(Roughly) Daily

“Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”*…

… Indeed. But, as T. W. Lim writes, palm oil has become so much more in our consumer economy…

My family used to take road trips to Malaysia when I was growing up, and I can clearly remember the first time I noticed the oil palms. They were unlike anything else in the landscape, which up to that point had been a patchwork of jungle, paddies, billboards, and the occasional roadside stand selling steamed sweet corn. The palms were distinctive, their dense crowns dark and heavyset atop sawtooth trunks, but what caught my eye was how these trees, unlike the other trees, had obviously been organized. When I asked my parents what they were, they said, “these are oil palms, which people plant to make money.”

This was the 1980s, and the rapidly developing country was agog at the miraculous versatility of palm oil – and the world’s seemingly endless appetite for this primordial goop, from which a whole new way of life could be coaxed. Looking back, I’m struck by the optimism. I have no way of knowing if conditions on palm oil plantations then were any less brutal and exploitative than they are today, but they were certainly less publicized. Maybe we’d still be optimistic if demand for palm oil hadn’t done a hockey stick.

But even in Singapore, situated between the two largest palm oil producers in the world, we didn’t think much about what problems the plantations might have brought. The first sign of trouble was the haze, which first came in the mid-90s. Smoke from massive forest fires in Indonesia hung over Singapore for days on end. It hung pale gray in the sky, turning sunsets red. The Indonesian government claimed it was due to indigenous tribes practicing slash-and-burn farming, but even the middle schoolers knew it was for oil palm. The haze has since become an annual event, varying only in its severity. 

I’ve been thinking about palm oil for the same reason Spencer’s been thinking about rubber. These two agricultural commodities both emerged from the same systems of colonialism and forced labor, and together they shaped much of modern material culture. Much as rubber replaced spices and coffee as the cash crop of choice for the planter-barons of Malaya in the late 19th century, palm oil replaced rubber in the late 20th, capturing in two brushstrokes the transitions into the age of the internal combustion engine and the age of the global consumer. And just as rubber explains car culture and contemporary transportation systems, palm oil explains household consumption – and they both reveal the manufacturing systems, labor relations, and corporate structures that lie beneath.

As troubling as I find the systems that produce it, there’s an undeniable elegance to palm oil. Like fossil fuels, palm oil represents a technological shortcut to a wide variety of highly useful chemical compounds. Palm oil contains more saturated fat (50%) than other common edible vegetable oils, so it can be separated into a large number of fractions, each with different physical properties. An ideal palm oil derivative can be found for nearly any product that requires fat – soaps can be made foamier, hobnobs crisper, and ice creams more luscious. In industrial settings, palm oil derivatives are used in mold-release agents for concrete casting and to replace petroleum products in polymer production. Palm oil became integral to the tinning process almost as soon as tin cans were invented, and people were still filing patents for tinning oils based on palm oil in the 1950s. Palm oil was so plentiful, so cheap, and so well suited to the purpose, that tinned steel became obsolete before we bothered to find a better oil for tinning.  

Because palm oil is still predominantly used in consumer packaged goods, especially in processed foods, it can seem like a luxury commodity – something used to make inconsequential things. It’s reasonable to think our civilization is less dependent on hobnobs than on the pneumatic tire. But hobnobs and road transport both embody larger social systems, and whether we choose to change our relationship with palm oil might depend more on social systems than physical ones. Trying to imagine a world without palm oil is almost like trying to imagine a post-consumer society, which is precisely why it’s an interesting subject.

Read on for a fascinating consideration of a seemingly universal ingredient, the first in a series: “A Technological Shortcut,” from @the_prepared.

* Chinua Achebe


As we interrogate ingredients, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that Baptist minister Elijah Craig distilled the first bourbon whisky from corn (another universal ingredient– gift article). Craig, who is also credited with many other Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling millpaper millropewalk) is also said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its brownish color and distinctive taste.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

%d bloggers like this: