By: Nike Izmaylov '19
While consuming ramen straight from the cup at 3am in the traditional ritual of the college student preparing for exams, I glanced at the list of ingredients. Amid the long and complex names that I would need a PhD in chemistry to unravel, I noticed two tiny words almost tucked away: palm oil. Only a few days ago, I had seen an advertisement for ridiculously expensive palm oil-free ramen. Somewhere in my tiny reptilian college student brain I put two and two together.
What’s so significant about palm oil?
Palm oil, harvested from the African palm oil tree, has spread from its native land to the North and South Americas and Asia as a busy market has sprang up around its use. Over 30% of the vegetable oil used in the world comes from palm oil. Palm oil has a variety of uses, from toothpaste to shampoo, detergent to make-up, sweets to baked goods. Look around what you use in your house: chances are, about half will contain palm oil.
With the rising need for alternatives to fossil fuels, some countries have even invested in palm oil plants, converting the vegetable oil to biodiesel. Looking to human health, palm oil, while not as healthy as other vegetable oils, does seem to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood in comparison to animal fats or other popular saturated oils such as coconut oil. While not ideal, palm oil does bring many benefits to the table. Or does it?
Unfortunately, most of the palm oil produced today is not grown sustainably. The production of palm oil involves razing rainforest worldwide to make room for fertile farms. Due to a combination of intensive farming exhausting the soil rapidly and ever-rising demand, the palm oil industry constantly carves into forests. Farms are frequently built on existing carbon sinks such as peat bogs, which causes massive release of greenhouse emissions. Palm oil production threatens the habitats of endangered animals, from the Sumatran tiger to the orangutan.
Worse yet, the palm oil industry thrives on human rights violations. Harvesting palm oil, especially in countries such as Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo, comes at the expense of indigenous people, as corporations—which governments are often powerless to stop, or with which the governments actively work—destroy the lands on which indigenous people live, leaving them with a choice between forced employment on palm oil plantations or starvation. The industry runs on horrific widespread child labour, and the workers, both those whose land has forcibly been taken and imported illegal immigrants, have little to no rights. Since the alternative is death, people work for hours on end in terrible conditions; many end up disabled for life or deceased. Once an area has been cleared out and exhausted, the corporations move on. The ‘employment and development opportunities’ vanish as the indigenous people are left with nothing but a wasteland of desolation.
Palm oil seems to be in everything we use, and the alternatives can be expensive. But steps can be taken in the right direction. From seeking products without palm oil, to contacting your representatives in support of sustainable palm oil growth. At least now you and I know, and knowing is half the battle.
By: Anna Laws
Oil and gas are key components in the machinery of modern life. You can sit in a car consuming oil-derived fuel, steering with a wheel made of oil-derived vinyl and plastics, all while trundling along over the road paved with oil-derived bitumen. Does your house have gas heating or cooking facilities? Do you work in a laboratory with gas-powered Bunsen burners? Regardless, the electricity you use is likely produced using gas turbines.
Currently the USA imports most of its oil and gas. It has only the 10th highest amount of proven oil reserves in the world, under 10% of the record amount in Venezuela and far behind the abundance in Saudi Arabia. Gas fares somewhat better; the USA ranks 5th, but with only 5% the amount of Russia.
However, the outlook is changing. As technology improves, so does the potential for reaching new untapped oil and gas wells. In addition, the currently known areas can be mined progressively more efficiently. Even as known reserves are drained and closed off, more can be done to squeeze out every last drop.
In comes Trump. Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump gave vague notions of changing the attitude of the USA towards oil and gas drilling. He hints that regulations on drilling will be relaxed: new methods, such as hydraulic fracking, will become more widespread; and continuing work will be more intense, with fewer restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from the processes.
Fracking has a controversial recent history in the UK. The process requires vast quantities of water to be shipped across the country, resulting in a high carbon footprint. Tests of the process even produced small earthquakes in 2011. On the plus side, the subsequent electricity production using this gas has reduced greenhouse gases compared with coal-based production.
In the USA, increased fracking could open up more opportunities for natural gas retrieval. Along with other methods, local oil would become readily available and would likely slash fuel prices. And Trump promises that an abundance of jobs will be created from this endeavor.
The key debate in future months will likely revolve around this simple question: is the environmental impact worth it? Being so keen to radically increase greenhouse gases seems ludicrous in these times of climate change awareness. Further complicating matters, oil retrieval has left a sour taste in the mouths of America with the enormous oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010.
A distant solution? Sustainable energy! Now is the time to improve the current technology and harness clean, less politically-encumbered power for a brighter future.
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
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