One biscuit at a time…

Last Saturday evening we observed Earth Hour at home, doing dishes and playing a board game by candlelight with no recourse to anything electronic. All (except possibly the dishes) very sociable and cosy, no distractions from buzzing mobiles etc.  Our quiet domestic effort was rather in contrast to the habit of international governments and big business these days which rather ostentatiously celebrate EarthHour with iconic pictures of dark cityscapes and the like. Whilst I don’t doubt their good intentions, you do rather get the sense that it is something to be seen to be doing (and therefore definitely not something to be avoiding). Businesses and governments wish to be seen (in the main) as responsible organisations, husbanding the world’s precious resources in our interests. But there is a bigger point to EarthHour. However much electricity we saved for an hour last Saturday evening,  there’s really not much point if it doesn’t prompt us – as individuals, companies or governments, to try to reduce our electricity consumption for the other 8759 hours in the year. EarthHour is a small step taken in recognition of the beauty of our planet and the need to conserve its resources in our own interest, but even single steps need a destination.

EarthHour is well advertised (for free) on large hoardings and through the media. Rather less visible are the campaigns to persuade business to take action against the deforestation due to mass production of palm oil.

I’ve just signed a Greenpeace petition asking companies that use palm-oil (particularly three named multi-nationals: PepsiCo, Johnson& Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive) to improve their act on where and how they source palm oil, and how transparent they are about it. In the grand scheme of things we have to worry about, palm oil doesn’t sound all that important – or indeed all that exciting. It is a remarkably useful and ubiquitous substance used in up to half our household products.(Ironically it appears that you are as likely to find it in your toothpaste as in the biscuits you are seeking to protect your teeth from.) And it makes such products much cheaper to produce in large quantities. All that is needed for fast and large-scale production of palm-oil is heat and water – two substances naturally available in the world’s rainforests.

But growing it fast enough to respond to the demands of profit-motivated companies requires not just heat and water but cheap labour, making governments in some of the worlds poorer countries prey to the profit-motives of multi-national companies. So in the name of increased economic activity, rainforests are ransacked (well actually burnt to the ground), their inhabitants uprooted – with resulting risks of exploitation and child labour.  The impact of rapid growth in large-scale production so far is that 90% of orang-utan habitats have been destroyed in the last 20 years, and Indonesia (a country you wouldn’t otherwise expect to be near the top of this particular league table) the third highest emitter of green-house gases in the world. The countries that use large quantities of palm oil – which include the US and the UK, don’t of course have any rainforests of their own. I can’t help feeling that if rainforests were as visible as, say, our stately homes, companies might get away with rather less than they do now.

‘So what?’, you might say, ‘orang-utans are less important that humans and anyway we are protecting their future through breeding them in captivity’. Well I suppose that depends on your perspective, but what we often fail to notice is that what is bad for orangutans in the wild is also bad for humans.   Left in zoos, orang-utans can’t contribute to the eco-system, and nor can all the other less famous (or attractive) inhabitants of the rainforest which are now threatened with extinction within the next few years.  And – contrary to what we might like to think – climate change is a problem for us here and now. Rainforests without trees catch fire, increasing CO2 levels which impacts on rising sea-levels which in turn increase flooding across the world, including here in the UK. If we have wait for big business to pay enough tax from increased profits from biscuits and toothpaste in order that governments have the funds to buy more sandbags, we’ll all be losing out.  As environmental scientist Carolyn Roberts, talking on BBC Radio 4’s “The Life Scientific” said this morning, when discussing our short-termist response to flood management in the UK: long-term action is essential because there is only one planet, and it has “no emergency exit”.

Palm-oil seems to be me to be one of those small areas, like running fewer lights, where the actions of individuals can make a difference. (We do, after all, buy the products it is produced for). I know there is a view that signing petitions is a rather pointless activity, more likely to give the signatory a brief boost of morale than to effect real changes in policy. But arguably, petitions to businesses whose sole raison d’être is to sell us stuff, may have more effect. What business, after all, wants to be clearly identified on social media with practices which promote child labour, burn trees and destroy large numbers of cuddly-looking apes? These businesses are so vast that a few people choosing not to buy one of Colgate’s 44 types of toothpaste (yes really) won’t have much effect on them in time to save the rainforests. So whatever else you think about petitions, or about Greenpeace, I urge you, please, to take that step and sign.


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