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How Food With Palm Oil is Wiping Out Orangutans and Enslaving Workers

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How Food With Palm Oil is Wiping Out Orangutans and Enslaving Workers

By Piper Hoffman

Adam," a poor 19-year-old Indonesian, found a job driving trucks for a palm oil plantation that paid $6 a day. The foreman picked him up for a three-week, two-thousand mile journey to the worksite in Borneo. Along the way the terms of employment changed: Adam wouldn't be paid for two years, and in the meantime he would have to borrow money from the employer for his food and housing. Workers who ran away from the company were dragged back and beaten. Adam had become a slave laborer, as Businessweek's Benjamin Skinner reports.

The palm oil Adam is made to harvest ends up in about half the products in your local grocery store.

Clearing tropical rainforests to to plant oil palm trees, obliterates the homes of endangered species like orangutans. Photo credit: Care2

Palm oil producers in Indonesia and Malaysia rely on forced and child labor, but poverty-stricken Asians aren't their only victims. They also clear tropical rainforests to plant their oil palm trees, obliterating the homes of endangered species like orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers.

Only 60,000 or fewer orangutans are left in the wild. Orangutan Foundation International says they will go extinct without “drastic intervention." They aren't able to bounce back quickly from mass deaths: females don't reach sexual maturity until they are 10 or 15 years old. They usually give birth to only one baby at a time, whom they nurse for about 3.5 years before they become pregnant again. More than 50% of orangutans now live “outside of protected areas, in forests under management by timber, palm oil and mining companies," World Wildlife Fund reports.

Not all palm oil comes from environmental destruction and worker exploitation, but food manufacturers have no way to distinguish humane and sustainable palm oil from the kind that is destroying human and animal lives. Cargill and other companies that supply the manufacturers combine palm oil from all sources, so even if manufacturers want to favor conscientious producers, they can't.

The Rainforest Action Network has launched a campaign called The Last Stand of the Orangutan to address the problem by targeting the biggest manufacturers of palm-oil-laced snacks. The goal is for those businesses to pressure suppliers to separate out sustainable palm oil so they can buy it exclusively.

A boycott won't work. For one thing, the behemoth corporations that make foods with palm oil make such an overwhelming number of the items in grocery stores, including not just food but household and personal care products as well, that it would be impractical to steer clear of them. For another, shoppers can't tell from reading the ingredients whether a product contains palm oil. It is disguised under different names, including vegetable oil, glyceryl stearate, and palmityl alcohol. For a more complete list of palm oil's aliases, visit Say No to Palm Oil.

Contact the companies that have palm oil in their products. Rainforest Action Network has identified the following corporations as priorities. For a list of chocolates produced without slave labor visit the Food Empowerment Project.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.

Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.

The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.

If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.

The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.

"A solar cell on the roof of your house has to store electricity somewhere and typically we use batteries," D'Arcy told The Guardian. "What we have done is provide a new 'food-for-thought' option, but we're not there yet.

"If [that can happen], this technology is way cheaper than lithium ion batteries," D'Arcy added. "It would be a different world and you would not hear the words 'lithium ion battery' again."