Today in History – December 3, 1984 – over 2,000 die and many more injured from Union Carbide’s (now owned by Dow Chemical) poison gas emission (methyl isocyanate) at their agricultural plant in Bhopal, India. Prior to the catastrophe, the Bhopal plant had drastically reduced personnel, particularly in regard to production and maintenance, as it had been losing money for several years due to the weak demand in India for pesticides. At the time of the accident, important safety devices were out of commission and the under-trained staff were not able to contain the poisonous gas.
Globalization is bringing new and complex technologies into the developing world, who may lack the infrastructure to support and maintain these new technologies safely. The low cost of labor enables multinational corporations economic and competitive advantages. Many ethical questions arise as to the extent to which health standards, work conditions and community investments required in the home country should be applied to facilities in developing countries. This disaster can be used as a case study to address the implications of modern technologies on developing nations and the ethical and competitive issues around globalization of production and manufacturing technologies. For example, the Exportation of Risk case study “includes comparisons with Bhopal’s sister plant in Institute, West Virginia, and considers the moral responsibility for preventing such tragedies on the part of multinational corporations, the governments of the industrialized nations where they are head quartered, and the governments of developing countries where they operate. The moral responsibilities of engineers and scientists working for these organizations are also considered.”
There have also been many well-intentioned technologies designed to help the human condition that may have done more harm than good. The arsenic poisoning from deep well water in Bangladesh has been called the largest mass human poisoning on earth, far exceeding the deaths at Bhopal. Yet, its roots can be traced to World Health Organization projects and participating engineers that encouraged the people of Bangladesh to dig deep wells to avoid the biological hazards of surface water. Now the people of Bangladesh faces a choice – immediate illness and possible death from dysentery or probable long-term suffering and death from arsenic. This problem is particularly challenging as most people in Bangladesh earn less than $1 per day. Fortunately, there are several technology solutions being tested and evaluated for both technical effectiveness and economic sustainability.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on the Bhopal disaster as well as those on globalization or ethics and social implications of technology. For related educational resources, visit the Chemical Engineering Education, Agricultural Engineering Education or the Engineering Ethics Education community sites.
Two decades earlier on this date in 1964, Police arrests launches the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, paving the way for increased openness and inquiry about public events on university campuses, such as the condemnation of the Bhopal disaster and the inadequacies of the response. Today many are concerned that the “Patriot Act” may be stifling this open inquiry with Internet monitoring and other electronic surveillance. Founded in 1990, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) “continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.”
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on the Free Speech Movement or ethics and social implications of technology. For related educational resources, visit the Information Technology Education, the Software Engineering Education, or the Computer Science Education disciplinary communities.
This date in 1982 marks International Day of Disabled Persons adopted by United Nations as well as the first human heart transplant in 1967. Both good examples of how technological development can improve the human condition. Also on this date in 1586, Sir Thomas Herriot introduces potatoes to England, from Colombia.
Browse the Engineering Pathway’s related educational resources for and about persons with disabilities or visit the Biological Systems and Agricultural Engineering Education or the Biomedical Engineering Education disciplinary communities.