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.

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