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Taking on the system

Ward Morehouse took on Union Carbide after a chemical spill killed 15,000 people in India in 1984. What he learned helped chart a new course for the movement that wants to make corporations accountable to the people.
By Kimberly French
May/June 2003 5.1.03

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Wearing a garland of flowers, Ward Morehouse rose to address the thousands gathered in a sunny park in Bhopal, India, on the tenth anniversary of the worst industrial accident in history. In December 1984 a huge chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide factory there had killed more than 15,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands. To this day, the company has never been prosecuted for its negligence and the suffering it caused.

The tall, white-skinned Morehouse, the only non-Indian invited to speak at the 1994 commemoration, pledged in Hindi and in English never to let the world forget "the Hiroshima of the chemical industry." Many of his fellow marchers carried stone slabs inscribed with the names of loved ones. Along the demonstration route, art by children orphaned in the disaster showed people screaming, bodies lying on the street, Uncle Sam holding out a bag of money. On reaching the shut-down factory, the crowd turned to Morehouse, an American, to ignite a ten-foot papier-mâché effigy of the U.S. company's chairman, Warren Anderson, in a symbolic sanctification of those profaned grounds.

For many Bhopalis, Morehouse is a folk hero—the person who has carried the torch of their struggle out of India and into an international network of activism. For activists around the world, he is a high-energy éminence grise for the social justice cause and a deep thinker about the roots of the world's ills. And for the past decade Morehouse, a third-generation Unitarian Universalist who lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been breaking ground for a new citizens' movement pushing for a tectonic shift in the political-economic landscape—a movement to wrest away the staggering power that global corporations have over individuals' lives and replace it with true democracy.

After four decades battling the abuse of power in the world, Morehouse realized that the methods of social justice activists—the tactics he had used his entire career—were not working and never would. In his view, those who seek to change the world must now focus on one radical goal: to legally redefine the role of corporations in our society and drastically limit the wealth and power they are allowed to amass. In the past decade he has become one of the pioneering theorists and principal activists in this new movement.

But that is not the way Morehouse would tell his story. Never one to seek the spotlight, the seventy-four-year-old activist scarcely talks about his own accomplishments. Instead, he prefers to praise the colleagues and organizations with whom he works. Or, with erudition and practicality, he turns the conversation to the democratic principles to which he has committed his life.

"He is the most unpretentious important person that I know," observes Richard Grossman, Morehouse's long-time colleague in activism. "He either keeps his ego in check, or he doesn't have one. He's not out for power or glory. He truly cares about people, and that is his great strength."

Friends tell of someone who can always be relied on to pick them up at an out-of-the-way but cheaper airport, or take days off to use his electrician skills to help them wire a new office, or fetch juice and fend off reporters and hecklers for a colleague engaged in a hunger strike, or work day-in, day-out seeking justice and compensation for victims of corporate crime half a world away.

In a career spanning more than fifty years, Morehouse has worked with activists around the world addressing a broad spectrum of issues: safe energy, land use, consumer advocacy, labor, women's rights, environment, human rights, peace. His warmth and generosity of spirit have spanned extreme differences of opinion in the heated climate in which passionate activists live and breathe.

"He is always the peacemaker," observes David Dembo, who has worked for twenty years under Morehouse as program coordinator at the Council for International and Public Affairs (CIPA). "He listens to everyone's point of view, synthesizes, and shows people they're not as far apart as they think."

Chuck Collins, cofounder of United for a Fair Economy, who has also worked with Morehouse in UUs for a Just Economic Community, concurs: "He doesn't see any value in trying to seem like 'I have the answer.' He checks out where people are at, and he's not going to beat them up about it."

Eschewing pretension in any form, Morehouse nearly always sports a uniform of khakis and a plaid workman's shirt over a white T-shirt, breast pockets stuffed with agenda and address books. For public appearances, he may throw on a rumpled jacket and tie. When things get more informal, friends note, his socks are sure to have holes. Yet sooner or later, he reveals the breadth of his intellect and skills: as a person who has both set up small worker-owned businesses and organized an alternative global summit to the Group of Seven world economic plan; a master carpenter who has built every house he's called home as an adult and can write national energy and technology policy; a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and friend who might as easily talk about global corporations as where to find the best berries or a secret hideout of fifty seals near his Maine cabin.

"A lot of times activists get themselves into a position where they can be so easily discounted," says colleague Virginia Rasmussen of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). "Ward has a way where he can't—his style, his approach, his language, his demeanor. He projects a level of wisdom about his issues, and he speaks the language of respectability."


Despite a checkered record as a student (the young Morehouse was kicked out of Deerfield Academy for "problems with authority" and rarely attended lectures at Yale), he began his journey in academia after graduating in 1950. It was a familiar path: Both his father and grandfather were political economics professors. "At the time it seemed to me a neat place for me to carry on my subversive activity and teach about the revolutionary world," Morehouse says. He taught, did research, and in 1963 founded the Center for International and Comparative Studies for the New York State Education Department, publishing textbooks to help U.S. students better understand foreigners. "I had the incredibly naïve assumption that educational institutions could be in the vanguard. In fact, they have the reverse function."

