Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

An Important Lesson About Capitalism

yes-men-image.jpg

A new product is about to hit the market—well not really.  Called B’eau Pal water, it is designed to remind us of the Bhopal disaster.  As the Yes Men, promoters of the new product, explain:

The launch of “B’eau-Pal” water came as Bhopal prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe, and coincides with the release of an official report by the Sambhavna Trust showing that local groundwater, vegetables, and breast milk are contaminated by toxic quantities of nickel, chromium, mercury, lead, and volatile organic compounds. The report describes how a majority of children in one nearby community are born with serious medical problems traceable to the contamination.

Beyond the tragic humor, the Yes Men’s activities teach an important lesson about capitalism.  As explained by Foreign Policy in Focus:

The bottle looks beautiful. It sports an old-fashioned spring-top stopper. The red, diamond-shaped label features an elegant font. From a distance, the silhouetted landscape on the label looks exotic. It is, like all fine gourmet water, “bottled at source.” Even the French name of the water suggests elegance: B’eau Pal.

But wait: B’eau Pal? That sounds rather familiar. You look at the label more carefully. The top of the label reads: “25 years of pollution.” The picture on the label isn’t an exotic location after all. It’s…the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that poisoned a half a million people and killed thousands back in 1984 when it accidentally released tons of methyl isocyanate.

B’eau Pal is the work of the Yes Men, the dynamic duo of disinformation. Five years ago, one of the pair, Andy Bichlbaum, appeared on BBC as a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, to announce that his company would provide $12 billion in medical care for the 120,000 victims of the Bhopal calamity and fully clean up the site. Dow lost $2 billion in market value in 20 minutes. That’s how long it took before the hoax was exposed.

“We demonstrated what would happen if Dow did do the right thing in Bhopal,” Bichlbaum told Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Mark Engler in Pranksters Fixing the World. “What happened? The stock market punished Dow. And if it had really happened, the stock market would have kept punishing Dow. The guy who made the decision would have lost his job. Or he would have been sued by the shareholders, which happens.”

The Yes Men’s point: The heads of major corporations won’t suddenly do the right thing even if someone – somehow, somewhere, some day – manages to reveal to them the errors of their ways. Now five years later, Dow blathers on about the importance of clean water even as it does nothing for the residents of Bhopal, who are suffering from a drought. To catch the attention of all those who have forgotten about Bhopal – virtually everyone except the people of Bhopal and a handful of dedicated activists – the Yes Men created B’eau Pal, a critique wrapped in a jest and shrouded in faux-corporate hype.

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