Published in 2012 by Rodale Books.
“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.”
If Andrew Blackwell’s book were a boy you used to date, he’d be the cardigan-clad loner who’d nick your dad’s best weed and keep you up all night with hot, intellectual discourse. He’s not necessarily the one you want for homecoming, but God, how you’d like to travel the world in his post-anarchic company.
And travel the world you will, in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. Oh, the places you’ll go!
♦ Northern Alberta, to check out some oil sands mining;
♦ Port Arthur, Texas, where the oil craze had its inception;
♦ Sailing towards, and around, the North Pacific Ocean’s trash vortex;
♦ The Amazon, where they do bad things to trees;
♦ Guiyu and Linfen in Southern China, where computers go to die;
♦ Trailing the course of the Yamuna, India’s largest tributary of the Ganges —
♦ and, of course, Chernobyl.
Why? Before Blackwell’s official pollution-tourism peregrinations kicked off, he took a three-day tour of Kanpur, in India. While poking through its toxins, he felt that ineffable je ne sais quoiness, a sense of inverted beauty pyramids, and of how commodification is altering the earth. This sparked, if you will, a wildfire of curiosity. Blackwell wanted to take a different sort of trip — think, less Sandals resorts, more salmonella. Amp up the scum, peer into the fetid abyss, see what we’ve done and how much fun we’ve had doing it: the concept alone is a brilliant inversion of leisure ethics, but I suppose my biggest qualm, pre-reading, was how well this smashing concept could bear out.
It bears out, chiefly because Blackwell is good company on the page. Just self-deprecating enough, perceptive, and disposed to listen to the stories of others, his eco-disaster yarns spin the reader into the journey, instead of leaving her on the sidelines. You’re there, in the thick of it, breathing in the filth, wading through the plastic, listening for telltale radioactive beeps that keep time with your heart. You are implicit in the wreckage (and, ironically, you are, which you know already.)
For the most part, the writer shies away from political spillage and proselytization. What’s gratifying is a distinct lack of punch-pulling about po-correctness: witness Blackwell’s take on Yellowstone’s dismantling of the human element, for example.
“Native Americans were excluded from Yellowstone at its creation. Though people had been present in the area that was to become the park for thousands of years, native American practices of hunting and planned burning were anathema to a view of nature as sacrosant from human involvement. […] The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness — unless they are tourists.”
Blackwell shines at this good-guy acerbic commentary: the shots he takes against various Big Bads make for hilarious, “Oh man I just snorted in public while reading this” moments. That said, there is a slick sense of… overcompensation, at times, in the distribution of chuckles and the peppering of narrative with cutesy, charming pop culture references. The non-fiction is made easy for us, turning the genre bewilderingly trendy and urbane, a regular jaunt through diseased playscapes and rotting carousels, but (and yes, this sounds poisonously bitchy) sometimes it seems too easy. I wouldn’t have minded suffering a little more.
What the book isn’t is a definitive guide. Readers will be disappointed if they come away from its chapters expecting a top-tier education in radiation, or the history of deforestation in South America. Where Blackwell excels is dismantling the academia around these and other bodies of knowledge. His walkthroughs of pollution tourism basics reflect his desire not to offend unschooled minds: sympathetically, the reader has her hand held and guided through the gritty specifics of how oil can plummet out of the earth, of how keyboards can be stripped to their basic, valuable components.
A clear gleam of beauty is often twined into the twisted maw of darkness: this is true about as much in fiction as it is reality. This uneasy yet fascinating duality is a concept Blackwell mines thoroughly on his travels. “There is a kind of destruction that has beauty in its weapon,” he comments, listening to an Amazonian landowner’s awed description of masses of forestland, burning unchecked into the night. The author links this awe to the manner in which refinery flares were described to him, during his time in Port Arthur, Texas.
Gratifyingly, Blackwell moves a step beyond simple enumeration of these beautiful, catastrophic developments; he pushes the reader’s gaze towards the imaginary scale where beauty is demarcated, asking her to consider its ourobourosian structure. “The beauty or ugliness of a place didn’t have that much to do with what it looked like,” Blackwell says, when given a curious eyewitness account of a Canadian tar sands mining site. He expands on this thought:
“Beauty depends on what we think is right. How else could we have come to think that unnatural objects like cities or farms or open roads were beautiful? That’s what I wanted to see. The rind of beauty that must exist in every uncared-for corner of the world.”
Visit Sunny Chernobyl probably won’t make you see recycling in a new light. I doubt it’ll strike up some nascent passion for greenhouse architecture, or Greenpeace enlisting. Maybe that’s because this doughty traveller’s guide isn’t sponsored by preventative psychology. It’s not saying, “We should save the Earth before we ruin it.” Oh no. It’s intoning, “Hey, we’ve already ruined the Earth. Vast tracts of her, in fact. But it turns out the Earth gets the last laugh, always. She’s indomitable; we’re plastic-addled specks.” Prospecting for information and rippling semaphores of grace, with our hazmat suits on: this might be something we do more and more enthusiastically as we mark out our days.