Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Andrew Blackwell: Visit Sunny Chernobyl

First-time author Andrew Blackwell walks a tightrope in his travel book Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In The World’s Most Polluted Places. He clearly doesn’t want to indulge in shrill, easy outrage over the way Earth has been despoiled, but he doesn’t want to be glib about it, either. At times, he gives in to the temptation to get cute, as when he wakes up the morning after touring Chernobyl and compares the symptoms of a hangover with those of radiation sickness. But for the most part, his humor is exactly as dry and wry as the subject demands. He arranges a day trip to the Exclusion Zone in the company of a 26-year-old guide named Dennis, who proves “witheringly impervious to what I had hoped would be my contagious enthusiasm.” The two of them pass through the abandoned town of Pripyat and the Red Forest, accompanied by an incessantly beeping radiation detector, with Dennis dispensing such helpful tips as, “Don’t step on the moss.” (It concentrates the radiation.) When they get close enough to see the remains of the reactor—“Floating over an expanse of low forest, it had a strange and massive presence. It could have been a crashed spaceship.”—Dennis blandly announces, “Perhaps you would like to take a picture.” Blackwell took his trip before the area was officially opened to tourism. “Like most destinations after the word gets out,” he writes, “the place is probably ruined by now.”

Blackwell, whose other ports of call include the Amazon rainforest, India’s Yamuna River, and the “dirty oil” territory of Northern Alberta, stakes out the position of someone who cares about the environment and doesn’t know how to solve the problem of what industrialization is doing to it, but who thinks there might be some value in taking a good, honest look at it. That involves shucking off preconceptions about nature and civilization. Blackwell lets his impatience show with a Greenpeace activist who rejects his suggestion that there could be anything “perversely beautiful” about a mine site, because, he writes, “That’s what I wanted to see. The rind of beauty that must exist in every uncared-for corner of the world.”  It almost sounds like a cyberpunk manifesto. But his eye for unorthodox standards of beauty is defeated by a place like Port Arthur, Texas, which is “utterly dominated by refineries,” and where “Building after building sits vacant,” because “The industry that inhabits the city manages somehow not to sustain it.”


Blackwell seems to view too many environmental activists as ineffective by definition, hobbled by sentiment because they’re “just so entranced by the concept of nature-as-purity that we won’t face facts.” He has limited tolerance for someone like Father Sena, a self-promoting defender of the rainforest who manages to win a seat at the table during negotiations over a moratorium to control deforestation, grandly overreaches, then walks away, boasting of his refusal to bend. But there’s also a streak of affection, touched with sadness, for such harmless dreamers as the crew of the Kansai, who—in the book’s funniest, sweetest chapter—set out in search of a legendary “island” of garage floating in the Pacific, with no clear plan for what to do if they find it, and practically no one on board who knows how to operate a boat. They aren’t bothering anybody, they just aren’t accomplishing anything, and somebody needs to. “Our environment,” Blackwell writes, “is not on the brink of something. It is over the brink—over several brinks—and has been for some time.”

Share This Story