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Photo by Gregory M. Thaler depicting clearing and oil palm plantings in eastern Borneo (Indonesia, April 2015)

We Can’t Innovate Our Way Out of Ecocide

Gregory M. Thaler

Palm oil is the world’s most traded vegetable oil, popping up in everything from ice cream to packaged bread to lipstick. This global glut of cheap palm-based products has come at a terrible cost to tropical landscapes, where oil palm plantations have destroyed forests and dispossessed local communities on a massive scale. In Indonesia, oil palm expansion from 2001 to 2019 was directly responsible for the destruction of over 28,000 km2 of old-growth forest, an area larger than Massachusetts.

Cue the techno-fix.

Tech startups in the US and UK are racing to develop lab-grown palm oil. For lab-grown oil to substitute for plantation expansion, millions of tons of oil would need to be produced in vast manufacturing plants. Perhaps these companies can succeed with lab-grown palm oil (though the boondoggle of lab-grown meat suggests otherwise). But perhaps they’re missing the point.

For the enterprising tech executive, if the problem is natural-grown palm oil, then synthetic palm oil is the solution. But what if the problem isn’t really palm oil, but rather the transnational processed-food companies that are destroying traditional diets and livelihoods in order to hook billions of people on junk food? Lab-grown palm oil would be just another way for tech executives to greenwash planetary catastrophe.

Photo by Gregory M. Thaler depicting a young oil palm plantation replacing forest in eastern Borneo (Indonesia, March 2015)

As a “visionary” (or perhaps delusional) technology, lab-grown palm oil makes an easy target, but the thinking behind this techno-fix points to a ubiquitous modern perspective on the role of technology in solving environment and development challenges: “we can innovate our way out of it.”

When it comes to tropical deforestation for agricultural expansion—one of the major drivers of global climate change, biodiversity loss, and land grabbing—the most popular innovative “solutions” among international environmentalists, policymakers, and agribusiness corporations are technologies that promise to produce higher yields on existing agricultural land. This approach is known as “land sparing,” since it posits that intensifying agricultural production will “spare” land for nature.

Under the banner of land sparing, policies across the tropics promote investments in farm mechanization and infrastructure, pesticides and fertilizers, and crop and livestock genetics, aiming for agricultural development and forest protection “win-wins.” In the pursuit of “green” agro-industrial development, small farmers and their biodiverse crops have been labeled inefficient and unproductive and pushed aside in favor of corporate plantations and factory farms. If land sparing had actually saved the rainforests, some might have judged the tradeoff to be worth it. But since the turn of the 21st century, tropical primary forest loss has accelerated.

Land sparing, like synthetic palm oil, is grounded in the belief that technological innovation can solve our social and ecological problems. If we care about justice and sustainability, however, we should not pin our hopes on innovations that perpetuate unjust and unsustainable systems. Land sparing aims to remedy the ecological destruction of capitalist agriculture through technologies that reinforce and intensify capitalist production. Predictably, rather than magically making agro-industry “green,” land-sparing innovations have helped drive even more deforestation.

 We cannot innovate our way out of ecocide —the systematic destruction of life in pursuit of profit. If we want a more just and sustainable world, we must abandon the myths of “green” capitalist innovation and put our energies instead toward more local strategies of subsistence and ecological repair. Solutions won’t come from the lab, they will come from reconnecting ourselves to the land.

Gregory M. Thaler is assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His research examines the political ecology and political economy of development, global environmental governance, and agrarian politics. He lives in Atlanta, GA.

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