s the party now.

Jabhat al-Nusra and Post-ISIS “Syria”


Meet the new boss- not quite the same as the old boss. 


Syria and The Success of Smarter Militants

Interesting WaPo article by David Ignatius about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ve bascially bided their time during the rise of ISIS, gaining reputations as good fighters and building alliance with relatively more-moderate groups, and they seem poised to emerge successful out of the wreckage when the more apocalyptic jihadist group enters its post-Caliphate stage (which could be loosely described as “A caliphate of the mind”).

Jabhat al-Nusra has played a clever waiting game over the past four years, embedding itself with more moderate opposition factions and championing Sunni resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group has mostly avoided foreign terrorist operations and has largely escaped targeting by U.S. forces. Meanwhile, it has developed close links with rebel organizations such as Ahrar al-Sham that are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

But the global jihadist ambitions of Osama bin Laden remain part of Jabhat al-Nusra’s DNA. U.S. officials report increasing evidence that the group is plotting external operations against Europe and the United States. Its operatives are said to have tried recently to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe.

A stark warning of the danger ahead comes from the Institute for the Study of War, which closely follows events in Syria. In a forthcoming forecast, the institute argues that by January 2017, “Jabhat al-Nusra will have created an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria in all but name” and will merge with the supposedly more moderate Ahrar al-Sham.

And that’s the smart way to do it. It’s one of the reasons why AQAP in Yemen has been so successful for so long, even so far resisting an ISIS takeover (more on that coming soon). There are certain organizations which are “lessons learned” oriented, who can take the success and mistakes of the past and integrate them into the local situation from which they are emerging. They don’t try to jam a rigid system into a fluid situation. You can have short-term success doing that, but it is far more difficult to maintain, as ISIS is finding out.

(That said, of course, ISIS isn’t halfway out the door. I am as guilty as this as anyone: because the outline of the end, or at least the end of this phase, can be roughly seen, it shouldn’t be assumed that it will play out the way we imagine, and shouldn’t be so quick to act like we are already in the next phase. Analysts and bloggers are, I think, more guilty of that than actual military people, so I’m not too worried.)

This is part of the mutation of the jihadist threat, and why it needs to be treated as a generational problem, one that requires supple and strategic thinking, on all levels, and not be treated as a eopochal failure when it isn’t met with “unconditional victory” during, say, a Presidential term.

It’s almost inevitable that, if not al-Nusra, another AQ or ISIS-like group emerges in whatever comes out of Syria, whatever post-state shape it is in. That isn’t a clarion call to give up, but more that we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished, and to me, that means not trying to force Syria back together again.

I think the Kerry plan, which Ignatious describes as a “three-cushion shot”, is a good outline. “Kerry’s plan would include joint U.S.-Russian operations against the group, as well as the Islamic State. Kerry also hopes to reduce Assad’s attacks on moderate rebel forces so that they (rather than Jabhat al-Nusra) can gain ground in a post-Islamic State Syria.” That’s probably the best outcome that can be hoped for: increased moderation, though not perfection, in post-Syria areas. The more we try to maintain a 20th-century fiction, the more other fictions, like that of the glorious caliphate or the purity of fanaticism, will tell the story.