By: Barbara Theroux
for Mountain West News
July 19, 2012
"My mission was to find the world’s most polluted places, as if I knew what that meant. If only I find those ecosystems of despair would I be able to implement my conceit of contrarian ecotourism and compose my great elegy for the pre-human world. But instead of finding degraded ecosystems that I could treat as though they were beautiful, I was just finding beauty. The Earth had gotten there first. I went looking for a radioactive wasteland and found a radioactive garden. I went looking for the Pacific Garbage Patch and found the Pacific Ocean."
Vacation season is upon us. Many of us have planned trips, made cabin reservations, or booked flights to exotic places. Some of us plan a staycation--a time to paint the house, build a deck or just sit by the lake and read. Andrew Blackwell embraced a different kind of travel, taking a jaunt through seven of the most gruesomely polluted places on Earth.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl is equal parts travelogue, expose, environmental memoir, and faux guidebook, Blackwell careens through a variety 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. Using satire and analysis, he makes the case that it’s time to start appreciating our planet as it is—not as we wish it would be.
The seven chapters, seven place—seven deadly sins--include:
- Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Day Trips Through a Radioactive Wonderland
- The Great Black North: Oil Sands Mining in Northern Alberta
- Refineryville: Port Arthur, Texas, and the Invention of Oil
- The Eighth Continent: Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
- Soymageddon: Deforestation in the Amazon
- In Search of Sad Coal Man: E-Waste, Coal, and Other Treasures of China
- The Gods of Sewage: Downstream on India’s Most Polluted River
Each place was chosen because of man's decision to change the environment. The pollution was human caused. The places were and are homes to many people. Blackwell looks at the complex environmental issues and the history and cultures that surround them--he is NOT your typical tourist--but some of the places now have guides, tour buses, visitor centers, and gift shops. At the Northern Alberta Oil Sands he discovers Fort McMurray Tourism, Suncor bus tour, and the Oil Sands Discovery Centre with a gift shop of gift shops: "Who knew petroleum could be so adorable?"
The reader can learn much from the author's approach, as in these selections from the first chapter. "To understand the Chernobyl accident, it helps to know something about how electricity gets generated and, specifically, about nuclear power—though not so much that your eyes glaze over."
The nuclear physics of generators is "explained" in a page and half, something science teachers could use to excite students about environmental issues. Here are the basics, these are the problems—now what will you read or do. Blackwell then tells what happened at the Chernobyl power plant:
"Now, you could also argue, that when you're running a thousand-megawatt nuclear reactor, you should never, ever disable any of the safeguards, then then…well, there’s no but. You’d be right.
Those systems were disabled by an overzealous bunch of engineers who were eager to run some tests on the power plant and thought that they could do so without a safety net. On the evening of April 25, 1986, they began an experiment to see if the reactor’s own electrical needs could be supplied by a freewheeling turbine in the event of a power outage. This is a little bit like stalling your car on the highway and trying to use its coasting momentum to run the AC. But in this case, it involved a three-stories-tall pile of nuclear fuel."
And his comparison of radiation sickness to a hangover:
"Early the next morning, in the zone’s only hotel, I awoke to the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning.
Inflammation and tenderness of exposed skin. Nausea and dehydration. Exhaustion and disorientation. Headache. Did I mention the nausea? I was still in my clothes, sprawled on top of a ruffled pink bedspread. The ceiling listed sideways in a sickening spiral.
I lay motionless, hoping for death, and stared upside down through the window above my head. Beyond the gauzy curtains, a massive Ukrainian dawn burst downward into the sky. It made me want to burst too.
It wasn’t radiation sickness. What I had was a bad hangover and a bit of a sunburn. But I didn’t see much difference."
Chapter Two about the Oil Sands is followed by a chapter on Port Arthur---with brief discussion on the Keystone XL pipeline. There are mere paragraphs to point out how the oil from Canada would arrive at the refineries in Texas. Just enough background information to explain both sides of the issue. The chapters reflect again on the places, one where the oil is extracted, the other where it is refined.
From Chapter two on Oil sands:
"Environmentalists call it dirty oil, as if the stuff that comes out of the ground in Kuwait were somehow clean. But oil sands oil isn't dirty just because it requires strip-mining on a terrifying scale, or because it generates entire lakes of waste. It's also energy-intensive: you have to spend a lot of energy to separate and process the oil, much more than if you were simply pumping petroleum out of a well. So if you’re passionate about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change—passionate about avoiding them, that is—oil from oil sands should give you the creeps. When you burn it, you’re also burning all the energy that was used to produce it. The technical term is double whammy."
From chapter three on Port Arthur:
“There are no grocery stores, no hardware stores—in fact I saw no surrounding stores of any genre in downtown Port Arthur. There are no operating banks. Building after building sits vacant. Most are boarded up, burned out, or otherwise deserted. The industry that inhabits this city manages somehow not to sustain it.
As was traditional across America, the middle and upper classes of Port Arthur fled their city's downtown in the 1970's and '80s. Unlike in many other cities, though, the presence of the refineries has kept anyone with money from moving back. The result is a community that's among the poorest and most polluted in the nation—yet surrounded by multibillion-dollar companies. It's the perfect place to refine oil, incinerate toxic waste, and expand a petrochemical plant; a place where they're used to it. A place already so dominated by industry that nobody who matters will care."
Blackwell does not offer solutions or answers, but the book does offer a critical view of how visions of blighted spots create an either/or vision of how to care for the environment and live in the world. When we travel do we see the poverty? Do we see the people? Or do we hide in our safety zones?
The author did know that he would find beauty in these most polluted places. A few years prior to writing the book he had spent six months in India, seeing all the exotic sights, villages, monasteries..."You know. The usual crap." Then he went to India's Most Polluted City--Kanpur. That trip became the highlight of his entire time in India. He saw the faces and culture of the place, not just the pollution.
"Don't worry. I'm not debunking anything. We are still ruining the world, and Linfen is still polluted as hell. The reason I find myself beating the same thematic horse on every continent isn't that the polluted places of the world arent 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. But when we read horror stories about them at home in our cozy green armchairs, we turn them into something else, into stages on which our worst fears can play out.
We also hold up these poster children—Linfen, Port Arthur, Chernobyl—to tell ourselves that the problems are over there. And we'd like to keep it that way. We’d like to keep a tidy bubble for ourselves, and draw a line around some trees, and declare no farther. That here, at least, inside this boundary, nature survives. As long as there is Yellowstone, we'll have a little something for what ails us. What a joke. So much of our environmental consciousness is just aesthetics, a simple idea of what counts as beautiful. But that love of beauty has a cost. It becomes a force for disengagement. Linfen is too foul to care about. Port Arthur is too gross.
So 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."
I was drawn to the book by its title but was reminded of my travels to Romania, Kenya and China--times where I did not always see the "usual crap" and came to love the people. Visit Sunny Chernobyl is light reading with a powerful message. I cannot wait to put this book into the hands of my science teacher son for use in his environmental studies classes.
Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.