Some thoughts on oil palm

palm oil bar

Palm oil is the villain of Western markets. It appears as an ingredient in all sorts of processed foods, but comes with a bad reputation – environmentally unfriendly at best. Buying only products that don’t include it is nearly impossible, though a growing number of manufacturers are now tapping into a demand for such items. This packaged dinner from Norway, for example, advertises itself as helt uten palmeolje – entirely free of palm oil.

oil free

In the past few years I became increasingly aware of this tension, and began trying to make my own small dietary changes away from palm oil. But I was more following a trend than making choices based on facts, and the realities of oil palm agriculture remained far from my personal experience. That changed this year in Malaysian Borneo, where I have been studying the functional consequences of forest degradation. One of the major causes of forest destruction is replacement by oil palm plantations, and I got the chance to see exactly where our packaged cookies and instant noodles and laundry detergent come from.

sunset palm

Heading into the forest for work each day, I saw whole river basins and mountainsides exposed bare, covered by myriad rows of identical oil palm trees. I saw rigor and pattern imposed on the forest through the bulldozing of long roads and terraces, and imagined the silent hands of the many workers responsible for planting and trimming and fertilizing and harvesting.


The reason for all this effort is the large and heavy bunches of bright-red fruits the tree often produces. These are cut down by hand, then trucked out of the plantation.


Each fruit’s flesh hides a single inner seed, white and oily.


The seeds are then crushed, heated, and leached in an unpleasant-smelling process taking place in refinery facilities (this photo from Costa Rica).


The crude oil is finally sent off in trucks for further refinement or transformation into the products we are so familiar with. It is a long journey from tropical hillside to convenience store display.


My visceral reaction to this production scheme was dismay over the large-scale disturbance it created. I haven’t changed my mind about this, but the controversy over this crop is more nuanced than its bad reputation would suggest.

In Malaysia, palm oil provides about a half million people with jobs, and annual revenue of more than 16 billion dollars, mostly through exports to China and Pakistan. And about 35 percent of growers are smallholders rather than large companies. Many of the people I got to know had relatives who worked in the industry and were very glad for its existence.

jobs (1)

And the crop itself is highly efficient – its yield per hectare is far higher than other oil crops like in this British rapeseed field, and is achieved for much lower fertilizer and pesticide application rates as well.


On the other hand, the crop tends to be planted on land that is directly converted from primary forests with immense value in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. More palm oil almost always means more deforestation. These landscapes are often cleared by burning, a process that remains one of the largest contemporary sources of carbon pollution. The heavy smoke-filled air I experienced for days on end in the forest was a direct consequence of land clearance in neighboring Indonesia.


Oil palm plantations, once established, are also often responsible for high nutrient runoff from careless fertilizer application, and for high soil erosion from road construction. Labor on these plantations is sometimes forced.

The crop has major well-recognized problems. But it is not going away. The economic incentives are too great. A crop of oil palm can return anywhere from 4000 to 29000 USD per hectare over a 25 year period, compared to about 10000 USD per hectare for two-rotation logging over the same interval (Fisher et al. 2011). To compare, a cashier job in a big city might pay about 250 USD per month. Mountainsides of oil palm are mountainsides of money.

One option for preventing this land use would be REDD+ programs that provide payments for the carbon storage benefit of not destroying forests. The problem is that a market for carbon doesn’t fully exist yet, and prices are far too low to make this feasible. Current governments are willing to support prices of somewhere around 15 USD per ton of carbon stored, but the yield of oil palm relative to the forest it destroys would require the market to sustain a price of around 50 USD per ton of carbon (Fisher et al. 2011, again). Finding any buyers at this price is highly unlikely in the near future. Put a different way, the opportunity cost of conservation is somewhere around 20000 USD per hectare – and a hectare is not a very large area – only about the size of a single football field.

The alternative solution is to find ways to make oil palm agriculture more sustainable. Efforts like reductions of wasteful fertilizer application and establishment only on land of limited conservation value are a start. This enterprise, Benta Wawasan Sendirian Berhad, located near where I work, is now part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and has self-reported some tentative steps towards these goals. But nearly all the oil palm produced today is still far from any reasonable sustainability standards. Consumer labeling schemes to differentiate different production methods are still in their infancy, and industry definitions of sustainability leave (in my opinion) much to be desired.


Spending long days in the field with endless rows of oil palm on the horizon, it was hard not to think often about the complex issues the crop raises. I still try to avoid buying anything with palm oil as an ingredient – but I now understand much better the biodiversity and land and money and jobs that come into play every time I make that small decision. It is a start.

