It's been over 40 years since the first victims began dying, and nearly 30 since the chemical company responsible for the deaths stopped dumping untreated industrial waste into Minamata Bay in southern Japan. Now, finally, the bay has been declared clean. Sometime this month workers will finish removing the 1.3-mile-long steel net that was put across the mouth of the bay to keep contaminated fish inside. Few today remember Minamata Bay, though not so long ago it was, like Love Canal, synonymous with industrial contamination. That fact that we've forgotten is, I suppose, a reflection of our current state of dispiritedness.That lethargy is partly, and ironically, due to the successes of earlier activism. The environment is cleaner now, thanks to people who were willing to take to the streets and demand responsibility; but that very success has led to today's false sense that the battle has been won. Unfortunately, the small victories we've achieved are now threatened by industry trade associations, which are working to overturn the attenuated protections that stand between their toxins and our health. The people who want to gut the regulatory state also own the commercial media, so it was no surprise when the news that Minamata Bay was "clean" came and went, a faint blip on a media screen filled to capacity this recent season with celebrity deaths and nativist paranoia (Asian money! Buddhist Nuns!) The subdued tone of the Minamata coverage must have pleased the boys in the suites, who would rather we didn't direct our thoughts to their past atrocities. They'd rather we forget; with the populace left defenseless in a historical vacuum, they can drag us back to the golden age, to the days of unregulated glory when industry could poison us at will. Given the current rage for deregulation it is particularly important that we remember Minamata and what it once stood for. The Poisoning "No one thinks how much blood it costs." -Dante, ParadisoIt began more like magic realism than grotesque reality: Birds fell from the sky, caught themselves before crashing and flew back up, only to fall, fluttering, again and again until falling dead to the ground; cats leapt up and howled and ran hysterically about the villages. Some of the cats "committed suicide" by throwing themselves into the waters of the bay. The behavior of the cats was so pronounced that at first the strange ailment was known as "cats' dancing disease." The year was 1956 and one of the world's worst industrial tragedies was beginning its slow, horrible trajectory. In the small fishing villages around Minamata Bay "cats' dancing disease"-- known today as Minamata Disease -- began showing up in humans. Those afflicted had numbness in the extremities and lips, constricted fields of vision, slurred speech. Some, like the cats, began shouting uncontrollably. Victims suffered from ataxia, the inability to control the muscles. Their hands crumpled up useless and gnarled, like the dry legs of dead spiders. Many fell into comas and died. Apparently healthy women gave birth to severely deformed and retarded children. There were countless still births. Technically speaking, these symptoms were not of a disease but of poisoning. A chemical plant owned by the Chisso Corporation was dumping tons of industrial effluent into the bay; among the chemicals released was methyl chloride, a toxin that causes degeneration of the nervous system. Chisso used mercury as a catalyst in the production of acetaldehyde, a solvent used by the plastics industry. In the plant's waste sludge, the mercury was transformed by bacteria into methyl mercury, which, because it is organic, is far more toxic than pure mercury. Once in the bay, the methyl mercury bioaccumulated, collecting in higher and higher concentrations as it worked its way up the food chain. (In large predator fish the concentrations of organic mercury can be up to 3,000 times the concentration in the surrounding water.) The Chisso plant dumped from 200 to 600 tons of methyl mercury into the bay before it stopped in 1968.By 1968 Chisso had known for nearly a decade that its effluents were causing Minamata Disease. But, being a corporation, Chisso had no lines in its ledgers for something as economically intangible as human suffering. For Chisso, neural degeneration and deformed babies were a small price to pay, especially since the payments were being extracted from the lower class of villagers who fished in the bay. As early as 1956, a study group assembled to investigate the disease suspected the Chisso effluents were to blame. The company denied responsibility, but in 1958 began secretly discharging the acetaldehyde waste into the Minamata River. Soon after this the disease spread to the villages where the river empties into the Shiranui Sea. In 1959 the study group concluded that methyl mercury from the Chisso plant was responsible. The day after the group's