Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire

The Environment and Climate Change - Lecture 2

Lecturer: Dr Max Haiven

16 Jun 2022

Palm oil is in an estimated 50% of supermarket products: the processed and prepackaged foods we eat, the soaps and detergents and cosmetics we use, the medicines we take and many more produces besides. It is so ubiquitous because it is cheap, but what makes it cheap?

As many environmental, labour and human rights non-governmental organizations have shown, the conditions under which the fruits of the oil palm are cultivated, refined and manufactured are horrific, leading to shocking deforestation and exploitation especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

But to truly understand, and to confront, the horrors of the palm oil industry we must look to its longer colonial history. In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, British traders found in this West African crop a lucrative commodity, one that would literally and figuratively grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.

Palm oil is also central to the history of commodity capitalism, the (racist) history of advertising and the development of imperial weapons. Equipped with this history, we can better imagine what it might take to meet the challenge of palm oil in our present day. Consumer activism is not enough. We must cultivate a new relationship to one another and to the earth.



Questions for Discussion

  1. How does the history of racist advertising for palm oil products in the 19th century force us to revisit the potential of “consumer activism”?
  2. Review the “Just Transition in the Palm Oil Industry.” For this plan to be implemented, what kinds of changes would it mean for and require of palm oil consumers in the “global north?”
  3. Review Greenpeace’s Rangtan campaign. What does the campaign do well? What are the dangers or unforeseen consequences of the campaign?