Something is missing

The dipterocarp forests of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo are home to some of the world’s tallest trees, with some Shorea species reaching over eighty meters in height. This scene, from the lower elevations of the nearly undisturbed Maliau Basin, is what we may imagine when thinking of pristine mature forests – immense cylindrical boles reaching skyward, scattered throughout an open understorey.


But the landscapes of Malaysian Borneo are not all like this one. Some of the country looks hardly like a forest at all. The trees are all gone. Their immense trunks are too attractive and easy a target for logging. Paper, plywood, and the export market for hardwoods supply the demand.


The result is large-scale deforestation. Modern techniques emphasize selective removal of the largest and most valuable trees, and sometimes preserve riverside buffers, but there is no escaping the heavy impact of logging. Steep slopes and easily crumbled soils make the problem worse.

log grabbing

hill loss (1)

Even in selectively logged forests like the one we are working in below, something feels wrong. Some things are missing, and new things appear in their place.

small trees

For me one of the most noticeable differences is the presence of large gaps in the canopy. Forests are naturally dynamic environments where large trees fall and expose sunlit areas in which regeneration occurs. But in these heavily logged forests, the default instead becomes large clearings of dozens of meters, brutally hot, choked by tangles of thorny lianas and spiny palms, sometimes more than two meters deep, only passable by hacking a way through with a parang. The environment is no longer friendly.

logging gap

One of the other most noticeable differences is the sound of the forest. In an undisturbed forest I expect the songs of birds, the calls of monkeys, and the rustling of leaves caused by all other manner of creatures. In a heavily logged forest, the canopy goes silent, but the air comes alive with the heavy rumbling of diesel engines cutting trunks, moving timbers onto tractors, and then hauling them away. A symphony of dust.

loading (1)


Almost eighty percent of land in Sabah has been impacted by high-impact logging or clearing in the last two decades (Bryan et al. 2013), and virgin forest within commercial forest reserves has declined by over 90% since 1970 (McMorrow & Talip 2001). This dramatic loss of forest cover has paralleled the state’s rapid economic development and diversification (timber revenue is largely retained by the state, while oil revenue primarily goes to the Malaysian federal government), and has so potentially played an important role in lifting many out of poverty. Ceasing the economic exploitation of forests would be bad in far different ways than current usage is bad.

Yet at the same time, much of the landscape feels far more like a mining operation than a sustainable forestry operation. Rates of extraction are often too high for the regeneration rates that can be sustained, and the highly disturbed forests that remain will be incapable of producing much economic value for many decades to come. As such, overall timber production has decreased sharply in the past decade (Reynolds et al. 2011). Current conservation efforts and broader implementation of reduced impact logging may help shift the situation towards a more sustainable direction, but I cannot help but wonder if the past decades of industry have done more to steal from the future than to help build it.


In collaboration with the state and the timber industry, much research is being carried out to understand the biological consequences of this disturbance. I play a small part in the BALI / SAFE (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems) projects aimed at addressing these questions. These data will provide a factual basis for thinking more carefully about these forests. But only personally experiencing these landscapes can shape how I feel about them. Something is missing, and I hope we will someday find it again.


A meditation on airplanes

airplanes 004

A human may walk some dozens of kilometers on a day’s ration of food. We store enough energy in our fat and muscle cells to walk additional hundreds of kilometres. Ultimately we burn through our stores and must stop. A hummingbird must eat every day, while a snake may go months between meals.

Our machines are similar. An airplane is a metallic creature that burns through a supply of fuel in order to cast itself up and across the sky to a far-away destination. It discards as it goes – and then must stop. Just as we do.

What separates machine from living being is only the details of the fuel. A plant makes its own, and an animal readily catches or hunts it on the landscape. The resources that give power and spirit to an airplane are far harder to come by, and must be mined from the earth.

I recently flew halfway around the world, London to Kuala Lumpur, as a burden in one of these metallic beasts. Medieval observers might have described the trip as an unleashing of telluric energies, but I thought about it more as a vomiting of long-buried resources from their underground home into the atmosphere.

airplanes 005

I flew these 11,200 kilometers on an Airbus A380, one of the world’s most efficient long-haul jets. The carriage of my person in this machine required the combustion of fuel containing the equivalent of approximately (1.3 million grams of carbon. That carbon almost certainly was mined from fossil sources – that is, the dead tissues of plants that were deposited over some sixty million years between the Devonian and the Permian Periods.

