Sunday, November 17, 2013

Visit Sunny Chernobyl

Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places 
by Andrew Blackwell   
Rodale Press; reissued 5/7/2013
Paperback, 320 pages

ISBN-13: 9781623360269

For most of us, traveling means visiting the most beautiful places on Earth—Paris, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon. It’s rare to book a plane ticket to visit the lifeless moonscape of Canada’s oil sand strip mines, or to set sail for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But in Visit Sunny Chernobyl, Andrew Blackwell embraces a different kind of travel, taking a jaunt through the most gruesomely polluted places on Earth.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl fuses immersive first-person reporting with satire and analysis, making the case that it’s time to start appreciating our planet as-is—not as we wish it to be. Equal parts travelogue, expose environmental memoir, and faux guidebook, Blackwell careens through a rogue’s gallery of environmental disaster areas in search of the worst the world has to offer—and approaches a deeper understanding of what’s really happening to our planet in the process.

My Thoughts:

Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell is one of the most unlikely travelogues I've ever read. Blackwell visits, as a tourist, seven of the most polluted places on the Earth. He notes, "Tell folks that you’re making a grand tour of polluted places, and they tend to get excited. A surprising number of people say they want to come along, and, although this turns out to be mostly talk, it’s gratifying to know the market is there. (Page 73)"

"The reason I find myself beating the same thematic horse on every continent isn’t that the polluted places of the world aren’t polluted. It’s that I love them. I love the ruined places for all the ways they aren’t ruined. Does somebody live there? Does somebody work there? Does somebody miss it when they leave? Those places are still just places.... I love the ruined places. And sure, I love the pure ones, too. But I hate the idea that there’s any difference. And I wish more people thought gross was beautiful. Because if it isn’t, then I’m not sure why we should care about a world with so much grossness in it." Page 226  


This account of his excursions is not written specifically as a guide to traveling to these polluted places, but rather it is Blackwell ruminating and sharing his thoughts as he gives you the highlights of his adventures.  While this sounds grim, Blackwell is actually quite entertaining rather than a grim harbinger of all of humanities mistakes. As he travels he also points out the dualism in our thoughts and actions.

"This artificial division between natural and unnatural pervades our understanding of the world. Industrialists may hope to dominate nature, and environmentalists to protect it—but both camps depend on the same dualism, on a conception of nature as something to which humanity has no fundamental link, and in which we have no inherent place. And it’s a harmful dualism, even if it takes the form of veneration. It keeps us from embracing a robust, engaged environmentalism that is based on something more than gauzy, prelapsarian yearnings. (Page 172)"

"We’re just so entranced by the concept of nature-as-purity that we won’t face facts. Our environment is not on the brink of something. It is over the brink—over several brinks—and has been for some time. It was more than twenty years ago that Bill McKibben pointed out the simple fact that there is no longer any nook or cranny of the globe untouched by human effects. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise, to stop pretending that we haven’t already entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age marked by massive species loss (already achieved) and climate change (in progress).... The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. Only then can we preserve it, and us. (Page 173)" 

Very Highly Recommended


Author's note

One. Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Day Trips Through a Radioactive Wonderland

"We have just infiltrated the world’s most radioactive ecosystem. This is the Exclusion Zone, site of the infamous Chernobyl disaster. A radiological quarantine covering more than a thousand square miles of Ukraine and Belarus, it is largely closed to human activity, even a quarter century after the meltdown. Entry to the zone is forbidden without prior permission, an official escort, and a sheaf of paperwork. A double fence of concrete posts and barbed wire encircles it, and guards man the entrances." prologue

The world thinks of Chernobyl as a place where humankind had overwhelmed and destroyed nature. The phrase “dead zone” still gets tossed around. But this was nowhere more obviously untrue than here, watching the sunset, my entire horizon a quiet rhapsody of water, sun, and trees. Paradoxically, perversely, the accident may actually have been good for this environment....
And everywhere I had gone, except for the reactor complex itself, I had seen nature running riot. Despite the radiation—indeed because of it—Chernobyl had effectively become the largest wildlife preserve in Ukraine, perhaps in all of Europe. "Page 35

Two. The Great Black North: Oil Sands Mining in Northern Alberta

Less well known is that Canada is a towering, earth-shaking, CO2-belching petroleum giant. Page 42

Most of Canada’s oil—half of what it produces today and 97 percent of what it expects to produce in the future—isn’t in the form of liquid petroleum, ready to be pumped out. It’s oil sand, a thick, grimy sludge buried underground. And it takes more than sticking a straw in the ground to drink this particular kind of milkshake. It takes the world’s largest shovels, digging vast canyons out of what was once Alberta’s primeval forest; and the world’s largest trucks, delivering huge quantities of the sticky, black sand into massive separators that need insane amounts of heat and water to boil the sand until the oil floats out of it, leaving behind—not incidentally, if you’re a duck—unfathomable quantities of poisonous wastewater, which are then stored in tailings ponds of unusual size. Page 43

As for Los Angeles, Don had his numbers wrong. Fort McMurray does not emit the same amount of carbon as LA. It emits twice as much. Page 61

Three. Refineryville: Port Arthur, Texas, and the Invention of Oil

Port Arthur itself, and Motiva—in the middle of an expansion when I visited—is on its way to becoming the largest refinery on the continent. Page 79

