Palm Oil and Politics in the Anthropocene

In today’s blog, Amanda Machin of the University of Witten/Herdecke shows how a personal case illuminates the subject of her forthcoming paper in Environmental Values (scheduled for EV 28.3, June 2019), Democracy and Agonism in the Anthropocene: The Challenges of Knowledge, Time and Boundary’.

My six-year-old niece, Hazel, is on a mission against palm oil. She sorts through kitchen and bathroom cupboards, checking the labels of packets and bottles, and pointing out the surprising number of products that contain this versatile ingredient. Hazel recently watched a television advert that explained that the production of palm oil was endangering orangutans. The burning of rainforests for palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia has led to the destruction of habitat in a region in which many species, including the Bornean orangutans and the Sumatran tiger, are critically endangered.

The advert was part of the supermarket Iceland’s Christmas 2018 campaign, produced in cooperation with the Environmental NGO Greenpeace. Iceland pledged to remove palm oil from its own-brand foods. But despite growing awareness, the annual production of palm oil is expected to quadruple to 240 million tonnes by 2050. Indeed, Iceland has now changed tactic: rather than removing palm oil from its products, it is removing its name from products containing palm oil.

Palm Oil Mill in Malaysia. Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas 


Palm oil is surely indicative of the contemporary human ecological condition; used in margarine, ice-cream, bread, shampoo and countless other products, this is a substance that props up the consumption and production patterns of a rapidly growing world population. Palm oil has been championed as a tool to tackle global poverty and rising food demand. It is also a source of bioenergy, increasingly promoted as an alternative to fossil fuels. So to portray palm oil as an evil poison would be to paint only half the picture. But the destruction of the rainforests that are ‘the lungs of the world’ contributes to massive biodiversity loss, local pollution and a changing climate. Palm oil is both contributor to and symptom and solution of a form of life that is massively out of sync with its environment.

Palm Oil is said to be in 50% of supermarket products. Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Wilfredor


Some scientists are saying that the impact of this form of life is so disruptive that geologists of the future will be able to detect a change in the actual stratigraphic record of the planet. Ocean acidification from climate change, urban constructions, man-made radionuclides and so on are leaving a human generated ‘event layer’ and there is now a serious discussion over the proposal that the earth is entering a new geological epoch: ‘the Anthropocene’. The proposal has had its own impact far beyond the study of geology. Natural and social scientists, artists and activists have become intrigued by the implications of ‘the age of human’. As a political theorist, I have been considering which forms of democracy might be most appropriate for life in the new epoch.

In my forthcoming article in Environmental Values, I suggest that this contested term ‘the Anthropocene’ is valuable in that it brings to attention the profound challenges for democratic institutions in the face of environmental transformation, hazard and risk. The diagnosis of the new epoch highlights the way that complex and interconnected ecological concerns are not easily understood by policy makers and voters, and that they unfold over the long term and do not align with conventional political borders. What hope, we might ask, for the orangutans and tigers if their lives are put in the hands of career politicians who are slaves to the short-term electoral cycle, the dictates of the energy industry lobbyists and the parochial preferences of ignorant constituents? What hope, if these sorts of issues only appear in advertising campaigns that leave aside local socio-economic concerns?

I argue that rather than posing immovable limits to democracy, the challenges brought to attention in the Anthropocene could be read as providing the opportunity to reinvent and revive politics. These challenges may instigate contestation over not only particular policies and environmental issues but  the processes, ideals and institutions of democracy themselves.

Take palm oil. This ubiquitous substance of the Anthropocene, that is at once both valuable and damaging, demands that we do politics differently. Palm oil shows us that the economic transactions and energy cultures that underpin everyday lives around the world cannot be smoothly or quickly transformed through supermarket adverts, or the improved communication of scientific knowledge. It shows us that the invention and implementation of new types of technology may simply aggravate the problems they were intended to solve. It shows us that political decisions (and non-decisions) have ramifications far beyond the location where they were made (or not made). Palm oil will inform competing demands and visions that cannot be easily aligned. Palm oil shows us that the politics of the Anthropocene involves on-going contestation between different perspectives that may point us in previously unseen directions.

And it is this contestation that offers to revitalise democracy. If we understand democracy, as I do, to be constituted by the messy and disruptive disagreements nurtured by critical thinking and generative of radical alternatives, then we see the Anthropocene replete with democratic possibilities. It opens new issues for debate and new ways of understanding ourselves. Democratic politics in the Anthropocene calls, then, for flexibility of institutions that can be reinvented and the mutability of political boundaries that can be redrawn. It calls for citizens to be given the space to passionately disagree with each other and to be able to critically assess scientific data and environmental policies.

Issues such as deforestation and biodiversity loss do not only provoke us to switch brand of shampoo. They bid us rethink what it means to be a democratic citizen in the Anthropocene. That is why I’m so proud of Hazel. Not because she cares about the cute orangutans. But because, at the age of six, she is critically examining some of the substances, processes and values that sustain our unsustainable ways of life.


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