How long did these plants have to grow to produce enough energy to fuel my airplane and my journey? A modern tropical forest has a net primary productivity of approximately 10 million grams of carbon per hectare per year (Malhi et al. 2001).
This number represents the net amount of carbon taken up by plants from the atmosphere each year in a region about the same size as a football pitch. By dividing this number by the carbon cost of my trip, and assuming that Carboniferous forests had similar productivities as modern ones (maybe not true – Beerling & Woodward 2001), I could estimate the interval required to grow enough biomass for my trip.

airplanes 006

In fourteen hours of flying, I personally used up resources that took a square meter of forest 1,300 years to grow. An airplane is an inefficient way to travel.

Each flight uses up another small fraction of our planet’s stored resources. Each flight brings the earth one step closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Over the past centuries we have come increasingly close to this point, drawing down more and more of our fossil fuel inheritance, and destroying an increasingly large proportion of our planet’s biomass (Schramski 2015). And the airplanes we have conjured out of aluminium and copper and other buried treasures will no longer function.

cover image

Airplanes also bring biological equilibrium. They carry not only human passengers, but also other species – just as the sailing ships that preceded them once did. Before the European conquest, the Americas had neither honeybees nor earthworms nor mosquitoes nor smallpox, all familiar facets of modern life; nor did Europe have tomato or potato or chocolate. Our ships and planes have transformed much of the Asian tropics into a land of rubber trees and oil palms, and spread diseases like avian flu far more rapidly than they could ever travel without our fossil-fueled assistance. We make plains of great biological mountains, and homogenize as we go (Dornelas et al. 2014).

Life is slow. It builds diversity and differences. Airplanes hasten our pace and destroy these things.

airplanes 003

The ecomodernist movement has argued that technological development, urbanization, and alternative energy sources will increase harmony between people and nature while simultaneously drawing billions out of poverty. In this worldview, we will not decline towards biological and thermodynamic equilibrium – instead, we all of us will all be able to fly on airplanes one day. I am not so optimistic. Ecomodernism assumes that we will get smarter and kinder faster than we get hungrier. Its agenda is neoliberal in that it assumes market solutions are sufficient to solve societal problems, and in that it proposes to take billions of people away from their land into wage-based labor. George Monbiot and Chris Smaje have both argued forcefully against ecomodernism, and the past centuries are filled with examples of how such a simplistic approach has led to increased human poverty and planetary destruction. Somewhere between these two perspectives is a viable road forward.

I think that instead we must find a slower future, and accept that our energy should come from above rather than below our planet’s surface, and that most of our kilometers should be walked and not flown. I think that we must soon abandon our airplanes, and all they represent.

(This post was written from a camp abutting a logging area in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The photographs are of heavy smoke from human-caused fires in nearby Kalimantan. Further posts this month will be erratic and dependent on internet connectivity.)

An autumn rainbow


Before I came to the Norwegian mountains, I imagined them in a muted palette of grays and browns – heath, tundra, and rock. These were stereotypes, but not ones I found to be groundless after the experiences of a cold and foggy field season, and of hiking to the bare summits of more than a few mountains.

This year I returned during the same season and looked at these landscapes more closely, in places ranging from the mountains of Dovrefjell and Trollheimen to the Arctic coastal ecosystems of Lofoten. With a more careful eye, a full rainbow of colors revealed themselves. They were painted onto the occasional leaf, fruit, and flower, in clear view but on small enough scale to be easily missed.

Here are a few of these species in their autumn aspect.


Salix reticulata (Salicaceae), a small willow whose yellow-tinted leaves stand out against all backgrounds


Vaccinium myrtillus (Ericaceae), the bilberry, with sweet-tasting fruits that leave purple-blue memories on fingers and tongues.

purple black

Empetrum nigrum (Ericaceae), the crowberry, a shrub bearing purple-black fruits that remind me of onyx and look far better than they taste – a watery and seedy disappointment.


Eriophorum angustifolium (Cyperaceae), marsh-wool, a marvelous mat-forming sedge whose leaves turn red and whose fruits stream away on long soft white tassels.


Ranunculus glacialis (Ranunculaceae) – a high elevation buttercup whose pale petals rapidly become streaked in pink and purple, and whose flowers seem to persist far longer than any pollinator.


Rubus chamaemorus (Rosaceae) – the cloudberry, a close relative of the raspberry with orange-colored acidic fruits, here unfortunately found in an unripe state.


