Tour the world’s most polluted places

From the March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:

Tour the world’s most polluted places

Few people relish pollution tourism and fewer still can so appropriately express their disgust and delight as Andrew Blackwell in Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places. (Rodale Books, 2012)

Blackwell visited the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and five sites of storied filth on four continents. What he learned was respect for the humanity that suffers and, yes, benefits from human-generated catastrophe: the lead-exposed eight-year-old master of motherboard-component extraction; the gunk-muckers of India’s putrid, but sacred, rivers; the all-ages hacky sack devotees in a nearly airless Chinese town; the obsessed woman of ocean garbage gyres; the activist demanding an end to environmental racism in a Texas town; the thriving industry that responds to the routine disasters that accompany the extraction, transportation and refining of fossil fuels.

Blackwell conveys an important lesson: nature includes humanity. Unless we include ourselves, our environmentalism has an unrealistic aura. Visionaries who long for pristine, unspoiled havens of pure wilderness are longing for the non-existent.

Native Americans, present for thousands of years, were excluded from Yellowstone when it became a political designation. Their “practices of hunting and planned burning were anathema to a view of nature as sacrosanct from human involvement,” says Blackwell, “…they would have gotten in the way of all the nature white people wanted to appreciate. The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that humans have no place in protected wilderness—unless they are tourists.”

The ironic title, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, refers to an “exclusion zone,” a political designation that forbids any humans who might wish to become residents. Thus is created a “protected wilderness” where “humans have no place…unless they are tourists” (or guides). The non-human part of the biosphere, however, defies the Chernobyl zone of alienation. Blackwell describes a lush and beautiful natural “park” where plants, animals, bacteria and aquatic life seem to thrive, but humans are forbidden.

A PROBLEM OF MILLENNIAL PROPORTIONS

The story of Chernobyl has barely begun. In April 1986 the spewing explosions went on for days. We are only years into a problem of millennial proportions. A 28-year-old “shelter object” (slangily called “sarcophagus”) that was supposed to last 100 years has begun to crumble. According to Julia, a guide at the Chernobyl (believe it or not) Visitors’ Center, the present shelter object is to be sheltered by a technological complex. Blackwell pictures “a shelter for the shelter for the Shelter Object, and then a shelter for that…shell by shell—a nest of giant, radioactive Russian dolls.”

Ukraine cannot afford the second iteration: a state-of-the-art, robotic, massive structure that is being built. Chernobyl has become (has always been) a responsibility of the whole world, as is Fukushima/Daiichi.

PAST & PRESENT ‘HEROES’ OF CHERNOBYL

Blackwell notes the heroic sculpture of the firemen from Pripyat and the surrounding towns. As the plant exploded, two or three men went into the reactor to close off a valve. These men never came out. “If not for those firemen, we’d have an 800-kilometer zone instead of 30.” But consider the 500,000 “liquidators” between 20 and 30 years of age, 59 of whom died outright; 20,000 are now dead, 200,000 are disabled. Yet only 59 are named by the state as having died as a result of the Chernobyl radiation. Today 3,000 young liquidators are being irradiated guarding the sarcophagus.

Blackwell advances two important theories about the people of Chernobyl. First, “after an epidemic of thyroid cancer among the children …no measurable increase…in cancer rates.” Blackwell concludes: “Little is known…about the disaster’s effects, whether on people or animals. [Chernobyl’s children] may be the children of regular misfortune….[The] most traumatic effects may have been social and psychiatric.” By 1996, 1,086 children had been treated for thyroid cancer and the problem persists along with other slower-developing cancers.

In spite of the dark topic of pollution and human-caused assaults upon people’s psyches and physiques and upon nature, this book concludes with hopefulness and gratefulness. Blackwell thanks supporters for giving him a place at their tables and showing him what friendship looks like.

—Jan Boudart

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