Lila Rajiva

Synthetic Science

"It's only salt water," says the surgeon flapping the translucent rubbery disk. "If it bursts, it gets absorbed into your blood. The only problem is capsular contracture and I've seen that only once and she was someone else's patient."

The tired-looking woman in her thirties asks doubtfully if there are any other serious issues. "No," he says breezily, "all you have to think about is how you want to look. I'll take care of the rest."

A week before surgery and with the non-refundable down payment already made, a thirty-page consent form filled with technical jargon is handed to her to sign. There is no time to study it in great detail, no explanations given, no videotapes shown of the procedures. "That's just for the lawyers," says the surgeon as she hesitates. "Look, anything can be fatal," he adds. "There are more chances of your driving round the corner and being killed." She signs.

Missing from this conversation, a paraphrase of the experience of one of about 300,000 women who undergo breast augmentation every year in America, was any reference to the findings of the most recent and extensive studies of implants that show that not only silicone but saline implants, widely regarded as safe, are health hazards.

Early this February, after an advisory panel recommended that the ban be reinvestigated, the FDA upheld the ban on silicone implants saying that more research was necessary to prove their safety. The original ban went into effect in 1991 following a public storm over implants fuelled partly by a 1990 CNN Face To Face with Connie Chung that showed leaking silicone gel poisoning the immune system, causing crippling arthritis, skin lesions, and horrific disfigurements. The dangers of saline, which are less documented but equally worrisome, include bacterial contamination and hardening and deflation, leading to more surgery.

After the 1991 ban against silicone, 400,000 women pressed damages against manufacturer Dow Corning in a class action suit so extensive that Dow finally agreed to settle for over $4 billon. Aware that its long-term viability was in question, the company launched one of the most effective PR campaigns in history steered by DC-based Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest PR firm and the folks responsible for making over both the tobacco industry and Union Carbide.

How effective this campaign was can be deduced from the fact that within a few years the evidence against implants was being regarded as the epitome of "junk science." In an interview in February, 1996 with Frontline, Marcie Angell, editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and author of a 1996 book called "Science on Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant Case," claimed that a number of studies proved that there was no scientific link between implants and cancer or autoimmune disease. The implication was that hysterical women instigated by lawyers salivating for multi-million dollar fees were storming the Olympian citadels of medicine with junk claims.

However, the research Angell cited to support her contention was actually a better candidate for the term "junk" than what she attacked. It was also more insidious because it carried the imprimatur of prestigious institutions like Harvard and Mayo. What casual readers could not know was that the 1994 Harvard study, like the others she cited, was damningly flawed in several ways:

Keep reading... Show less

Cleaning House

Summers at home in India pass in a precarious time warp. I can fax, chat on the net or make a cell-phone call abroad but when I walk over to my nephew's house, only a mile and a half away in a rural campus, my journey has a Victorian arduousness to it. I have to pick my way gingerly through the dusty path cutting across the field, alert for dozing vipers, lantana thorns, cantankerous goats tethered to the bushes, and random puddings of animal and human excreta. At first, it is a mystery where these come from because the villages are a good bit away. But distance does not dim the force of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment, which until recent years has been the motto of Indian civic life.

And so houses are walled and gated here without apology. Our wall, solid grey and concrete, was supposed to have been a formidable seven and a half feet, but it sank to six after it was built. Still it's not enough. A neighbor's son shins up a tree on their side, leans over, and plucks the mangos on our side. Every so often, cricket balls, clods of earth, stones, and other less identifiable flying objects land on the lawn that my parents weed and cut every week with missionary zeal. Across from our house on an empty piece of land, someone's garbage shows up with mysterious regularity no matter how often we clear it. Waste water from the gutters spills over onto the streets every time it rains. Little ones and sometimes not so little ones wander off into the fields to relieve themselves with a certain innocent nonchalance. But the houses from which they saunter out, though they encroach on the streets far beyond the prescribed limits, are themselves immaculately clean, the earth in front swept, washed, and decorated with ritual white-powder kolams.

Cultural factors underlie problems exacerbated by over-population and poverty. The cities of an early Indian civilization in the Indus River valley had complex sewer systems and some of the oldest extant toilets that date back 4,500 years. But over time, Hindu religious teachings forbidding defecation near dwelling places as dirty and polluting to one's caste made the cleaning of "night-soil" (the Indian euphemism) the work of "untouchables."

Until Exnora came here, my parents, retired medical professors, were fighting a losing battle with community sanitation, unable to get neighbors to cover open ditches or to dispose of their garbage on their own property. Now, my father tells me, the Exnora man comes by on his cycle every week to collect the garbage sorted out before hand into recyclables and wet waste which they compost to provide cheap, high-quality manure which is used among other things to reforest the denuded pre-Cambrian hills that ring the campus. The municipality has talked of greening for years, but only Exnora, an NGO, had actually taken any steps.

