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Jenks’ Book Focuses on Four Catastrophic Disasters

Published: May 3, 2010

History’s Andrew Jenks takes an up-close look at four of the world’s worst toxic-waste catastrophes in his new book, Perils of Progress: Environmental Disasters in the 20th Century published by Prentice-Hall in spring 2010 as part of the series “Connections: Key Themes in World History.”

The 176-page text reviews some of the planet Earth’s worst days, including India’s Bhopal explosion, Russia’s Chernobyl meltdown, New York’s Love Canal contamination and Japan’s Minamata mercury poisoning.

Perils of Progress looks at the reactions of four societies to the downside of technological progress,” said Jenks, author of Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in an Age of Revolution and a member of the university since 2006. “We prefer to forget. We submerge the memory of disaster. They have become the dirty little secrets of modernity. But how do societies react when the toxic wastes, at least for a time, force us to confront the downside of progress? And what unites these seemingly different societies across ideological, geographical and socio-economic divides?”

Jenks believes one uniting factor is a general meta-ideology of progress. “There is a general buy-in that sacrifices have to be made for progress,” he said. “All these societies perform a cost-benefit analysis. On the benefit side, they put jobs and industrial development. On the cost side, they put safety and environmental protection. Since they believe that progress comes from eliminating costs, safety and environmental protection are bound to suffer. As long as safety and a clean environment are put on the cost side of the ledger of progress, it’s likely and perhaps even inevitable that many nations will get a lousy and dangerous environment.”

The 1984 Bhopal disaster is a case in point. A Union Carbide pesticide plant inadvertently released a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the surrounding neighborhood. Measures to cut costs and maximize profits eliminated the very safety systems that probably would have prevented the disaster from happening. Not even the emergency alarm systems were turned on. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed 3,787 deaths, but most scholars believe the number of deaths was magnitudes greater.

In the summer of 2007, Jenks visited Bhopal thanks to support from CSULB’s Yadunandan Center for Indian Studies. “I hung out in the slums of Bhopal for three weeks,” he said. “It was a sweltering Indian summer. I’ve never encountered a shock like the slums of Bhopal. There’s nothing that compares to it. I’ve been to very poor places in Latin America and Central Asia but nothing prepared me for the smells, dirt, poverty and suffering. I sat down with mosquitoes buzzing all around me, sweat pouring down me and intense diarrhea. It all got worse the longer I was there. It seemed almost unbearable.”

One of his first stops in Bhopal was a non-governmental organization with its own disaster archive and a view of the rusting pesticide factory. “They have created an alternative, Hindu medicinal approach to the victims,” he explained. “It is their response to the official health care system that Union Carbide subsidized in part after the disaster. The activists who run the center felt that the system of health care created for victims was less a way to heal the victims than to make them dependent on corporate, Western-style medicine, which they felt didn’t really address their problems. So they offered their alternative, an Ayurvedic system financed by international non-governmental organizations.”

Jenks rode motorized rickshaws through slums past piles of human feces and mountains of litter in order to conduct interviews with the Bhopal chief of the police at the time of the disaster whose lungs had been scarred by the killer gas as well as with Bhopal’s chief medical officer and one of the main Muslim activists at the time.

As in the other disasters discussed in the book, the government of India terminated medical studies of residents that might determine long-term impacts of exposure to deadly chemicals for survivors. It was a calculated policy designed to combat survivor claims of chronic, debilitating disease. “Since these governments stopped the studies, they could plausibly say, ‘the origins of victims’ diseases were not disaster-related. See, there is no scientific evidence. It’s not our problem.’”

Andrew Jenks
Photo courtesy of Andrew Jenks
Andrew Jenks on a recent trip to India, sits before the Taj Mahal.

Jenks discovered a striking contrast between the initial worldwide media coverage of the events and the tendency within a few short decades to forget they had ever happened. Government policies actively encouraged this state of historical amnesia. In almost all the cases in the book, governments made a conscious effort to exclude discussion of the disasters from history textbooks used in primary and secondary schools. Communist or capitalist, third world or first world, bureaucrats wanted their citizens to focus on technological successes rather than failures.

“Ask average Californians if they would rather have a clean environment or a job and they will want jobs. One scholar has referred to this mentality as ‘the unspoken bargain,’” he said. “Many of us, more than we care to admit, are willing to put up with a dirty environment and with potentially devastating health consequences down the road in exchange for jobs and access to a house and to cheap consumer goods. As long as we fail to put safety and the environment ahead of anything else, as long as we consider a clean and safe environment as a cost of progress rather than a benefit, disasters will happen again.”

The one exception Jenks found to historical amnesia bobbed up in the wake of the Minamata disaster caused by the release of the highly toxic chemical methyl mercury into Japan’s Minamata Bay from 1932-68. The toxin bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish which, when eaten by the local populace, resulted in mercury poisoning.

“Japan made a concerted effort to remember Minamata,” he explained. “Japan offers the only instance where a guilty party admitted guilt publicly. It didn’t happen in the case of Union Carbide in Bhopal, Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum) in Love Canal, or in Chernobyl. No one ever made an official statement of guilt. Japan offers the only instance where the company, the Chisso Corporation and its head, publicly admitted guilt. I think that’s critical. That provides the opportunity for society to come to terms with what happened, to recognize it and to remember it. In the absence of that kind of admission of guilt, social healing and reconciliation is impossible and the way is paved for the erasure of memory.”

Jenks is a specialist in Russian history, the history of technology and the environment. He worked in the 1990s as a journalist and editor in Washington, D.C., where he covered NASA, the EPA, secret military high-tech programs and the emerging Internet. He studied the Russian language at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute in Moscow in the late 1980s where he also worked as a translator in the Moscow CNN office. He worked for six months on Soviet fishing boats in the Bering Sea. He received his B.A. from Bucknell University, his M.A. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in Russian History from Stanford in 2002.

Jenks hopes universities nationwide will assign Perils because it provides a way for students to understand connections across seemingly different ideological, political and cultural systems.

“I hope the book will help students begin to think about their own dilemmas in the contexts of other people,” he said. “What we share ultimately is a common sense of being victims. That’s a story we don’t like to tell about progress. We like to speak of progress as something that empowers us. Instead, it can give us a shared sense of victimization.”