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Palm Oil and Climate Villains

I'm standing in the grocery aisle scrutinizing a label. The man waiting behind me sighs; I step aside. He grabs a box of crackers and goes on his way, and I continue comparing labels. Embarrassingly when the same guy—probably having forgotten something—comes back five minutes later, I'm still reading labels. I'm having a problem with palm oil. The learning curve has gone something like this:

  1. Discovery of the problem: Palm oil profits are driving the destruction of rain forest habitats in Indonesia and elsewhere. This harms previously endangered species like orangutans, the Sumatran rhino, tigers, and pygmy elephants—and of course— the trees. Don't buy anything with palm oil.

  2. Palm oil is everywhere. There are hundreds of names for it, so I can't always spot it on the ingredient label. Every article I find cites this statistic: Palm oil is in half of all the products sitting on grocery shelves, including cosmetics.

  3. Okay—I'm resigned to reading labels and doing the best I can. I have faith in some companies who seem to care.

  4. But hold on, why is Justin's peanut butter using palm oil? Aren't they supposed to be among the good guys? The label has a certification stamp assuring buyers that it's sustainable palm oil, so maybe it's okay then?

  5. At home I inspect my pantry for items that may have slipped in and discover the forbidden ingredient on a box of Whole Foods 365 crackers. Have I been putting too much faith in Whole Foods? Their website says that 365 products contain only sustainably sourced palm oil, but how come the package doesn't have the certification stamp on it? I call customer service (several times) and a very kind representative explains that the ingredients are sourced from different countries, so no stamp, but it's all sustainable. (I do hope she's right about that because Lee loves those crackers.)

  6. Greenpeace: The industry is corrupt and the sustainability label means nothing.

  7. The World Wildlife Fund, WWF, says it's better to support the sustainability movement because palm oil trees, when done right, are an environmentally friendly choice that yields more product in less space.

It can be difficult to know if a product contains palm oil or its derivatives, because they can appear on ingredients lists under 200 different names. One helpful tip to help know if a product contains palm oil is to look out for these four words: Palm, Stear, Laur, Glyc. These words will help you spot over half of the fatty acid compounds that are often made from palm oil.

And so it goes. Sometimes trying to do the right thing is exhausting So, what is one person's responsibility when it comes to reversing climate change? In my readings on the subject, I've come across the notion that we as individuals are not to blame for the state of the world. This soothes me for a minute. Hey, I'm doing what I can; I'm not the bad guy. What about the folks still trying to carve out new territories for fossil fuel extraction? Or what about those people who stand against legislation intended to curb our reliance on those fossil fuels? Those guys are the real villains!

But a funny thing happens when my mind starts looking for outside villains; instead of a lingering relief that I'm not the one causing this, I feel more fearful, more out of control. When exploring the data on carbon and methane emissions, I imagine a world gone to hell while I've done nothing but stand by pointing my finger at others. It hits me physically. Fear clutches my gut and my mind races. I am not alone.

According to the New York Times, eco-anxiety is driving people into therapy. One woman in Oregon reported waking in the night and feeling fearful of the future her children would face. Instances like this have resulted in a new wave of climate-aware therapists. Traditional therapy strategies, with the objective to minimize or cure anxiety, won't work. One cannot ethically minimize the danger, especially when the climate disasters land on patients' doorsteps.

These days I balance my mental health and climate worries by staying abreast of the science, but also by avoiding those deep dives into worse-case scenarios. Activism helps. If I'm doing my research, talking to people, and making positive changes, I feel better.

If you have climate anxiety, some actions that may make you feel better include: asking questions and discussing your concerns when making purchases, calling elected representatives on environmental issues, writing corporate leaders, and signing petitions. The planet will also benefit.

So today, after hours of sifting through the articles on palm oil and the destruction of rain forests habitats, I signed a Greenpeace petition and sent a small donation to support their stand against palm-oil profiteers like Nestlé, Mondelez, and Unilever.

What do you think about palm oil? What environmental issues are you currently thinking about? Does activism help you cope? If so, please share! Thank you.

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