An acronym for Excellent Novel and Radical, Exnora is the brainchild of M. B. Nirmal, a bank official turned civic activist who founded it in 1989 to clean up Chennai, capital of the southern state Tamil Nadu and the fourth largest metropolis in India, which was disintegrating under massive problems of pollution and sanitation.

Almost a third of India lives in a city and in the major cities about half of the population is concentrated in slums. Lack of sanitation accounts for 80 percent of Indian health problems -- from polio, of which half the world's reported cases occur in India, to diarrhea which kills half a million children annually, that is, as many children who have died from sanctions in Iraq in a decade.

In Chennai, a study by Exnora shows that one crucial reason for the unsanitary conditions in the city is that over 267 million liters per day of sewerage is discharged into the city's waterways because the sewage pumping-stations and treatment plants are not functioning properly. According to experts, sewerage-connected toilets remain out of the reach of the majority of Indians primarily because the sewerage system needs not only a sufficient quantity of running water, but also a regular supply of water for waste disposal, the cost of which at the rate of $150 a unit would be $500 billion. Right now, there are no sewerage and sanitation services for more than half the population living in cities. Toilets are not available to about a third of urban residents and proper waste collection services have yet to reach almost three quarters of the population.

This urgent need means that the problem of waste must be central to the issue of sanitation. Exnora's goal of "zero waste" is based on its philosophy of waste as a type of wealth to be managed rather than eliminated. Zero waste programs separate garbage when it is collected into recyclables, hazardous waste, and wet waste -- the largest component. Wet waste is taken to special sites (only 20 by 40 feet per 500 families) where it is compacted and turned in 40 days into dry manure by the introduction of earthworms. Vermiculture is odorless, biofriendly, and inexpensive and it is only one of Exnora's grass roots operations which also include citizen monitoring of polluted waterways, tree planting, and community education.

From a local initiative, the NGO, now a member of the environmental group GAIA, has grown into hundreds of "civic exnoras" affiliated with an "international exnora," and has been cited as one of several hundred best community practices in the world by the UN. It has been imitated in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, and its approach to pollution is in line with the most progressive in the West -- where for some years incinerators, especially medical incinerators, have been regarded as the source of pollutants like cancer generating dioxins and have been closed down, held to higher standards, or in Europe replaced by autoclaves and microwaves.

The global garbage business however has its own form of NIMBY both at home and abroad. In the UK, Communities Against Toxics was outraged when after six years of spreading highly contaminated ash from its incinerators around Newcastle, Byker Combined Heat and Power Plant was only penalized with a small fine.

In New South Wales, Vivendi, a French multinational notorious for its corporate practices, was implicated in creating a stench in Adelaide in the "big pong" of 1997. Defying the so-called rationality of the market, Vivendi-owned companies are responsible for providing filtered water from the very same dams and water tables next to which Viviendi subsidiary Collex dumps waste. Paid by the ton, Collex has little incentive to recycle and thus reduce its output. These instances indicate that although activists often treat the export of waste as a north-south issue, it is more accurately an issue of the powerful and powerless whether at home or abroad.

Still, developing nations do bear the brunt of global NIMBY. Batteries, PVC plastics, genetically modified foods, multilayer packaging, obsolete weapons, and even ships are sent overseas to poor countries to be broken down and recycled in horrendous conditions. Obsolete technology that has been discarded in the West tries surreptitiously to resuscitate itself in a climate that is environmentally less rigorous. In the 1970's trash was dumped in Africa with the help of local middlemen until an international outcry stopped the trade. More recently studies have shown that electronic wastes from phones and computers are being sent to India, Pakistan, and China where they are disposed of in highly dangerous conditions. At least 30,000 tons of scrap from the World Trade Center wreckage has been exported from the United States to Sabari Exim Pvt. Ltd. in India, raising concerns in Greenpeace, India, and other NGOs, but the Basel convention which has banned hazardous exports from the developed nations has so far not been signed by the US.

There is, however, one crucial difference between corporate and peasant NIMBY.

My parents can always retreat behind that gray wall and enjoy sanity and sanitation no matter what happens outside. But there is no private sphere into which a community can retreat once corporations enter the picture. Far from being conservative in culture, multinationals are inherently radical, disrupting, dislocating, and creating new inefficiencies of scale, while, turning semantics on its head, so-called "radical" organizations like Greenpeace and Gaia try to conserve local resources and local networks. This is no free market; the MNC's come armed with the big guns of national and international (IMF and World Bank) subsidies. The NGO's, truly private entrepreneurs who are actually filling consumer needs, operate on a shoe-string.

