Jonathan Robins

Historian of commodities, food, and global environmental history

Climbing trees

Today’s oil palm plantations look pretty impressive after 20 years – tall, straight trunks; big leafy canopies shading the ground. Skilled workers use a “sickle pole” or a motorized limb saw to prune leaves and cut down heavy bunches of fruit. When the tree gets too tall, it dies – usually at the hands ofContinue reading “Climbing trees”

ASEH 2018 twitter presentation on oil palm in Asia

The graduate student caucus of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) organized a pre-conference on twitter to highlight academic contributions at the conference, and to provide an opportunity for those unable to travel to Riverside, CA to participate by sharing their own work and commenting on presentations. I was fortunate to be able toContinue reading “ASEH 2018 twitter presentation on oil palm in Asia”

“Not a blade of grass left standing”

“Not a blade of grass left standing.” This wasn’t a  description of an environmental calamity, but rather the sales pitch for Gramevin, the trade name for a herbicide sold by Shell Chemicals. Commercial plantations in Southeast Asia were the target audience, and the grass in  question–lalang (Imperata cylindrica)–was a constant enemy of planters. The grassContinue reading ““Not a blade of grass left standing””

For your salad and your skin?

It’s difficult to imagine a vegetable oil bottle offering a recipe for homemade cosmetics today. The line between “food” and “cosmetics” is well-defined in contemporary consumer culture, even if many of the ingredients are the same. Early cottonseed oil marketers didn’t want to leave any potential market untapped: this advertisement, circa 1895, encourages homemakers toContinue reading “For your salad and your skin?”


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