The system is to blame for palm oil’s destructiveness

Despite being one of the world’s most ubiquitous substances, palm oil seems grossly misunderstood.

Enter Max Haiven and Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire, the fourth instalment in the Vagabonds pamphlet series from Pluto Press.

Haiven takes readers on a journey from the beginnings of the palm oil trade in West Africa to its explosion into a global phenomenon that permeates modern life.

“Nearly every element of the process that now finds you reading these words could have been touched or facilitated by palm oil: it could be an additive in the paper, a stabilizer in the ink, or part of the resin in the binding of the book,” he writes. “[I]t is almost certainly either inside or essential to the manufacture of one of the hundreds of components of the digital electronic device on which I am typing these words, and on which you might be reading them.”

Half of the world’s supermarket food contains some form of palm oil. So too do many of our medical supplies, household goods, and beauty products.

“Globally, 72 metric tons of refined palm oil was consumed in 2020, roughly 20 pounds per human being,” Haiven notes.

Thanks to public service announcements like the 2018 “Rang-tan” video from Greenpeace, there is a general awareness that producing this amount of palm oil can have disastrous repercussions for the natural environment and its inhabitants.

But specific knowledge about the industry and its evolution seems in short supply.

Haiven seeks to correct this deficiency through deep research, keen attention to detail, and a bold narrative approach no reader will soon forget.

He writes: “The transoceanic market for West African palm oil emerged within the slave trade, when it was often taken on board to feed enslaved Africans on the middle passage, or to grease their bodies at the end of the voyage to add marketable luster or hide the severity of wounds and scars from prospective buyers.”

As more and more uses for the substance were found, exploitation of workers and degradation of the environment grew apace. The eventual discovery of military applications added even greater human misery.

“In 1942, the Americans developed a weapon that would become the icon of neo-imperialist warfare in the latter half of the twentieth century by combining petrochemicals with palmitate, an acid derived from several natural fats but, as the name suggests, primarily from palm oil: napalm.”

But while the rapid expansion and intensification of the palm oil industry has wreaked havoc on people and the planet, it has also provided the world with a dependable and relatively efficient source of vegetable fat that requires less land than alternative crops.

Simply boycotting or banning the substance isn’t the answer, Haiven says.

“If, magically, palm oil were to vanish tomorrow and other fats were to take its place, things wouldn’t necessarily be better: the environmental, labor, and humanitarian track records of other intensive plant oils, like soy, are not without their horrors.”

The system, not the substance, is to blame for palm oil’s destructiveness, Haiven writes.

“Ultimately, the problem is not palm oil per se, but the context and methods in which it is manufactured and the function it serves within a broader capitalist world system.”

Palm Oil is a compelling and illuminating call to action by an author at the top of his game.