The environmental catastrophe is often the social disaster. Monsanto’s use of GMO’s, the Indian Union Carbide gas leak, sweatshop labor that gives us Nike shoes, McDonald’s link to deforestation are but a few examples of the impact of big business on the environment, the poor, and labor. In the face of true and long lasting effects from environmental disasters, the science of climate change is under attack, and accusations of botched reporting, grants given out for trumped up research are on the rise. Ethics and business, especially big business, together in the same sentence have been called an oxymoron. If this is the case, how should non-governmental agencies encourage cooperation with business to cut down on or eliminate the preventable disaster, create better conditions for labor, and work to truly improve environmental conditions on the planet?
Industrial technology has shifted the business paradigm and is transforming the climate in new and disturbing ways. Of the climate eras that have existed, there is the Anthropocene age, a step up from the Holocene age or epoch. The steam engine was invented in the late 17th century, and since then, people have been releasing into the atmosphere a third more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any other time in the recorded history. As government and advocacy group work to improve environmental management, support for initiatives and codes of conduct becomes increasingly more vital. The NGO must look for new and improved ways to “partner” with business to advocate for sustainability while allowing for the business to remain viable. Business itself is in a prickliness zone, loath to tolerate more “interference.”
Jonathon Porritt, Sustainable Development Commission chair, writes, “…corporate social responsibility, is simply a self-contained box into which businesses packs all the ‘good stuff’”.
All the same, the smart NGOs are working with big businesses, sometimes in secret, to achieve manageable government frameworks and transform the way business is done. The emphasis again is that business must be a willing partner for this transformation to triumph.
The rise of a market economy has given rise to a separation of society and state, and the NGO is compelled to take up an advocacy role. In case of the Indian Bhopal disaster, Indian scholars and advocacy groups still wrestle with the question of whether technological advancement should trump national interests, or if those two interests can be intertwined, and what strategies can contribute to better relations between business and its citizenry.
The Union Carbide company entered India at about 1900, and portrayed itself as a future looking group interested in aiding consumers by providing usable household products. “Union Carbide: A Hand in Things to Come,” was their popular slogan. The plant was built to house the manufacture of pest and weed killers. The plant’s safety record was sub-par, many qualified workers quit within the first few months of operation, forcing the company to hire low skilled laborers to operate complex machinery and high risk systems of technology.
Relations became strained between business and the community at large, and then the unthinkable happened. On December 26, 1981, plant operator Mohammad Ashraf was killed by a phosgene gas leak. The same type of gas caused injury to 28 people a year later. Pressure gauges at the plant were defective; vapor dispersal was not adequate, but the Union Carbide appeared to ignore dire warnings. In addition, many high level politicians in Bhopal enjoyed kickbacks from the Union Carbide and had relatives working for the company. Thousands more people died by 1984, but the company focused on profitability, buying its own stock and enjoying banner years. Some surviving citizens were outraged. One wrote in part:
There is a volcano that is erupting in us. The multinational companies, remove them from our Bharat, and then from our world. Companies like this, which kill us…Progress may give us gold, it may give us diamonds. But of what use is this, if we die attempting to use it?
What makes advocacy necessary years after the disaster is the issue of safety, civic and ethical considerations, as they relate to the sustainability. Forty tons of extremely toxic methyl icocynate escaped into the air and killed almost 3,000 people. At that time in the 1980’s, India was considered a “developing” country. The unprecedented disaster gave rise to a new focus on industrial planning, the accountability of the corporation doing business in a country other than its own, and a stern examination of safety measures.
The role of the NGO in the aftermath of the disaster is found in continued testing of water and ground, and addressing mental and physical health concerns in the lay communities. The National Environment Engineering Research Institute concluded that water contamination was restricted to within the plant site; but another study conducted by the Boston Citizen Environmental Laboratory with the help of Greenpeace found that drinking water contained high levels of dichlorobenzene, a chemical known to cause kidney and liver illnesses. There does not appear to be evidence that dichlorobenzene was related to the Bhopal disaster; however, interactions with other chemicals at the original disaster area could have accounted for this discovery. Despite some apparent conflict in two reports, both of them are based on “hard” rather than “soft” science. Hard science relies on data collection, can be reviewed and verified by other scientists. The overall premises are agreed upon. Climate effects are simpler to measure; contaminated water and air, for example. Climate change, pointing to alterations in temperatures during an extended period, overall warming or cooling, speculations about chemicals and their links to illnesses, are in many cases called pseudoscience. Pseudoscience falls under the soft science umbrella, as it if often not peer reviewed science, and does not include as much sound statistical evidence. Pseudoscience sometimes relies on patterns rather than results or history. Climate change, for example, must be studied for a period of many years. In Bhopal, earth and groundwater contamination prompted a Supreme Court ruling regarding the replacement of contaminated wells. Ten years later, NGO activists are still working with government officials, as only 10% of wells in the Union Carbide area are considered safe. Without the activism of the NGO’s, however, little or no action would have been taken to provide safe water to the slum communities, even with a Supreme Court command. In Bhopal today, NGO’s are “privatizing” international regulations regarding medicine and safety. There is much less discussion with political or government organizations; NGO’s are increasingly autonomous in their work, and thanks to their partnership with larger transnational organizations, can conduct conferences that put sustainability at the center of the discussion.
The NGO provides guidelines in some cases, or a conceptual framework, a way to arrive at what is known as “ecological literacy,” and is reaching out to school age children attempting to educate them in a holistic way about environmental concerns. The link between the environment and education is gaining steam and acceptance, and the NGO is at the fore. The discussion in the last twenty years has moved from issues that involve simple conservation to discussions about the sustainable development, defense of the environment and the impact of disasters, whether caused by human error or nature. In India, for
example, the Bhopal disaster curricula are limited, but special manuals have been prepared for teachers at fairly low cost, highlighting environmental issues and recovery from the gas leak, and roots of environmental education are growing deeper into India’s educational system. Sustainability discussions in farming, water and land use have to begin and end with education. Although, the contamination in India will exist for decades, Union Carbide’s immensely diminished role in taking responsibility for the citizenry and for cleanup of the site created a vacuum that NGO’s rushed in to fill. In the aftermath, grass roots organizations and NGO’s have begun to propose strengthening the capacity of the state, helping it become more accountable and transparent in its processes of enacting new statutes. They have provided funding for more non-governmental organizations under labels like, “sustainable development,” and “asset building.” These NGO’s and splinter groups are acting to an extent as lobbyists, promoting new laws and governance procedures under the rubric of ‘environmental governance” that focus on social equity and public accountability. They are responsible for numerous success stories across Asia and the Latin America, such as responsible spending of flood victims’ aid in Bangladesh in 1998; a creation of a women’s ministry in Cameroon in 1989, that reinforced participation of women in the government decision-making.
NGO’s are working to have a vote in managing resources. Across much of India today, decisions about the use of renewable or natural resources in energy rest with engineers who work in public work departments. Their values are informed many times by corporate interests. NGO’s work to help these bureaus adopts an understanding of the principle, such as what sustainability means operationally. Representatives go to fields and classrooms, and work to educate the future of big business.