In Chennai, for instance, the Exnoras have become the latest victim of the MNCs. Again, it is Vivendi and a subsidiary Onyx who are repeating their Australian rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul act, dumping right next to the most important water-table in the city from which they are simultaneously drawing water. Again, paid by the ton, Onyx has no incentive to recycle so that Exnora's carefully built up system of separation-at-the-source as well as its crucial public education effort has been undermined. Onyx in fact has been guilty of disrupting local recycling in Egypt in 2001. When it signed its 7-year contract, Onyx was supposed to be bringing in the latest technology. And those who were happy to see the garbage off their streets but not especially concerned with where it went after that pronounced themselves satisfied. However it was soon quickly apparent to everyone that the whole operation, involving the transport of unsegregated waste in uncovered trucks, was medieval.

But the story gets even worse. Chennai generates 1400 tons of waste per day which, like 80 percent of Indian garbage, is organic, moist, of a low calorific value, and best handled by compacting not burning, as even Onyx has conceded, so high-cost waste-to-energy technologies that involve burning are not only inefficient and costly but extremely hazardous. Incinerators release chlorinated organic compounds and large quantities of carbon dioxide which is one of the major contributors to temperature rises that have plagued South India for the past few years. Acid gases from combustion and elements in the garbage interact with oxygen or hydrogen and lead to acid rain, to metal corrosion, and the erosion of buildings. High-temperature burning of chlorinated substances create potent furans and dioxins that even in low doses produce an enormous variety of adverse effects in humans and animals. An International Symposium on Dioxides in Seoul in 2001 showed the highest levels of dioxin-related substances in the breast milk of women living close to the Perengudi site where Onyx was dumping and studies of nearby families showed a higher incidence of early death, asthma, and skin rashes.

The displacement of the Exnoras by MNC's was one of innumerable cases presented at Hyderabad, India, at the Asian Social Forum in the early part of January. An offshoot of the World Social Forum which also met in January, the ASF puts a human face on the market shibboleths traded at the World Economic Forum, where the economic masters of the universe met.

Strange that it should be the so-called left which is demanding local solutions, decentralization, and downward devolution while the free-traders endorse corporations whose economically nonsensical diktats and sprawling, incoherent operations would have put the Politburo to shame. Vivendi and the other MNCs are not private businesses in any Smithian sense at all. Cartelized and subsidized, they are impervious to the market and feed off the public trough through bids that are not genuinely competitive and contracts skewered by kickbacks, overlaps, PR campaigns, and conflicts of interests. The costs of their operation -- transportation, public health, education, administration, policing -- and the dangerous bio hazards produced by it are all borne by the public, that is, socialized. But the profits are privatized and siphoned from the public domain. The Exnoras are no match for the combined weight of the state and such behemoth cartels. As for the public, which is it? The masses, the middle class, or the elites? The voices in the business press demanding more globalization, the activist green groups demanding less, antiquarians nostalgic for rural India, modernists fast forwarding to a technological nirvana?

The fate of the Exnoras should be a warning to market fundamentalists that those who miss the reality of what is taking place in the Global New World Order by fixating on the classical meaning of labels such as private, free, or market, are liable to become as obsolete as the cumbersome, dangerous technology of the global sewerage system.

L. Rajiva was born in India and holds a Master's degree in International Relations and Political Theory from Johns Hopkins University.

The Globalized Village

The road from Madras to my hometown Vellore in the southern part of India makes for a bumpy ride, regardless of one's choice of transportation -- be it a sturdy socialist-era Ambassador car or a newer lightweight import, a crowded dirty bus or an air-conditioned taxi. There are no lanes and the traffic moves erratically and at will, as the black tar fades indistinguishably into the neighboring sand and thorn bushes.

One side of the road has been dug up as part of the preliminary work for the Golden Quadrilateral. Hundred-year-old trees have been cut down to make way for this ambitious national highway that is expected to span the length and breadth of the country. My mother claims that this summer feels a lot hotter thanks to the ceaseless construction. But to what avail this additional three degrees of boiling heat in July when the monsoon fails? Nobody pays attention to the two lanes we have now; why should they care about getting four more?

Another sign of "progress" along the way is the Hyundai factory. It is one of the many gleaming new buildings -- including medical colleges catering to non-resident Indians (Indians who have emigrated outside their country) -- dotting the road in this part of the country. Globalization is alive and well in the villages of India.

