It was a sombre end to the FOE evening when there was a showing of a programme about events at Bhopal on 3rd December 1984. The programme, narrated by talented British actress Indira Varma, was no rabble rousing call for action but an attempt to assemble the facts. A more passionate account is to be found on www.bhopal.org. More alarming than anything in the film has to be the responsibility for that incident. At Bhopal, India, poisonous methyl isocyanate was released by a chemical plant.
Globalisation claims to bring down barriers and to bring people out of poverty. The international trade that the WTO lobbies for adds air freighted Kenyan beans to the cookbook of smugness, but also requires cheap food and cheap production. Cheap food was, it appears, much of the motivation for Union Carbide to export its technology from the USA to build the Bhopal plant and thus ensure that the right pesticides were on hand. Trouble was, the pesticides had to be super cheap. To cut costs, hardly anyone worked nights and the chemical plant, once in trouble, could not be controlled because the equipment was faulty and the expertise was lacking.
From the leaking poison, those who suffered terrible premature death were consequences of our food chain. Those same people are our neighbours on this wonderful planet. The trouble is, we do not seem to realise how good we have it and we continue to throw away food as though there were no tomorrow. If we did not waste so much, would we need so much pesticide ? Did we even need that chemical plant ? It would be good if Bhopal had taught us something at least about caution in dealing with industrial processes. All sorts of systems fail – just remember the Buncefield fuel depot sent its black smoke over Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire only a few months ago.
We are going to have industrial processes even to maintain what we have now and to fuel the demand for (quickly obsolete) computers and the like. But don’t despair as we are not in a hopeless situation. There is no need to standby wringing our hands. To reduce the frequency of disasters we can tighten up the controls but we can also reduce the number of the chemical plants by consuming less and wasting less. Even though dropping consumption does not fit the economic model, isn’t it unacceptable to poison people and planet ?