Napalm Girl and ACI 2013

I won’t be attending the 2013 ACI National Home Performance Conference next spring in Denver, Colorado, even though I was totally planning to. In fact, I’m boycotting it. Or, rather more precisely, boycotting its recently announced host sponsor, Dow Building Solutions.

Now why would I do such a thing?

Because I have a life long, moral grievance against all things Dow, which goes all the way back to the Vietnam war. You see, Dow Chemical was (nearly) the exclusive supplier of napalm to the U.S. military during that conflict. And napalm is just about the most inhumane weapon of mass destruction ever conceived by the human mind. Comprised essentially of jellied gasoline, it’s nearly impossible to remove from your skin, while burning at extremely high temperatures, and asphyxiating you with burning, noxious gases.

Napalm B Flame Thrower

Napalm B Flame Thrower (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A number of chemical manufacturers, including Dow, began supplying napalm under contract to the U.S. government in 1965. However, amid rising protests and human rights concerns, the others stopped. But Dow continued, stating “its first obligation was to the government”, to which I say, bullshit. Their first obligation was to their shareholders and executives, and they suddenly found themselves in a position to conveniently reap all the profits that their competitors conceded.

The use of napalm is totally beyond the pale in its inhumanity, even when targeted at enemy combatants. It doesn’t discriminate between guerrillas and innocent civilians, and far too often, Vietnamese civilians ended up its hapless victims. Those of you who are old enough to remember might recall the iconic film clip of the little Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (only three years younger than me), screaming and running naked down the road, with half her skin burned from her back, following a napalm attack on her village:

Photo of Kim Phuc running down the road, crying, screaming

The Dow Chemical Company's legacy: Kim Phuc badly burned and running from her village in 1972 (Source: Wikipedia Commons).

The clip is considered by many to be singly responsible for turning public opinion against the manner in which the war was being prosecuted. And that it was taken in 1972 meant that Kim Phuc’s intense pain and disfigurement was the direct result of the “application” of a Dow product.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking “That Poole guy is a cynical, jaded old coot, inordinately clinging to sentiments he picked up back in the sixties that he can’t let go of. Why should he still care about something that happened over forty years? We live in a different world now, so get over it.”

To which I respond with a resounding NO. There’s no statute of limitations on wide scale inhumane behavior, and large corporations, even though they’re far from being “people” (sorry, Mitt Romney), need to be held forever accountable when their products or business practices, by design, bring grievous suffering, pain, and disfigurement to innocents.

And those of us who remember long can never forsake our convictions. So, to this very day, I still boycott all things Dow. I won’t buy any product made by Dow, nor by any of its subsidiaries. And I certainly won’t use any Dow Building Solutions products on my house. Never.

Now, you can probably imagine how disappointed I was, just two days ago, when I saw a tweet and press release from Affordable Comfort, Inc., announcing that Dow Building Solutions would be a host sponsor of the 2013 ACI National Home Performance Conference, and furthermore, how proud they were for it. So I immediately cancelled my plans, and even politely withdrew a session proposal I’d submitted to the conference.

I suppose had Dow Building Solutions been, say, just another exhibitor, or some lower-level sponsor or advertiser, I perhaps could’ve afforded to ignore them. But as the big press, big name, host sponsor of the conference, no. Sorry. I just can’t abide by that.

Which is really too bad, because it looks like it’s otherwise shaping up to be a great home performance event…

Pete's Banjo

[ For a good summary, and additional information on the role Dow Chemical played in supplying napalm during the Vietnam war, check out this page from PBS' American Experience: Two Days in October. ]

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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8 Responses to Napalm Girl and ACI 2013

  1. I am sad you won’t be able to go to one of my favorite cities (where my boys were born) to a conference I know you’d love. But I’m with you – convictions over convenience. Sadly, I do not believe that Dow is any different. It’s all money for so many companies. When will they learn that socially conscious companies can be profitable too? When will they ever learn (yes, it’s a song reference)?

  2. Nate Adams says:

    John, I totally respect your decision. I honestly was not aware of this story, I’m frankly too young to remember it. It certainly gives me perspective and I thank you for bringing it up. I will miss seeing you there.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks very much, Nate.

      I’ll likewise miss seeing you there, as well. But I totally understand what you’re saying. Part of what motivates me to write about this is that I realize many of my peers are indeed quite a bit younger than me, and would most likely be unaware of this past history, but should at least have an opportunity to learn about it.

      On the other hand, I also have many friends who should remember these things, but might’ve forgotten about them (and in a very few, unfortunate cases, had forgotten out of convenience). So they need a little reminder.

      Of course, everyone needs to make their own decisions about these matters, but for me, the events of this era are wholly ingrained in my psyche, as I saw them unfold during my most formative years, when I was still young enough to be a little “information sponge”, but old enough to understand, and attempt to sort things out. My opinions on Dow Chemical are negative and unmovable, and have been for decades, and always will be.