The meals on the trains used to be served in moistened banana leaves that were plucked in front of you and thrown away after; today they are wrapped in tin foil or come in plastic or cardboard containers like the cheerfully colored juice packs. The Suzuki-owned Marutis have been joined by a wide array of foreign makes. I read of high-flying elite and their Porsches and Mercedes Benz -- although why anyone would risk taking them out on an Indian road is hard to imagine. I see the plastic knives and forks and cloth napkins in a small town restaurant, internet access in little shops and booths everywhere you go, a small but well stocked air-conditioned supermarket with shopping carts, bored store girls and wide empty aisles.

For a foreign-returned Indian, these symbols of "progress" soothe one's guilt for leaving behind the millions who live an attenuated existence in these paddy fields, huts and impoverished villages. It makes us feel that, finally, the world is getting better thanks to technology and capitalism. The campesino and the conglomerate are working hand in hand as the free market triumphs again.

But the gaudy veneer of liberalization is wafer-thin. Lurking beneath is a darker picture, easily visible to anyone who truly wants to see.

Let's take the Hyundai factory as an example. Ever since it opened for business, water has been in short supply for miles around. The locals don't have the water to drink, cook or bathe. In the scorching heat, this shortage is not an inconvenience but a death sentence. This past year, the death toll from an unexpectedly hot dry summer reached the thousands.

How does globalization feel when you have to walk a mile to the well with a squalling infant tugging at your sari and nothing to cover your head from the ferocious sun except a thin piece of old cotton? The Hyundai factory guzzles water, electricity and land. But it's good to have something more than the trundling old Ambassadors to drive around. People tell me it's a fine place to work. And won't it be splendid to see the Hyundais zip up and down the Golden Quadrilateral when it's completed.

Jobs, transportation and industry are what globalization brings with it for some, but who stands by to measure the immense fallout borne by everyone else? The collateral damage of multinational companies cannot compete with the devastation inflicted by war. Cancun can't compete with Iraq for the media's attention. But is death from dehydration any less painful than being killed by a bullet?

In the state of Karnataka, small farmers like the campesinos at Cancun have committed ritual suicide to express their outrage at the destruction of their lives by multinationals. They are the immediate and dramatic victims of globalization but the damage is far more widespread if less visible. Some indigenous medicines and herbs used for centuries are now in the danger of becoming the exclusive property of corporations eager to patent them.

A recent case involved turmeric, the yellow spice used to color rice and other foods in India. In 1995, two expatriate Indians at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Suman Das and HariHar Cohly, applied for a patent for the use of turmeric as a salve for wounds -- an age-old Indian remedy. The Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research promptly challenged the patent, even producing an article written in 1953 in the Journal of the Indian Medical Association that quoted ancient Sanskrit texts that referred to such use. The patent was eventually withdrawn. But nine other such patents on turmeric have since been filed. Patents have also been granted for specific uses of other indigenous products like basmati rice and neem leaves.

Intellectual property rights are at the core of the World Trade Organization debate between the developed and underdeveloped countries. American trade lawyers argue that since patent laws are not frequently used in poorer countries, their governments do not understand them. They claim that only new applications of traditional foods and herbs are being patented, not pre-existing practices. They argue that without patent protection, drug companies have little incentive to undertake long-term and expensive research.

Hidden behind the rhetoric is of the free market is a demand for the state to protect the corporation and grant it monopoly rights. And contrary to the rhetoric of the competitive market, it is the biggest companies -- such as the pharmaceutical mega-corporations with their wealthy executives and fat profit margins -- that that will profit most from this type of state protection. Meanwhile, millions of children are deprived of the simple vitamins that could save them from disease and death. If the market really worked as it should, freely, the campesinos would win much more frequently than they do now.

But to frame the debate as one between campesino and conglomerate, between the countryside and commerce is to have already lost the war. For capital-G Globalization -- like Modernity, Science, Progress, or any other capitalized abstraction -- casts itself as irresistible and irreversible. Only Luddites, medievalists, agrarian romantics and the Birkenstock brigade are foolish enough to stand in its way. These are the straw men created by corporate apologists in order to dismiss the anti-globalization movement as irrational or adolescent.

We need new ways of speaking. Modernity is not the enemy. It is the relentless nature of a certain type of economic production, which is propagandized and supported by the state. Without agricultural subsidies, the big farmers would be out of business, beaten out by the small farmers. The conglomerates would be routed by the campesinos.

The resistance to multinationals is not a resistance to globalization. It is a demand to retain the perspective of the village, the perspective of all that is human. What we need today are activists for globalization -- but a humane globalization, not an inhuman one.

L. Rajiva teaches at the University of Maryland and is working on a book on propaganda.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.