Palm oil is the most widely-used vegetable fat in the world, appearing in food, soaps and cosmetics, plastics, inks, and biodiesel. While some companies insist palm oil is a “golden gift to the world,” critics argue that it poses the single greatest threat to the world's tropical forests. In the next Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition livestream, historian Jonathan Robins explores the 500-year history of palm oil as a global commodity, tracing its role in the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, colonial exploitation, and the beginnings of today’s palm oil boom in the era of decolonization and the Cold War. Robins will highlight the roots of today's controversies over palm oil and show how history can help us envision more sustainable futures for palm oil and the people who produce and consume it.
Jonathan Robins is associate professor of history at Michigan Tech and author of Oil Palm: a Global History (2021).