Four. The Eighth Continent: Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

"Let’s nip this in the bud: It’s not an island. I’d like to say that again. It’s not. An island. There is no solid mass, no floating carpet of trash, no landfill. But it is real. It was first discovered in 1997 by the yachtsman and environmentalist Charles Moore, who made it the focus of his nonprofit, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. It is thanks to Moore’s observations that the Pacific Garbage Patch entered the popular consciousness, sometime in the mid-2000s." Page 119

"In this, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a cautionary tale in environmental aesthetics. We seem to require imagery to go with our environmental problems. If we don’t have an image to be horrified by, we can’t approach the problem in our minds. But sometimes the imagery distorts our thinking, or becomes a substitute for approaching the problem in the first place. And when there simply is no adequate image, we substitute others, creating islands where none exist." Page 147

Five. Soymagedon: Deforestation in the Amazon

Everyone knows forests are good and deforestation is bad. Forests are habitat. Forests absorb carbon dioxide and forestall global warming. But not everyone knows that cutting them down and burning them not only releases carbon dioxide into the air but also creates local feedback loops that cause the forest to die back even further, meaning more habitat loss and more CO2 emissions. The Amazon, at ten times the size of Texas, give or take a couple of Texases, has so much forest that to cut it back is to set off what some have termed a carbon bomb, with global consequences. I had come to Brazil to see the burning fuse on that tremendous carbon bomb. Page 158

But then we found out about soy. That’s where the action was, we read (Adam read). Soy farmers were leveling great stretches of forest so they could sell animal feed to Europe. We ditched the ranching idea and chose Santarém as our destination. The city is the site of a controversial export terminal built by the multinational company Cargill to bring soybeans out of the Amazon. Near Santarém, we would be able to see it all: unblemished jungle, jungle being cut back, soy fields, and the terminal itself, a cruel agribusiness dagger thrust directly into the pulsing, green heart of the world. Page 159

Six. In Search of Sad Coal Man: E-Waste, coal, and other Treasures of China

Mr. Han had his own business. He and his wife had both grown up on farms in the Chinese province of Sichuan, to the northwest. They had met while working in an electronics recycling workshop here in Guiyu, near the southeast coast, and after marrying, they had opened a workshop of their own. They specialized in motherboards—the central circuit boards of personal computers. Mr. Han bought them in large bales three feet on a side, imported from overseas, likely North America.... Guiyu’s entire economy is based on tearing apart old electronics and reselling the components and raw materials. Walk the streets and you will see building after building with a workshop at ground level and family quarters on the upper floors. It’s a dirty business. Computers are full of all kinds of things that are bad for you—things other than the Internet—and when you tear them apart, or melt them down, or saw them into pieces, a portion of those toxic substances is released. Page 206

Incredible amounts of manufactured goods are sent from China to the West in shipping containers, and since the conveyor belt must run both ways, sending freight back is cheap. The result is that we don’t really buy our electronics from China after all. We just rent them and then send them back to be torn apart. Page 207

In its pursuit of unfettered economic results, China has allowed widespread lead poisoning. This is especially dangerous to children, whose nervous system and mental health can be permanently damaged. “In more developed nations,” the New York Times said in June 2011, “a pattern of lead poisoning like China’s would most likely be deemed a public-health emergency.” Page 217

Seven. The Gods of Sewage: Downstream on India's Most Polluted River

This time I skipped Kanpur. Skipped Ganga. It might be India’s holiest river, but the Yamuna is its most polluted, and I had priorities. I wanted to know why, with all the Hindu rumpus about rivers, a river goddess can’t actually catch a break. For although the Yamuna might be a goddess, by the time she leaves Delhi, she is no longer a river. Page 249

We were floating not on a river, but on a great urban outflow, a stream of human sewage that was standing in for the river that had dug the channel. The Yamuna was full of sh*t. Page 251

Incredible India, land of contrasts, awash in brutality. Page 257


Additional quotes:

If journalism can teach us anything, it’s that local people are a powerful tool to save us from our own fecklessness and incompetence. We call them fixers. Page 7

The apocalypse we can create is for ourselves and for our cousins, but not for life on Earth. Page 35

Tell folks that you’re making a grand tour of polluted places, and they tend to get excited. A surprising number of people say they want to come along, and, although this turns out to be mostly talk, it’s gratifying to know the market is there. Page 73

Like most sensible people, I don’t really have a fear of heights—only a fear of falling to my death. Which is not a fear at all, but a sensible attitude. Page 122

We were in the Amazon rainforest. The former Amazon rainforest, to be exact. The broad field where we stood was empty, freshly scorched to the ground. The air swirled with cinders. Page 157

The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness—unless they are tourists. Page 172

The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. Only then can we preserve it, and us. Page 173

The legend of the jungle is so powerful, and so laden with the importance of biodiversity and the lungs-of-the-planet thing, that we forget that an Amazonian rainforest has an awful lot in common with a regular North American forest. To wit: it is a forest. Page 196

Then there’s James Cameron’s Avatar, the ultimate expression of jungle-as-magical-place, driven by a story so painfully condescending to its forest-dwellers that he could get away with it only in science fiction. Page 196

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