Disillusionment would soon change his life's direction, and not for the last time. In a flap that drew national mainstream press attention in 1974, his Yale classmate William F. Buckley Jr. called for Morehouse's resignation in The National Review. For thirty years, U.S. scholars had had no contact with China. Morehouse had seized the opportunity of President Richard M. Nixon's renewal of diplomatic relations to invite Jack Chen, a Communist scholar who had lived through and studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to New York State as a visiting lecturer. Morehouse fended off the attack, but yanked the curtain on his academic career himself. "It became increasingly apparent to me that I would be spending most of my time putting out fires and maintaining the little infrastructure I had built up," Morehouse recalls. "And I didn't intend to do that the rest of my life."

In 1976 Morehouse took over the post he still holds, president of the Council on International and Public Affairs in New York, a nonprofit human-rights organization he had helped to found in 1954. He was there when he heard about Bhopal, the event that was to shape the rest of his career. Morehouse remembers feeling absolute horror at the news.

The chaos on the night of the disaster was beyond the domain of nightmare. Chemical leaks occur frequently and usually don't even make the news, but nothing before or since has approached the scale of the runaway reaction that emptied a forty-ton storage tank in Bhopal just after midnight on December 3, 1984. Wind rapidly blew a fifteen-square-mile plume of deadly, grayish-yellow gas—mostly methyl isocyanate, used to make the common pesticide Sevin—southwest across the city. Many Bhopalis awoke, gasping, to discover family members, many of them children, already dead. People ran blindly through the night streets or jumped atop outbound train cars, the dead falling everywhere.

Had Carbide implemented even a basic safety plan when it located the big factory in a dense, poor, urban neighborhood, residents might have known that a wet cloth over the face might have saved them or that running east was the best evacuation route. In the days to come, hospitals and clinics were mobbed, but it took Union Carbide two weeks to reveal what the gas was or its antidote, claiming trade secrets. Carbide chairman Anderson was arrested in India shortly after the tragedy, posted bail, and left the country. He ignored Indian subpoenas, and Union Carbide refused to reveal his whereabouts. To this day, "Hang Anderson" graffiti are freshly scrawled throughout Bhopal.

Morehouse was singularly well qualified to transform his personal outrage into action. During the 1960s and '70s he had served several fellowships researching science and technology policy in India, a country he loved as a second homeland and where he had met "some of the most extraordinary human beings I've encountered anywhere in the world."

For the past two decades, Morehouse has relentlessly hounded Union Carbide to take responsibility for the disaster, in shareholder meetings, in the courts, in international human-rights tribunals, in the newspapers, and in the streets. He has kept close contact with victims' advocates in Bhopal and organized coalitions of U.S. medical, scientific, environmental, church, and labor groups to keep the pressure on Carbide.

Working from CIPA's low-rent East Manhattan office, a space so small that one person had to stand up so the other could move, Morehouse daunted fellow activists with his pace, energy, and frugality. He rose at 3 a.m. daily to dictate his writing, keeping two typists in the United States and one in India fully employed. To relieve CIPA of the burden of paying him a salary, he started his day job, rehabbing and retrofitting houses for energy efficiency in Croton, New York, where he lived for decades and raised two sons with his wife, Cynthia. On occasion, Morehouse even called meetings on the construction site. Evenings, he returned to the administration of CIPA.

Morehouse has always been one to put two sticks together to get things started. Much of CIPA's $500,000 budget comes from a popular series of secondary-school textbooks: Through Indian Eyes, Through Chinese Eyes, etc., anthologies of writers from other countries. The books are shipped out of the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church in Croton, which the Morehouses helped found. "I learned long ago," he says, "about running a small nonprofit: keep your fixed overhead expenses—office, payroll—as low as possible. Our most precious asset was our autonomy, so we had to self-finance."


In the Morehouse way of combining brutal honesty with humility, he says all his efforts to bring Union Carbide to justice have failed.

The company has never been brought to trial. It has never been forced to answer why it did nothing to avert the disaster despite knowing the plant's safety flaws and why it didn't cooperate with Bhopali government and medical officials to avoid needless death and suffering. The toxic spill has never been cleaned up or contained, and it continues to poison water supplies.

In February 1989, the Indian government accepted Carbide's offer of a one-time settlement of $470 million—a few hundred dollars per claim. The settlement was so favorable to the corporation, so much less than its true liability, that its stock rose $2 a share on the day of the announcement.

"We weren't having any real impact on the behavior of the perpetrator of the disaster," a profoundly frustrated and again disillusioned Morehouse concluded. The only real accomplishment, he says, has been that Carbide could not achieve its overriding objective: to bury the memory of the tragedy.

It was time to rethink. In the early '90s Morehouse looked back over his career and at the many activists he had worked alongside since the '60s and '70s. Like him, they had devoted their lives to their causes. Like him, they had used creative, sophisticated, and unrelenting tactics: pressing for legal redress, boycotting, bringing wrongs to public attention, publishing, demonstrating. Like him, they had made little lasting impact.

