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new internationalist
issue 181 - March 1988

Is he house-trained?
He makes deals costing millions of dollars; signs contracts
for new factories and power stations. But has never ironed a shirt
or emptied a waste-basket in his life. No wonder his filthy factories spew
waste into the environment. Ben McNaughton argues that businessmen's
lack of house-training is the major cause of world pollution.

You've seen his photo. He's smiling confidently into the camera. His shirt is spotless, his suit unrumpled. A tiny triangle of white silk peeks coyly from his top pocket. Perhaps he's shaking hands with an identically-attired associate, the white bands of their twinned shirt cuffs setting a pristine seal on their agreement. Let's shake on it. Man to man. Businessman to businessman. We understand each other.

Mr Union Carbide, Mr Baird and McGuire, Mr Aerojet General, Mr Canada Metal awake to the smell of fresh coffee and the feel of clean sheets on their cheeks. Socks neatly folded, shirts in crisp piles, greet their eyes when they pull open a drawer. In the bathroom there are no smears on the mirror to mar their reflections as they shave. As they leave the bedroom they don't see the damp towels on the carpet, the scum of grey stubble round the basin, or yesterday's shirts, socks and ties crumpled under last-night's pyjamas.

Kissing Margaret and Dolores and Sylvia and Louise goodbye, they don't look over their wives' shoulders at spilt orange-juice and crumbs on the tablecloth, sticky spoons in pools of honey and marmalade. Perhaps it's because they have their eyes closed. Or because their minds are already fast-forwarding to important meetings they are late for at the office.

'Good morning, sir, your messages, sir, and your letters typed ready for signing.' Geraldine, Pamela, Susan and Desiree greet them brightly with nail-polished and lipstick-slicked smiles. Their smooth perfumed hands speed over typewriter keyboards, stack, clip, staple and fold piles of papers, slide open and clang shut filing-cabinet drawers. 'Coffee, sir? This telegram's just arrived, and Mr United Carbon is waiting to see you.'

More clean-cuffed hands are shaken and cigars tapped into sparkling crystal ashtrays. Mr United Carbon puffs expansively, leaning back. Mr Union Carbide signs his name with a flourish. 'What the eye doesn't see, the heart can't grieve over,' quips Mr United Carbon, man to man.

In Swansea a woman pegs out her washing on the line. Black chimneys, like charred tree stumps, fill her wash-day horizon, spewing dense greasy billows into the sky. The cold wind makes her chapped hands smart as she watches the fat filthy smoke clouds advance on her white sheets and towels. Later, with other despairing women, she will try to blockade the United Carbon Black factory, begging for filters on the chimneys that darken her world. Police will hold the women back as Mr United Carbon's chauffeur-driven car speeds quietly out through the gates.

Later still, after the black-spattered washing has been taken in, and the clouds of carbon have swirled up up and away, there will be a shower of rain somewhere in Norway. And high in the forest, in the land of the midnight sun, a soft-stinging acid will trickle down through the branches, eating at the pine needles, seeping into the ancient layers of the earth.

In the bastis of Bhopal the clouds came while the people were sleeping. The washing, the children, the chickens, had been taken in for the night. But the clouds found them anyway, creeping in through the ill-fitting doors, through windows with no glass, through rough screens of cardboard and corrugated iron.

Mr Union Carbide was not there in the morning to see how they cleaned up the mess that his factory had made. As parents shrouded tiny corpses in ragged saris, their eyes streamed with poison and tears. Meanwhile Dolores dialled the company lawyer with one hand, stopping calls from Reuters and the New York Times with the other.

Mr UC is ruffled, it has to be said. His tie's askew; his ashtray's full of dead butts. He snarls into the telephone at the lawyer, screws up paper, shies it viciously at the waste-bin. 'I never thought.' he splutters. Then: 'Jeeze, how can we get out of this?'

And later, much later, long after Mr UC has gone home, a brown hand empties the overflowing ashtray into the waste-bin and picks up balls of screwed-up paper from the floor. As the moon lights up the empty spaces in the car-park, her duster sweeps across the mahogany expanse of his desk.

The Greeks had a word for household. It was oikos, pronounced 'ecos'. And it is the root of two English words whose fundamental links with one another have been forgotten. The words are 'economics' and 'ecology'.

Perhaps Mr Union Carbide and Mr United Carbon never learned Greek. Even if they did, they would not have been taught the ancient link between making money and taking care. At their expensive schools and colleges there were maids to make beds and do laundry, dinner ladies to cook, shop and wash up. And at home was a whole bevy of petticoated mummy-figures, waiting to soothe their anxiety as they climbed to the tops of their ladders. 'Don't look down, darling,' they whispered, encouragingly. 'Don't look down.'

So our world's boardrooms are peopled by man-children: barely potty-trained, unable to locate a gold cuff-link without help, who make a virtue out of laughingly admitting that they 'can't boil an egg to save my life' - little realizing that lives may truly be at stake. Because while they close their eyes to their own everyday messes, and have them whisked expertly and invisibly away, how can they be expected to see the ghastly cesspit they are making of our planet?

Dear Gandhi knew the dangers of such blindness. He believed every person should be responsible for themselves. And that responsibility extended to the everyday labour of cleaning and feeding oneself. So in 1942, when he was interned in Poona, and the British Governor General summoned him to ask his advice, Gandhi simply said 'No', he was very sorry. He could not come until he had finished his housework.

Ben McNaughton is a writer and film-maker, who has recently gone part-time in order to concentrate on developing his housework and child-rearing skills.

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New Internationalist issue 181 magazine cover This article is from the March 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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