Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Jonathan Robins

 

1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.

I’m working on a book exploring the global history of the oil palm tree and its main product, palm oil. Palm oil is probably the most controversial agricultural product being produced today: promoters see it as a sustainable way to feed a hungry planet, while detractors argue that it threatens to annihilate biodiversity across the tropics. My project looks to the history of palm oil and oil palm tree to understand how we got to this point.

The book will highlight a series of transformations in the ways that oil palms were grown and used over the last three centuries. The tree is native to western Africa, where it has fed people for centuries. In the nineteenth century palm oil became a globally-traded commodity, used to grease the machines of the Industrial era and to clean workers’ bodies as a key ingredient in soap. By the turn of the twentieth century, palm oil entered the global food system, finding its way into margarine and other manufactured foods. By the start of the twenty-first century, palm oil looked like the most promising biofuel to replace petroleum. Today palm oil is the world’s most widely-consumed plant oil, and the area covered by oil palms is still growing fast across the tropics.

A key point of the book is that this was not a story of steady technological progress. At every stage, individuals, businesses, and governments decided how and where to produce and use palm oil, and these decisions were rooted in political, economic, and cultural contexts. It’s a story about markets and globalization, but also about slavery, land-grabs, and protectionist trading regimes. It’s about science and industry, but also about personal taste, and questions about what is—and isn’t—good for our bodies or the planet. I don’t anticipate reaching any conclusions about whether palm oil is “good” or “bad.” Instead, I want to show readers how the industry has changed over time, and highlight the diversity within that industry, which includes some environmentally- and socially-responsible segments along with highly destructive ones.

 

2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?

This project came out of a long fascination with the so-called “tropical fats” (palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil). I love to cook and eat, but for much of my life I viewed these fats as off-limits: they were unhealthy, a medical consensus that has largely unraveled in recent years. Palm oil was on my mind when I worked on my first book on cotton agriculture in Africa and America (Cotton and Race across the Atlantic, 2016). I found a wealth of sources on African economic and agricultural history in which palm oil played a starring role. I also saw a real need to connect stories about palm oil in Africa with histories from southeast Asia and Latin America, the three regions where oil palms are grown today.

As I work on the project, I look forward to revisiting six years’ worth of notes, collected in libraries and archives in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia. I am especially excited to see what the “big picture” looks like as I put the different pieces together. So far, I’ve only been able to work on single case studies, and as I start to compare across regions and across a more generous timeline, I expect to see more and more differences stand out in the ways that people and their environments have shaped palm oil development in different parts of the world.

 

3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

I’m not shy about saying that I’m most excited about having time and space to think. It’s a real privilege to be able to spend a year at UCHI focused on a single project. I’m also looking forward to working alongside an interdisciplinary group of colleagues. It’s important to hear perspectives from different disciplines and viewpoints, and good ideas often come from reading and listening well outside one’s own area of expertise. I know from past experience that sharing my own work—and hearing criticism about it—is the best way to develop clear and effective writing.

 

4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

While my project is about a plant—the oil palm tree—and the things it produces, it is ultimately about people. Oil palms don’t cut down rainforests by themselves. The kinds of research done by humanities scholars helps us understand why people make some decisions and not others. It goes beyond simply gathering “qualitative data”: in the humanities, we value work that captures the textures and flavors of a place, and emotions and ideas of people, the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which people interact with each other and the natural world. The humanities also train scholars to tell a good story. The data do not speak for themselves, and when we can craft the results of our research into a meaningful narrative, we can reach the broadest audience.