Can You Avoid Destroying the World?
'Palm Oil. Not one of us in Western society can escape it.'
Lucy Roberts | 7 March 2016

I apologise in advance, as this is going to sound like a major guilt trip. The reason I feel obliged to give some due warning is that any responsibility you may feel for contributing to the terrible destruction of the planet is, with your current lifestyle, impossible to avoid. So, I ask all of you to ride out the guilt, as I try to open your eyes to the exploitation and corruption of your most famous and favourite corporations. They adopt a general ‘oh well, needs must,’ attitude to provide you with the essentials you have come to expect in your supermarket/chemist/[insert shop of choice].

Palm Oil. Not one of us in Western society can escape it. Unless you favour not washing your hair, body or hands, or are disgusted by treats like ice cream, pizza and chocolate. Or unless you enjoy leaving your toilet to disintegrate under the build up of gunk, that you cannot remove unless you buy that ever-so-crucial palm oil filled detergent. However, for the hygienic and indulgent amongst us: why should we care?

The crux of the issue is whether we prioritise personal comfort, or the environment. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have contributed to the deforestation of 8 million hectares of rainforest, affecting hundreds of thousands of species of mammals, insects and plants - not to mention the indigenous communities. They have absolutely no rights when it comes to government contracts with transnational corporations over huge swathes of land. Many argue that these countries deserve this opportunity to grow and expand economically in the same way that England did many moons ago during the Industrial Revolution. Can we blame these countries for polluting themselves into environmental ruin when we’ve been at it for the past 200 years? However, it is much harder to keep this rational, seemingly logical, ‘that seems pretty fair, full steam ahead’ approach to the damage these countries are causing through these plantations when you see the impact. There are fires raging up and over hills, reducing the natural miracle of rainforests, and havens to some of the most endangered species in the world, and transforming them into row upon row of precisely identical, monoculture palm oil plants. In October last year, this burning hell stretched over 5,000 kilometres of Indonesia, out of control, and producing more CO2 in three weeks than Germany produces in a year.

Whilst trying to comprehend the sheer amount of smoke this slash-and-burn clearance system has to produce in order to reach those statistics, conjure up a WWF / Greenpeace campaign in your mind. Instead of one lonely orangutan looking upset that he has lost his family and his home, Southern Electric Christmas advert style, imagine fields full of thousands of unidentifiable orange and brown burnt bodies to achieve the perspective that 5,000 orangutans are killed every year, reducing their population by a half. And this species is not alone. The Sumatran rhinoceros is now critically endangered; the Asian elephant and the tiger not far behind. The matter of finding space, resources and shelter has been taken out of the paws and hooves of the species that rely on rainforests such as the Borneo Lowland and the Tropical Rainforest of Sumatra. One of the saddest things (after the extreme deaths and pollution rate, of course) is that this Sumatran rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We humans have actually put a label on this place as being worthy of protection and of international importance. And yet on all sides it is being torched and remoulded into something unrecognisable.

This brings me, sadly, to what impact we can have, if any, on this environmental disaster that will surely dog our generation and those to follow, as our planet boils around us and hundreds of thousands of lives perish under our need for ‘everyday essentials.’ It is not realistic for us to try and go without any palm oil in our lives, as my initial summary should have made clear, as unfortunately most pre-packaged food made by corporate giants will contain palm oil. The best way to avoid it is to buy products with clearly labelled alternative oils, or at a push sustainably grown palm oil. Ingredients with the word ‘palm’ in will pretty much always be derivatives of the sneakily ever-present oil as well. Maybe this is why there are 1,860,000 search results on google for ‘how to avoid palm oil’: there is no escape from it, not just for us, but especially not for those whose homes and babies have been destroyed, to make way for the plant that is contributing to one of the largest eco-attacks in human history.


Original Images by Monty Thompson

James Routledge 2016