findings were announced the government of Japan disbanded the group, not because its work was done but because its conclusions were inconvenient. Some of the most damning research was carried out by Dr. Hajime Hosokawa, a Chisso employee at the company hospital. Hosokawa, in an attempt to prove to his superiors that they bore responsibility for the disease, fed acetaldehyde effluent to cats; the resulting cases of "cats' dancing disease" impressed company officials. They were so impressed, in fact, that they concealed Hosokawa's results and prohibited him from conducting further research into the matter. The company continued to knowingly poison villagers until the mercury process became obsolete (i.e., less profitable than another process). By then over 10,000 people had been damaged. Dr. Hosokawa's testimony would later prove pivotal in the series of lawsuits filed by the victims against Chisso; some of those suits were not settled until 1996 (the victims had the facts, but Chisso had the lawyers). Last year the government of Japan approved YEN 25 billion to help Chisso and Showa Denko, another company guilty of mercury poisoning, compensate victims. (Chisso has been on the dole since 1978. Inside every capitalist is a socialist happy to have the state cover his hindquarters.) The Photograph "You have often slept on my lap the sleep of infancy, but now you sleep on my lap the slumber of death." -Simeon MetaphrastesMinamata was not the only outbreak of mercury poisoning in recent decades. Other mass poisonings have occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, Guatemala. In these cases methyl mercury fungicide, used to treat seed grain, entered the food supply. Some 3,000 died in the poisoning in Iraq. In Canada in the 1970s, Native Americans in Ontario were poisoned by mercury from a pulp mill. But of these cases, only Minamata is likely to be known in this country. That we know even of this is due to the work of the photographer W. Eugene Smith. Smith, who practically invented the photo-essay, went to Minamata in 1971 to document the suffering imposed on the people by an indifferent corporation. When some of his pictures were published in Life in 1972, they shocked the nation and provided a huge boost to the environmental movement. It was Smith's pictures that made Minamata a symbol of industrial pollution. Of the pictures in that story the most striking and most memorable was the horribly beautiful photo of an afflicted girl, Tomoko Uemura, being bathed by her mother. The image is so powerful and so essential to our understanding of the tragedy that Minamata cannot be discussed without some mention of it. When the bay was declared clean recently, the AP story said, "The tragedy was seared into public consciousness in W. Eugene Smith's 1971 photograph showing a mother tenderly cradling her cruelly deformed child in a bath." U.S. News and World Report ran the picture recently with the caption, "This victim came to symbolize the Minamata tragedy." (We should, I suppose, be grateful for what we can get, but reducing Komoko to another nameless victim, to just a symbol of a tragedy, helps to minimize the extent of that tragedy. It is the finishing touch on the dehumanization begun by Chisso four decades ago. We might at least leave her the dignity of her name.) In Life's 60th anniversary issue last year the editors said this photo was the "centerpiece of the most socially significant picture story ever produced, by history's most accomplished photo-essayist." That is a strong claim but probably a justifiable one. The environmental movement, it is said, began with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, but it remained on the fringes until the early 1970s. In Silent Spring Carson wrote, "We stand now where two roads diverge.The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster."By the end of the 1960s the world had a good sense of the shape that disaster might take. In 1969 an oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel broke, and television viewers were treated to the sight of sea birds dying in black goo. Later that year the Cuyahoga River caught fire near Cleveland, giving an even clearer glimpse of the hell just around the corner. Other lakes and rivers, especially in the industrial northeast, were sterile, though not yet combustible. Even then, with the evidence mounting that industry would have to be controlled, the damage seemed safely removed from our own bodies: the lakes and rivers were dead, but we were doing better than ever. It took Smith's pictures to convince us that the disaster predicted by Carson would have a human toll, that there would be more than fish going belly up. Smith's picture of Tomoko became another emblem of the era. It belongs with Nick Ut's famous photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from her village naked, napalm burning invisibly on her skin. Stolid