Drosera rotundifolia (Droseraceae), a carnivorous sundew common in wet areas, with red-purple stems and leaves and glandular hairs.

red (1)

Comarum palustre (Rosaceae), the marsh cinquefoil, a peat specialist whose orange-red leaves make a beautiful contrast against their mossy habitat.

red 2

Chamaepericlymenum suecica (Cornaceae), a bunchberry related to the dogwood tree, with bright-red and bitter-tasting fruits.


Rhodiola rosea (Crassulaceae), king’s crown, with rainbow-colored red-green leaves that have many medicinal uses.


Arctous alpinus (Ericaceae), a dwarf shrub whose prominently-veined leaves turn a brilliant scarlet color.

Although all of these species have circumboreal distributions (occurring at high latitudes around the northern hemisphere), most were almost entirely new to me. Only the Rhodiola and the Drosera occur in the Rocky Mountains I know much better, and there the Drosera is a very rare species restricted to rapidly disappearing habitats. The major factor is probably latitude – some of these Norwegian photographs were taken above 68°N, while my field sites in Colorado are closer to 38°N. The high elevation of the Colorado sites may counterbalance their relatively southern location and allow a few species to extend their ranges that far south.

It is a pleasure to find such bright colors at this time of year. The prevalence of red leaves and fruits is a marked contrast to many North American landscapes that are more dominated by yellow hues. Why should this be? Adaptive explanations have focused on protection from ultraviolet radiation or signaling to other species, but it’s unclear why patterns of redness would be stronger on one continent than another. A better non-adaptive explanation is that it is an artifact of evolutionary history and biogeography. I’ve written about this topic before, but seeing these red colors again after a year away from Europe renewed the pleasure of thinking about this pattern. Mountains are full of surprises.

The natural history of a familiar friend

I ran into an old friend five thousand miles from home last weekend. But the story actually starts several years ago when I first began exploring the Rocky Mountains.

Near my research sites there was one peak visible to the north, higher than all the others: the Treasure Mountain massif. And I had never climbed it. Below is a view of the peak covered in snow in 2013, taken from a different mountain.


This year I finally was able to satisfy my curiosity and climb to the top of Treasure Mountain. It was well worth it, and not just for the views.

summit ridge treasure

Near the summit I found a population of one of my favorite species, moss campion (Silene acaulis, in Caryophyllaceae). It grows in a low, cushion-like form, with small sharp green leaves. For most of the year it is under snow, but for the summer it puts out a beautiful display of five-petaled pink flowers. Observing it from ground level is a worthwhile exercise. Of all the plants I have met, only jasmine and orange flowers have a richer scent. It is a pleasure to find this species, because it is truly restricted to the high alpine zone and often does not appear on many high peaks.


So imagine my surprise when I found this familiar friend five thousand miles away on an unfamiliar mountain. I am in Norway this month on research collaborations at NTNU in Trondheim, and took last weekend to climb Blåhøa, the highest peak in Trollheimen.


The weather for the ascent was poor, and the views from the summit cliffs were nonexistent.

blahoa summit

As I navigated my way back down in the winds and mist, I noticed the same moss campion growing out of the rocks!

silene (1)

A familiar species in a foreign land is always a comfort. In this case, Silene acaulis has a holarctic distribution, meaning it can be found not only in the Rocky Mountains but also in the tundra of Svalbard, the peaks of Fennoscandia, and the windswept plains of Siberia. The interesting thing is that the species occurs at very different elevations in each part of its range. My photo in Colorado was taken at 13,500′ elevation – and my photo in Norway was taken at only 5,300′ elevation. The alpine zone starts at very different elevations in different parts of the world, generally becoming much lower at higher latitudes where growing seasons are shorter.

The other reason I was glad to see this species is that it is a classic example of how microclimate construction leads to species interactions. As a low and dark-colored plant, the moss campion escapes high winds and traps heat at the surface, enabling it to be much warmer than surrounding plants or bare rock (Körner 1999) – a notable benefit for growth in cold and short summers. And these warmer microclimates in turn facilitate the growth of nearby plants (Molenda 2012). I like to imagine Silene acaulis as a friendly ecosystem engineer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about microclimate recently, and this species provides much inspiration for my work. I am sure there is far more we don’t understand about the slow and quiet life of this foundation species. I will have to spend more time with it, wherever I may find it.

Summer is over

My field season is over now, but I could tell it was time to go. We tell the time by reading our organisms and need no calendar.

