Logging in Myanmar.

Are our choices driving forest destruction?

Interview with Jeff Conant Part II of III

by Theo Constantinou, contributing writer

Theo Constantinou and Jeff Conant talk again in part two of the three-part interview series about who is invested in forest destruction and how people can use their consumer power to align their money with their values. See part I here.

TC: In The City of God, St. Augustine tells the story about a pirate who had been brought before Alexander the Great:

Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who does it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

When you read something like this and apply the words to what is happening today globally by major corporations with their willing destruction of our environment, what feelings does it conjure for you?

JC: The passage reminds me of a pithier version from the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who asked, “Which is the greater crime, to rob a bank or to own one?”

One of the things I find most challenging in campaigning for environmental responsibility and against corporate plunder — to put a shorthand phrase to it — is, again, the fact that the massive exploitation of resources and labor is widely justified in the name of ‘economic development,’ ‘prosperity,’ and ‘progress,’ — so those of us who advocate for a more ecologically-minded relationship with the world we inhabit are dismissed and marginalized at best, or at worst, in the case of the people at the frontlines in countries like Honduras, Indonesia, Brazil or indigenous peoples anywhere, are attacked, jailed and even killed.

Does St. Augustine tell us what Alexander the Great did with his loud-mouthed captive? I don’t imagine it ended well for the pirate…

TC: When the average citizen reads your article, Palm Oil Is In Everything — And It’s Destroying Southeast Asia’s Forests and sees the below portion,

The equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest is destroyed every hour to make way for palm oil plantations, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. This destruction has decimated the habitat of endangered creatures, deeply scarred local communities and is a critical — though oft-overlooked — factor in climate change.

Do you think people realize their potential in combating climate change as consumers? And do you think people are changing their palm oil consumption habits after reading articles like this and becoming educated on the subject?

JC: Yes, I do think people are acting, more than we might recognize. Our attention to the rainforests seems to come in waves; a few years ago, palm oil was not on anyone’s radar, and in just the last three years, the general public has been empowered enough to pressure all of the top consumer brands to commit to commit to sourcing ‘deforestation-free’ palm oil. That’s huge. For example, in 2014, 400,000 people marched in the New York to raise their voices about the climate crisis. Every day across what Naomi Klein and others call “blockadia,” people are taking direct action to keep fossil fuels in the ground as is Friends of the Earth’s campaign dedicated to the goal. Then there’s the generation of millennials, and many of us who are a bit older who realize that our planet is on the chopping block and are taking action.

On the question of ‘consumer power’ — I think that, yes, consumers have tremendous power to change the way consumer brands source their ingredients and so forth, and this is important — but as long as we see ourselves and our constituents as consumers, we are selling ourselves short. We need to act as citizens and as full human beings. We can use our economic power to make change, but we can’t let our identity as consumers define us, or be the only form of power we know how to exercise. And I think that it’s precisely there — when exercising one form of power allows people to realize other powers they may not have known they had — that we break through to the potential to build a lasting movement for change.

Take action: Defend the rainforest and get your money out of dirty palm oil.