Dow at the London Olympics: A Lament

From the September 2012 PNL #817

Saptarshi Lahiri

An advertisement1 for the 2012 London Olympics aired regularly on TV over the last few weeks, depicts a leafy green giant walking around the Olympic village turning off faucets and light switches. This gentle giant solving our environmental ills with the wave of a leafy hand is the latest greenwashed image from the corporate behemoth, Dow Chemicals, a very real and very scary giant with a very dubious history. These commercials highlight Dow’s role as a "worldwide Olympic partner" for the 2012 Games, enjoying one of the elite £63m sponsorship deals with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which, while not as profoundly ironic as BP Petroleum being the sustainability partner, is pretty questionable in its own right.

Infamous for unleashing Agent Orange on the world during the Vietnam War, Dow Chemical is also linked to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy since its 1999 merger with Union Carbide, the US firm responsible for the 1984 disaster. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is considered the worst industrial disaster in Indian history, which was a gas leak in the town of Bhopal, exposing hundreds of thousands to the toxic methyl isocyanate gas. The Indian government registered a written protest with the International Olympic Committee in February to drop the Dow sponsorship and were politely but firmly denied2. There have also been protests within Indian civil society, though with little to show for it. Surprisingly, many within the Indian media, meekly yielding to the IOC’s apathetic spirit, have criticized the protests as a hollow gesture claiming the foregone conclusion of their futility.

Predictably, the IOC has stubbornly defended its choice of sponsors, arguing that Dow Chemical had no ownership stakes in Union Carbide before the merger and therefore is not responsible. The IOC maintained that they “...were aware of the Bhopal tragedy when discussing the partnership with Dow." This has also long been Dow’s position, and has been challenged by many for its lack of ethics and a predatory framing of liability law that absolves Dow’s responsibility as an ethical corporate actor.

This position has been creatively contested by the Yes Men, who have gone to great lengths to point out through interventionist satire that this is part of a systemic trend of western-controlled, globalized corporations locating polluting factories in the so-called third world (see PNL #8083.). NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) is operative here on a global scale: corporations which can’t build dirty pesticide plants in the developed world simply move “south of the border.” Not only will weak regulations in previously colonized countries fail to keep corporations in check – the companies will also likely be forgiven any mishaps by the world at large because the global cultural narrative is dominated by the west.

Speaking of colonialism and its legacy, Dow isn’t the only behemoth being deceptively rebranded as a friendly giant. Reading about the Olympics opening ceremony, one repeatedly encounters a stereotype-laden sketch of the “eccentric,” “quirky” and self-deprecatory attitude that supposedly characterizes the British national character. Even Laurie Penny, celebrated young socialist firebrand, gets misty-eyed in the New Yorker about how quaintly “odd” Britain’s 2000 year history4 is. “Odd” is an odd term – in it is hidden a sort of absolution. Missing in this picture is the brutally racist colonial empire run by the British brigand for hundreds of years. 

The Huffington Post recently quoted Michael Moore’s wry analysis: “[the British] ruled the world for hundreds of years – and they didn't achieve that through planting daisies.” Nor did they oppress entire continents (from which they continue to enjoy colonial privileges) by being adorably “eccentric.”  What now reads as eccentricity is the vestige of Empire, and even if the sun has set on the British Empire, its legacy lives on. India’s inheritance as a former British colony is a politically and monetarily weak state coupled with poor governance that enabled the Bhopal disaster and very little geopolitical influence. And all of this makes the IOC’s rebuff of the Indian government doubly bitter.

Bhopal survivors are pitied by western liberals and ignored entirely by western conservatives while both groups directly or tacitly uphold neoliberal capitalism and the exploitation it entails. Meanwhile, the mainstream public, a global audience of billions, tunes in to watch the Olympics, a spectacle made possible by that same exploitation – a collusion that gives a whole new meaning to the notion that the Olympics brings the world together.

Lost in such grim ruminations on global-scale injustice and widespread apathy, activism sometimes seems all too meager an antidote. Often resistance may be largely symbolic, but those who resist bear witness to historic injustice and open discussion on an ignored subject. Remember the courageous ‘68 Olympics protests5 by Tommie Smith and John Carlos against the racism of the US Government and in support of the early Black Power movement? The two young black athletes standing on the podium with black gloved fists raised high remains an indelibly iconic image from the Civil Rights pantheon.

Indeed Smith and Carlos were ostracized and lambasted6 by the national media in the US for decades after. But they were arguably vindicated by the many subsequent successes of the Civil Rights movement. Critics of India’s Olympics protest have dismissed it as empty symbolism. But who can say what bends the long arc of history? This symbolic protest may be instrumental in providing justice to Bhopal survivors. And, lest we forget, symbolism too is a very real form of power.







Saptarshi is a graduate student at SUNY-ESF finishing his Masters thesis.