In the high Rockies, the meadows have begun to die back – late season aspen sunflower (Helianthella quinquinervis) and silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus) blooms struggle along, but all else is turning a dusty shade of green-yellow.

baldy dieback

Only at very high elevations is summer continuing. Here at 13,600′ elevation, an old man of the mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) is blooming, but colder and shorter days will soon put an end to this display.


Lower down, wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) has long discarded its flowers, and has seen many of its fruits eaten and seeds dispersed by its many consumers.


The autumn fungi have emerged after a period of heavy rains. Here a fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) displays an immature fruiting body.


And, a sure sign of fall, the marmots (Marmota flaviventris) have grown to an enormous size, putting on fat in preparation for the winter to come. Pictured here is the family that lived next to my cabin – Dandelion (who looks like he ate a watermelon), Stitches, and Question Mark, all tagged for long-term research by UCLA biologists.


Year-to-year, the relative timing of these signs of autumn shift, and sometimes are delayed or advanced compared to a standard solar calendar. Many of these phenological shifts and potential mismatches may be linked to ongoing climate change (Inouye 2008) and are actively being investigated by many researchers.

But for me, it’s enough to mark the passage of the seasons roughly by these living cues, and to make the transition from days on the mountain to days in the office, analyzing a summer’s worth of hard-earned data.

road grate

Who do we include in ecology?


A few weeks ago the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting brought over five thousand scientists to Baltimore. It was the 100th anniversary – an event marked by an opening video address by President Obama and the highest-ever attendance at the meeting. In the halls of the conference center we became a sea of poster tubes and name tags, a moving cross-section of the people who represent our field.

Most people passed as a blur in the hustle of getting from meeting to meeting, presentation to presentation. But occasionally a name tag would stand out. Some people who I knew by name, others who I wished to know, and others who had taken the time to decorate their badges with illustrations of their study systems and organisms.

But I remember one name tag more than any other. His name doesn’t matter as much as what he wrote after it – “, Ph.D.”. Of the thousands of people with Ph.D. degrees I saw at the meeting, his was the only one that indicated his academic preparation. Why was that? I only saw him for a second in the crowd, so I don’t really know. I wished that I had time and reason to talk to him, but I do think I can make a guess.

I wondered whether the name tag was trying to say something that couldn’t be said otherwise. He looked like he was in his mid-20s, no older. And he had dark-colored skin. I think the name tag was saying, ‘you need to treat me seriously, because you probably won’t otherwise’. As someone who also looks very young and has consequently had people expect little from me, I have some experience with age discrimination. But as as someone with mixed ancestry who can pass as white both visibly and culturally, I have not experienced any racial discrimination. At meetings like this one, so full of new faces, we constantly make decisions about how to allocate our time and who we should talk to. I imagine that there are many unconscious decisions people make at conferences that lead to some people getting much less respect than others. It doesn’t help that many of our field’s best-known thinkers happen to have been a bit older, white, and usually male (see a recent NCEAS working group below).

working group

So seeing this name tag, I was disappointed to imagine our ecological research community still not making everyone feel wholly included or at ease. Leah Gerber and Elizabeth Tellman at Arizona State University organized an excellent diversity workshop around these issues at the conference. It was attended by about thirty people, ranging in professional status from high school students to university faculty to directors of major environmental non-profits, and in background from a much broader swathe of society than most parts of the meeting.

For me, one of the big messages that came out of the conversation was the importance of community-building and inclusion. Providing opportunities and structures to recruit a more diverse set of people into the field is only part of the story. Building environments where everyone feels comfortable bring their whole selves should become a bigger part of that story. That means breaking down many of the unspoken assumptions about what our scientific culture should look like, and supporting people who can model and help build the alternatives. Not an easy road, but an important one.

Here’s an example that may help to illustrate the point. The photo below is from a sustainable recreation and youth engagement workshop run by the United States Forest Service last autumn in Arizona (photo credit to them). It was a useful and worthwhile meeting, but you can see from the photo that there is a key group who were not invited to the youth engagement dicussions: any young people!


Here and throughout our field, we can build better structures and make more inclusive decisions. The Baltimore workshop is going to soon generate some actionable outcomes and bigger conversations, but it is not my place to present them here. The Green 2.0 working group is also leading larger efforts to open up more conversations about diversity in environmental organizations, and proposing specific actions that our groups can all take to build community and inclusivity.

The road is long, and this will just be a small part of a bigger movement. We should all at least talk about these issues.

I look forward to a world where everyone can do ecology, and do it in the communities and cultures they belong to. I hope it will be a world where no one’s name tag need say anything besides their name.


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