Bhopal Anniversary: Redefining "Natural"

Remember Superstorm Sandy? It was what’s called a “natural disaster,” though of course it wasn’t: it was a collaboration between nature and industry in which both parties were needed. It should be called an “industro-natural disaster” or some such, to distinguish it from volcanoes, meteors, most earthquakes, most tsunamis, and the like. Or, maybe, “anthropo-natural disaster,” to distinguish it from the same kind of storm in its natural form, before the anthropocene, before we added so much heat-trapping gas to the insanely complicated climate machine that we live in. Sandy was still natural in that nature was driving the process and basically calling the shots, but anthropo- in that without our contribution, it wouldn’t have looked remotely like it did.

Then there are the out-and-out constructed disasters, the ones that may also be collaborations with nature but in which humans are really driving the process. But even here, you can sometimes discern a whole new nature taking shape — that, like our messed-up climate system, makes disasters for some, and lots of profits for others.

For example, last night was the thirtieth anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe. Exactly thirty years ago, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, emitted something it wasn’t supposed to, killing thousands of ex-farmers and their families who lived right around it. The ex-farmers had left their farms because they couldn’t compete with the large farms that were suddenly using “Green Revolution” pesticides and techniques in order to cut down on the number of humans needed to mass-produce food. Most labor became superfluous, and in this particular case, that labor settled around a plant producing the “Green Revolution” product that had made it superfluous. No one else wanted to live there. But the ex-farmers had to live somewhere. (To support the activists in Bhopal who are still fighting for justice, please visit the Bhopal Medical Appeal.)

The Bhopal plant was built and maintained (poorly, in this case) by people. Still, when you look at the grand system of which it was a part — one that continues, today, to spit out refugee farmers, a thousand of them flooding each day into Mumbai alone — the disaster can seem almost natural.

The proximate cause of the Bhopal disaster was that Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical) cut costs at their Indian plant, the sister to a plant in Virginia that had never had serious problems. But the decision to cut costs in a country without an efficient legal system, at a plant around which thousands of poor people live, is natural within a system that, also, renders millions of poor people homeless because there’s a more “efficient” way to produce food. (It’s not more efficient. Small farmers with multiple crops can actually produce more calories per acre than large industrial monocrop farmers can — but small farms takes a whole lot more human labor, and that does cost money, which has to ultimately be paid to the farmers, who can then afford to survive. Large industrial farms are more “efficient” only if the maximum profit of the few, rather than the survival and profit of the many, is the ultimate goal. If the maximum profit of a few is natural, which it is within capitalism, then large industrial farms, the eviction of small farmers, and the death by asphyxiation of a few thousand of those farmers around a plant producing a pesticide that had rendered them paupers—all that is natural too.)

Emissions of a toxic sort, the quick-acting kind like at Bhopal, or the slow-acting kind the whole world is starting to reel from today: to stop them isn’t a technical issue. It’s a matter of redefining what we want natural to really mean.