middle-class Americans who hated hippies and war-protesters and rock'n'roll could see, in Ut's photo, that things had gone horribly wrong, that a sober reevaluation of the war was in order. Smith's photo carried a similar message: clearly the time had come to consider the consequences of our unreflective veneration of technology.Much of the power of Smith's photo lies in its subversion of popular Christian imagery. As was noticed immediately, the photo of Tomoko resembles a pieta, the representation of Mary holding the crucified body of her son. The pieta is one of the most moving images in Christian art, even though the scene isn't described in the Bible. (One of the earliest known discussions of the scene is by the 10th century theologian Simeon Metaphrastes. More pertinent, perhaps, to Smith's pieta, is the description by an anonymous 13th century Franciscan, who imagined Mary pressing her cheek to that of her dead son and washing His face with her tears.)The most famous pieta, and the one that Smith's most resembles, is Michelangelo's in St. Peter's, Vatican City. In both works mothers cradle the bodies of their children, and in both the mothers' faces have an unworldly serenity. Michelangelo made Mary's face impossibly young and serene; that serenity reflects the larger meaning of her child's death. The agony on the face of a mother as she holds her dead child should be unbearable to behold, but the sense of tranquillity on Mary's face reminds the Christian viewer that implicit in this death is the promise of redemption, the promise that death itself can be overcome. This is the promise that has provided solace to generations of Christians. Smith's pieta offers no such solace. A mother cradles her child, not in a spiritual realm but in a horribly polluted world. The serenity on the mother's face is nothing more -- but nothing less -- than a mother's love. It is a love striving with enormous dignity to meet the intolerable price of what is commonly, and often mistakenly, known as progress. This is a pieta for a secular and avaricious age. It offers no redemption, not for Tomoko, not for her mother, not for us. The only promise here is the promise of more of the same if we fail to prevent it.And because we are failing in many places, more of the same seems all too likely. In the mines of the Guiana Shield, a belt of gold ore stretching from Venezuela to Surinam and south to Brazil, two pounds of mercury are dumped into the ecosystem for every pound of gold extracted. In Guizhou Province, China, the mercury process is still being used to produce acetaldehyde and the waste is still being dumped into the environment. In East Java, the Surabaya River flows into the sea so loaded with industrial waste that mud on nearby beaches contains the highest levels of mercury ever recorded. People in nearby villages show early signs of Minamata Disease. It isn't just the cowed labor force that attracts capital to Indonesia; the state allows industry to pollute, and when given that option capital is likely to take it. And near the maquiladoras along the Mexican border, where U.S., Korean, and Japanese companies go to be freed from the burden of being held responsible, unusually large numbers of babies have been born with anencephaly (a fatal underdevelopment of the brain) and spina bifida (a defect of the spinal tube). Heavy metals may be to blame, but we may never know for sure: the wastes, which are dumped into open ditches or unsealed ponds, contain the full spectrum of industrial carcinogens and toxins, solvents to acids. As at Minamata, the owners have been loathe to clean up after themselves. When anecephalic babies were born near a GM maquiladora in Matamoros, a GM spokesman suggested the mothers' diets were responsible.The survivors of Minamata must be appalled to know how little we have learned in the intervening decades. Many of them had hoped their own suffering would not be in vain, that the cruelties they endured might provide a lesson to the rest of the world. In the '70s, when the Native Americans in Canada's Grassy Narrows reservation developed symptoms of mercury poisoning, they were invited to Minamata by Chisso's victims. The Japanese wanted to prevent yet another preventable tragedy; they were especially adamant that the Canadians fight with whatever means necessary to protect themselves. One of the hosts was Tsuginori Hamamoto, who was crippled by Chisso, whose sister was crippled by Chisso, whose parents had been killed by Chisso. Tsuginori offered this advice to the visitors: "The world will become worse and worse unless people like you take a stand." At a time when businessmen, lobbyists and the made-men in Congress are dragging us back to radical laissez faire economics, that statement should stand as a fundamental rule of survival. I wonder, though, how many more Komokos we will allow before we finally learn to just say no.