Mention Chernobyl and you will get a reaction from people. For those interested in Eco-Tourism, however, there is an intrigue about places not visited by man in a long time. The New York Times recently (as in this week) had an article about Ecotourism in Chernobyl.
As they note, for
many people, ecotourism evokes a picnic in Muir Woods in California, perhaps, or counting endangered sea turtles on a Costa Rican beach or spending the night in a tree house with gibbons in Laos. Andrew Blackwell, a Brooklyn-based author and journalist, sees it differently. His idea of an interesting trip is less about beauty than environmental devastation.
Taking the idea to an extreme, he set out to chronicle some of the world’s most spoiled places for his book, just released, “Visit Sunny Chernobyl.”
The journey began several years ago when Mr. Blackwell visited Kanpur, India’s most polluted city. He spent three days slogging through illegal industrial dumps, toxic tanneries, overflowing sewage treatment plants and feces-laden beaches. The experience stuck with him, with his thoughts incessantly returning to that horribly contaminated but “inscrutably, mystifyingly beautiful” place. An idea began to blossom, and before long he was booking travel to some unusual destinations.
“On a more philosophic level, I’d gotten frustrated with how tightly our environmental values are tied into our sense of what’s pretty and beautiful and supposedly pure and wild,” he said in an interview. “I also became aware that, although I care about environmental issues, I had very little direct experience of them.”
Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, ranked as an obvious first choice.
With a radiation detector in hand, Mr. Blackwell convinced Ukrainian locals to take him on a behind-the-scenes tour of the exclusion zone surrounding the reactors. He slunk through the decaying ruins of kindergartens and amusement parks in Pripyat, once a city of 50,000 but now a weedy, crumbling ghost town. He drove through tracts of deserted wilderness and breathed in the “sweet, sunny air” of the radioactive red forest.
Although the exclusion zone epitomized humankind’s heedless impact on the environment, he could not help thinking that, in a paradoxical way, it might have been good for nature: the disaster created what might be viewed as a giant radioactive national park that would be spared from major human intrusions for decades.
His improbable itinerary kept growing. He surveyed Alberta’s oil sands strip mines, where a boomtown of about 61,000 people produces double the carbon dioxide emissions of Los Angeles and supplies over a million barrels of oil per day headed for the United States. He spent weeks on a 150-foot-long brigantine combing the Pacific for the Great Garbage Patch, an area about twice the size of France where marine currents accumulate the world’s discarded and degraded plastic rubbish. He drank caipirinhas with boisterous Brazilian locals in clear-cut swaths of the Amazon rainforest.
He came out of the experience with a few nuggets of insight. “I really was struck by how much gray area there is in terms of what we know about the problems associated with these places,” he said. “What are the effects of having so much plastic floating around in the ocean, for example, and what can we definitively say about the health effects of Chernobyl’s radioactive environment on the people and animals that remain there? I’m not a scientist, but it didn’t take me long to get to the limits of what science could confidently say about these places.”
“I’d gotten frustrated with how tightly our environmental values are tied into our sense of what’s pretty and beautiful and supposedly pure and wild.”
For anyone looking to delve into forsaken places, Mr. Blackwell points out that overseas travel is not a must. In New York City, for example, there’s the infamousGowanus Canal, where he often canoes. “There are still things floating in there that I don’t know what they are and I don’t want to know what they are, but at the same time if you hold your nose a little bit, it actually is a lovely place to go canoeing,” he said. “Every city has its underappreciated Superfund sites.”
Mr. Blackwell wants to convey a simple message: Just because a place is polluted does not mean it is not interesting or fun to visit, or not worth caring about. People still live in these places, he reminds us, and nature persists.
To value only the few pristine, unadulterated tracts of wilderness remaining on the planet is to ignore the reality that we have created for ourselves, he argues. Although he does support conservation, Mr. Blackwell said he hoped that environmentalism could find a way to embrace “the fact of all of these places, and the fact of human presence on the world.”
“I was trying to find a way to engage with the world that was not just based on purity and beauty,” he said. “It’s a love letter to polluted places.”