Meanwhile, the United States is getting a taste of its own medicine. The new UK government has pushed back on the Obama administration’s threats against BP. With thousands of British pensioners invested in the oil giant, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have averred that BP must remain “financially strong and profitable.” Like the banks to whose rescue previously pliant governments had to rush, BP, it is argued, is simply too big to fail.
What the BP and the Bhopal disasters reveal is the craven attitude of democratic governments toward powerful corporations whose devotion to maximizing profits supersedes any human and environmental cost. Apparently, all corporations have to do is wield the temptation of financial investment, the promise of economic growth, and the boon of employment (some cash under the table often helps as well, depending on the country and the politician) to get the elected representatives of the people to wink-wink them past proportionate responsibility for the damages they wreak. Too often, governments see their primary duty as facilitating corporate activity whatever the human or environmental cost.
Until governments return their allegiance to ordinary citizens, until they force corporations to respect tough regulations on health, safety and environmental protections and punish them with limitless liability and painful penalties when they fail, there will be more disasters like the BP oil spill and the Union Carbide poisonous gas leak. Only then will we know whether the perfect storm of BP and Bhopal’s tragic convergence will result in a real break from what has, for too long, been business as usual.
Mira Kamdar is an Associate Fellow.