By focusing on one toxic chemical, one wetland, one forest, one shopping center, one corporation at a time, Morehouse determined, every one of them had missed the root of their struggles: the enormous power of corporations to do as they liked with no effective accountability, and corporate dominance over human rights.

"My father has always been a generation ahead of everybody else," says his son John Morehouse, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Frederick, Maryland, who regularly invites his father to take the pulpit. "In the '50s and '60s he was talking about increasing diversity, long before diversity was a catchword. He was challenging globalization back in the '70s and '80s. And long before Enron, he was working toward an understanding that it's wrong that corporations have rights that are greater than individual human rights."

In 1995 Morehouse and Richard Grossman cofounded a think tank called the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD), a project of CIPA. They invited a dozen fellow activists to join them. Their primary tool has been weekend retreats they call rethinks, short for Rethinking Corporations, Rethinking Democracy. The workshops bring together twenty to twenty-five activists who live near each other or work on similar issues. Over the past decade, POCLAD has conducted several hundred of the retreats all over the country and is now training others to lead them.

Morehouse and Grossman never set out to become experts on corporate history and law. But they have concluded that, to effect any lasting change, that is where activists must focus their energy.

Morehouse calls movements that simply ask corporations to behave better, such as socially responsible investing, social auditing, business ethics, or wise use, accommodations to corporate power. "It's not . . . 'good corporate citizenship' that sovereign people must seek. Those phrases are contradictions in terms and diversions from the public's central task to become unified enough to exert citizen authority over the creation, structure, and functioning of all business enterprises," Morehouse and Grossman write in the POCLAD anthology Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy.

What they envision is much more radical. Morehouse has helped draft a model corporate code that calls for states to:

  • set expiration dates on corporate charters;
  • revoke charters if corporations do not fulfill their stated purpose;
  • prohibit corporations from owning other corporations;
  • strip corporations of the rights of natural persons such as due process, equal protection, personhood, free speech, and privacy;
  • dissolve corporations that threaten human health or environment; and
  • require corporations to prove their products and processes are safe.

He calls for citizen-led truth commissions to collect human rights violations by global corporations and for real campaign-finance reform that includes free time on the publicly owned communications airwaves.

"In the early days after independence," Morehouse says, "corporations were chartered by state legislatures for specific public purposes. If a corporation did not fulfill its public purpose, it was put out of business, and the state took back the charter." One of his strategies has been to educate state legislators about that history. In 1995 CIPA took out a full-page New York Times ad calling on New York State to use its constitutional power to revoke Carbide's corporate charter for causing "mass harm."

When Morehouse and Grossman started POCLAD in the early '90s, their suggestion that people organize to get their states to dissolve the most abusive corporations evoked nervous laughter and advice to "get real," they report.

POCLAD's influence can already be seen in numerous activist organizations. Jim Price, Sierra Club's southeast regional director and a Unitarian Universalist in Birmingham, Alabama, has launched initiatives on water privatization and corporate accountability since attending the workshops and joining POCLAD. "Ward has helped some of us younger people come to the realization that we must devote some of our civic energy toward redefining corporations so they serve We the People," Price says. "Ward's example of Union Carbide and Bhopal is the worst of the other way around. It's criminal. But it's not unique. People are dying all over the place. More and more people are beginning to make these connections that the arrogant abuse and overreach of money is causing such pain and death. Ward is a sentinel."

The movement must begin with "democratic conversation," talk around a kitchen table or in a church basement, as Morehouse quotes one of his own inspirations, William Greider, journalist and author of Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy.

"This insurgency will not begin with abstract ideas or charismatic political leaders," Morehouse says in a sermon he has delivered in Unitarian Universalist churches. "Its origins will lie among ordinary people who have the will to engage themselves with their surrounding reality and to act on the conflict between what they are told and what they experience, thus disrupting existing structures of power and opening up paths for renewal."

The changes he calls for will take decades, if not generations, he says. The NAACP, he points out, worked for almost twenty-five years before achieving its first milestone in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. A comparable first step for the fledgling movement to reclaim democracy from corporations, he says, would be stripping corporations of the rights of natural persons.

"It's not clear we can sustain the struggle over that period of time, but this is the scale we have to think of," Morehouse says. "The constitutional standing of corporations are generational matters. I don't think any of us will be the ones to see all our goals achieved."


How does Ward Morehouse keep going in the face of overwhelming discouragement and uncertainty? He chuckles. "I get asked that question often, from some members of my own family: How long is this chap going to be tilting at windmills?"

He answers with this story: Day after day a reformer stands in the temple denouncing the practices of the moneychangers. An observer asks, "Why do you carry on day after day? It's so obvious the moneychangers are paying no attention."

The reformer replies, "I do it so they will not corrupt me."

"It speaks to my condition," Morehouse explains. "I don't want to be corrupted in a society that has a nominal commitment to basic democratic values, but in reality only tolerates them and will deny those values to outsiders. It's a painful line to deliver: We do not live in a democracy. We live in a plutocracy. I wish it were not so. I'd have to be blindfolded to pretend otherwise.

"My guiding light is my desire to end corporate rule in America, a windmill if there ever was one," he smiles ruefully. "But the failure to make the effort to bring about real democracy would be even worse."


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