Monday, September 26, 2005

Oil Be Damned

Treehugger describes a typical example of 21st-century problem-solving: We're afraid of trans-fats in our foods, so manufacturers are replacing them with palm oil. This is increasing the rate of deforestation in Asia, which is in turn threatening orangutans and other animals with extinction. I'm not convinced this would be a good trade-off even if there were no other options.

Some of you may recall a time when palm oil wasn't mankind's savior. Back in the eighties, eating products made with palm oil was thought to be an excellent way of edging out one's competition in the race to the boneyard. Fortunately, we now know better, inasmuch as most specialists recognize that compared to trans-fats, palm oil is almost healthy. If we're really lucky, some future food additive may be hazardous enough to make today's concern over trans-fats seem equally quaint, and we'll be able to return to using them, too.

I have no love for trans-fats, of course. But it bothers me that so many Americans are so morbidly concerned about the things they eat, while remaining so oblivious to the destructive effects of sudden, irrational surges in demand for unsustainably produced "healthy" foods.

In just the same way, many Americans became convinced that eating red meat would bring their deaths halfway to meet them, so they accordingly switched over to fish and shrimp. That relatively modest shift in dietary priorities led within a few years to a crisis of overfishing, and the dire environmental degradation associated with shrimp and fish farms. The same faulty thinking and corruption that had made the beef industry so disastrous, while keeping prices artificially low, was simply applied to the seafood industry, with similarly awful results.

Perhaps attentiveness to one's health will pay off with an extra year or two of life. But one wonders how enjoyable those extra years will be, given the unsustainable policies we're pursuing today in order to meet the dietary demands of the naively health-conscious.

Lest this sound too dour, I should note that palm oil apparently solves other problems, too. Peak oil, for instance:

Malysia is building three biodiesel plants that will make fuel from palm oil. The plants will produce five percent processed palm oil blended with 95 percent petroleum diesel for diesel engine vehicles and static engines for industrial and power generation.
Palm biodiesel will only be 95% petroleum, and all we have to do to get it is cut down some rainforests and drive a few animals into extinction? What a bargain.


JMS said...

I saw that palm - oil for liquid fuel bit blithely posted around on the viridian sites.

Great idea, as long as there are enough coconuts to go around. Maybe Monsanto can bioengineer some terminator palms for use in Iowa...

must ... fight ... bitter ... anger

@whut said...

All thongs considered, palm oil is great for making junk food. :)

juniper pearl said...

maybe you could increase the frequency of the hope blogging enough so that every post as bleak as this would be balanced by an optimistic one. that way the piercing shriek currently sounding inside my head would be replaced by a silent, sucking vacuum, and i could actually get some work done, instead of rocking in a corner and crying about how many things in my house are made of plastic.

Phila said...

Juniper Pearl,

I'd like to do that...I really would. But the hope blogging feature is the single most time-consuming thing I do! It sometimes takes hours to find any news worth putting in it - especially 'cause I prefer to have a number of related stories - and I couldn't possibly manage it daily.

My advice is to bookmark WorldChanging, and read it after my ramblings. They're always optimistic! You might want to check out Triple Pundit, too.