OCTOBER 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBER 10
B O O K N O T E S
Bhopal: The Inside Story -- which combines an oral history and an investigation of Union Carbide and the Indian government -- gives a new voice to survivors of the worst industrial accident in history.
The recollections of Union Carbide pesticide workers in Bhopal suggest that the December 1984 disaster was an accident waiting to happen. The book recounts how the company had cut corners on worker training for years and showed little concern about whether or not the plant's minimal safety equipment was operational. Deaths of individual workers in the years before the disaster were brushed aside by the company as the result of worker misconduct. By contrast, workers blamed the deaths on broken safety valves, disconnected alarm systems and other safety failings that would ultimately convert this pesticide plant into an urban gas chamber.
To this day, Bhopal confronts the after effects of this toxic shock: increased cancer rates, a higher incidence of respiratory problems and extremely high rates of spontaneous abortions. The 1984 chemical leak killed at least 3,500 people and injured more than 600,000.
Bhopal: The Inside Story is a powerful indictment of the multinational on nearly every level: neglect of safety, poor worker training and a massive cover-up after the fact. In the end, the chemical company paid $470 million in damages, a fraction of what Exxon could end up spending to clean up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. Exxon was fined $5 billion in punitive damages for economic losses from the spill, but is seeking a new trial. The authors note that more money has been spent on dead marine life in Alaska than for dead people in India.
The federal government and state of Madhya Pradesh also come under sustained attack for bungling relief efforts and being too soft on the company. One of the co-authors, Claude Alvares, argues that the Indian government acted like a co-conspirator, making certain that Union Carbide did not have to pay too much for fear that hefty damage payments would discourage multinational investment in India.
One of the book's strengths is that it suggests how developing nations should handle multinational investors. Co-author Indira Jaising, an attorney who represented some of the gas victims before the Indian Supreme Court, argues that a multinational operating in the developing world should be held to the same safety standards that are imposed in its country of origin. She also calls for improved international treaties to provide for better international liability rules to cover hazardous corporate activities.
This powerful book presents the disaster that continues within Bhopal today and suggests ways to limit the damage that multinationals corporation will inflict in the future as they reduce operating expenses at the cost of ecological and human devastation.
By Judi Bari
Monroe Maine: Common Courage Press, 1994
343 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Ned Daly
BEFORE RUBY RIDGE, Waco and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma, there was another right-wing violent incident that injured innocent civilians. This earlier instance may have received less attention because those attacked were cast as rabble-rousing hippies.
A bomb exploded on May 24, 1990, under the car seat of Judi Bari, author of Timber Wars, while she was driving through Oakland California. Bari's pelvis was shattered by the bomb, leaving her crippled for life. Bari's passenger, Darryl Cherney, sustained less-severe injuries. Both victims were members of Earth First! Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, and despite the motive questions it raised, the Federal Bureau of Investigation narrowed its bomb suspect list down to just two names: those of the victims.
Timber Wars is a collection of previously written interviews and articles by Judi Bari about the bombing and the destruction of one of the world's most fascinating ecosystems: the California redwoods. Apart from the bombing, the book tells the story of how Bari rallied citizens in a conservative area around environmental and social issues.
Bari is aggressive. She attacks corporations, builds bridges with workers, works from within the community and keeps her eyes on the prize of protecting remaining ecosystems and improving the quality of life for communities. Her tenacious style, sense of humor and skills as an organizer make this work an enjoyable primer on environmental campaigning. Asked about her whereabouts at a time when timber machinery was torched, Bari says, "I was home in bed with five witnesses." After the bombing, when her doctors inform Bari that she will have to wear braces in her shoes, she responds, "Oh my god, I have to wear shoes?"
In contrast to her relentless civil disobedience and fiery language, Bari displayed compassion for timber workers, whom she believes share something in common with the forests they cut:both are exploited by greedy timber companies.
In the book, Bari describes how her car was run off the road by a logging truck while she was driving with her two children. The truck driver was apprehended and brought over to Bari's car. She recounts that he was horrified when he saw her kids and kept repeating, "The children, the children, I didn't see the children."
In Bari's analysis, the timber companies try to divide and conquer the community to reap an unsustainable logging harvest and then move on when the trees are gone.