      Thanks again,
      John

  3. Glad you wrote this, and glad I discovered your blog =)

    Kerry

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks Kerry.

      I’m glad you’ve discovered my blog, too, and also that I’ve discovered your wonderful blog.

      This posting is a good example of the wide range of articles you’ll find here. It’s also indicative of how polarized I tend to be in my opinions, but I hope it’s at least a positive, “do no harm” sort of polarization.

      Thanks again.

      - John

  4. michael anschel says:

    John, I see your point, but I am going to take the contrarian position on this, just cause I like you :)

    Remember Krupps? Mercedes? Volkswagen ? Those companies were involved in one of the greatest human tragedies of the last century. How far would our refusal to engage these companies go? Would you refuse to buy cargo shipped in a Mercedes truck? Ride a bus built by Mercedes? What about all the subsidiary companies? Is Audi off limits? What about cars with a 4matic drive?

    Honeywell designs guidance systems for the missiles that carry all manner of payload (chemical included). Do we refuse to use their programmable thermostats?

    If I really put my mind to it I’m willing to bet I could find enough links back to enough deplorable stuff that you’d never be able to eat a meal in a restaurant without flogging yourself afterward.

    But that isn’t the point. We can and should hold companies responsible for their decisions and we should also accept their apologies and move on. What DOW Chemical did 45 years ago was awful, but that doesn’t mean what DOW Chemical or DOW Building Solutions, or Volkswagen, or Krupps or Mercedes, or Panasonic, or Green Cross is doing today should be held in contempt.

    McDonalds make a horrible product but Ronald McDonald House is an incredible service and the company itself exemplifies caring for employee success and community service.

    Target is crack for a consumer nation, but their philanthropic arms is massive and the company is renowned for its treatment and promotion of women.

    Take it down to the chemical level.. Vinyl is awful stuff, but without it we wouldn’t have the flexible gaskets and connections we need to make high performance building work. Spray foam insulation has composition issues as well as a carbon penalty in some of the blowing agents. “Green Building is a like gentle mugging” says my friend Paul Eldrenkamp. We are trying to do a little less bad each day. Sometimes we make the wrong decision, sometimes we make the right one.

    As for sponsoring conference and the willingness to take the money.. The Vinyl Institute may be responsible for creating some vile materials but if they want to give you money to do good in the world, take it. A sponsorship doesn’t make you beholden to a company, nor is it an endorsement.

    PS. this is not meant to excuse PassivHaus and their mission to destroy our homes.

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your lengthy and thoughtful comment. Contrarian positions are always welcome here; especially because, if anything, they help me hone my thinking, and make me even stronger in my resolve to justify my position on these matters! :-)

      While I likewise see your point, I think your’re casting far too wide a net with your many cited examples. My objection is specifically aimed at the manufacturer of a very particular product which, by design (as I’d stated in my diatribe), is intended to cause severe pain, disfigurement, suffocation/seared lungs, etc., and more often than not, all that, followed by an agonizing death. Those things aren’t an unfortunate, occasional consequence of using napalm; those things are invariably the intended effects of using napalm.

      Referring to your example of Honeywell, yes, you’re right; Honeywell makes guidance systems that guide missiles to targets and the results are usually not very kind to anyone directly in their path. But missiles are still justifiably relevant to defense. Of course, if they’re used in support of what I’d consider an immoral or unnecessary campaign of aggression, then it’s the campaign itself that I object to, regardless of the weapon systems used.

      But I see a big world of moral difference between what I’d consider to be more conventional weapons of defense, and those that are intended to deliberately inflict a barbarous and unnecessary degree of human suffering.

      Regarding companies and their accountability: like people, I believe they should ultimately be held accountable forever, when they engage in practices that are way beyond the pale. I don’t care what good they might happen to be doing now. A reformed murderer on the lam, who’s otherwise living a decent life, is still required to be brought to justice, right? And there’s no statute of limitations on killing some one (at least, none that I’m aware of). My point is, if people are too easily willing to forgive and forget, then manufacturers today will not give all that much consideration to how their current actions might affect their future stature in society.

      And finally, regarding incidental use of certain products, or those of subsidiaries, I’m not all that fused about that, quite frankly. To this day, I won’t purchase a Dow product, but if I happened to find an old, rusty can of Scrubbing Bubbles in the bottom of a cleaning bucket and had nothing else, would I still put it to use? Probably.

      What I’m talking about is not unavoidable, accidental/incidental use of something. But rather, major personal investment. I won’t wrap my house in Dow foam panels, when plenty of suitable alternatives exist (or even if they didn’t). I won’t buy a Mercedes Benz, no, but if I had to hop on a Mercedes Benz bus somewhere, I wouldn’t be too worried about it.

      Now regarding PassivHaus… I’m not even touching that one! That’s your battle to wage. I’ll just be over here, if you need me…. :-)

      ~ John

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