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Page added on May 26, 2012

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A Guided Tour of Catastrophe

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The pop environmentalist polemic follows a rigid formula. From its best-selling beginnings, with angry screeds like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) and Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968), the genre has mobilized generations of activists by inducing nightmares of planetary destruction. The Earth’s future is “in the balance,” we are but a few generations from environmental collapse, and nature, as writer Bill McKibben declared, has effectively ended. For reasons only psychoanalysts properly understand, Malthusianism sells. Lay readers face the unenviable task of disentangling political activism from the complicated scientific record that most haven’t the interest, time or academic training to assess.

So Andrew Blackwell, a journalist and self-described “sensitive, eco-friendly liberal,” deserves praise for producing an environmentalist book that avoids the usual hyperventilation, upending stubborn myths with prosaic facts. In “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places,” Mr. Blackwell avoids the trendy tropes of “ecotourism” in favor of the infinitely more interesting world of eco-disaster tourism.

The author has traveled to seven of the world’s most blighted and benighted places. Besides the titular ghost town of Chernobyl, site of the infamous 1986 nuclear accident, Mr. Blackwell journeys to Amazon rain forests and floats down sacred and sewage-infested Indian rivers. He searches for a massive floating island of plastic refuse in the Pacific, assists a cigarette-smoking 8-year-old Chinese boy in disassembling junked computers, and explores both the American and Canadian ends of what was to be the Keystone XL Pipeline, which the Obama administration has stymied under intense pressure from activist groups.

This isn’t an overly heterodox book; Mr. Blackwell doesn’t underplay the ecological problems facing his most forsaken vacation spots, nor does he question the existence or dangers of man-made global warming. But his tone is balanced and skeptical. Unlike heavy-breathing accounts of environmental issues written by authors whose main goal is to spur readers to action, Mr. Blackwell’s book provides a nuanced understanding of environmental degradation and its affects on those living in contaminated areas.

His Geiger counter convulses on a visit to the abandoned areas around Chernobyl, but Mr. Blackwell reacts soberly. While the initial disaster provoked a justifiable public panic, it also inspired scare-mongering from groups like Greenpeace, which claimed that the fallout would cause 270,000 cancer cases. He points to a study commissioned by the United Nations concluding that, after an initial spike in thyroid cancer, “no measurable increase has yet been demonstrated in the region’s cancer rates.” The author is also sure to irritate certain readers with the claim that “paradoxically, perversely, the accident may have actually been good” for the local environment, since the evacuation created an accidentally verdant nature reserve.

At the controversial Alberta tar sand pits, Mr. Blackwell offers a diligently evenhanded perspective, skeptical of both those who suggest that Canadian crude will greatly mitigate America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East and activists who declare the project an unmitigated environmental catastrophe. In Port Arthur, Texas, where the Keystone XL Pipeline would have deposited Albertan oil for refining, he listens sympathetically as locals regale him with stories of cancer they believe is caused by refinery incinerators, while conceding that “it is excruciatingly difficult to make definitive statements” about the long-term health effects of the city’s oil industry on local inhabitants.

Mr. Blackwell also avoids the sentimentality that so often colors environmental writing. When investigating the soy industry’s actions in the Brazilian rain forest, he ruminates on a nagging thought—that it is not just those mustache-twisting multinational corporations that rely on rain forests for profit but local farmers and landowners as well. Indeed, “Visit Sunny Chernobyl” highlights the significant improvements in forest preservation made by both the Brazilian government and logging companies: “How was I supposed to make a pithy observation about the end of the world if everything was going so well?”

Then again, according to Mr. Blackwell, all isn’t going that well in the heavily polluted city of Linfen, China, where the world’s retired computers are stripped for parts. Enveloped in an enormous cloud of smog, Linfen frequently tops the tables as China’s most polluted city. Again, he shares a few extenuating observations but quickly insists that he hasn’t gone to the dark side: “Don’t worry. I’m not debunking anything. We’re still ruining the world and Linfen is still polluted as hell.”

There are moments when the reader will wish that Mr. Blackwell was a touch more forthright about his views. On a trip to the North Pacific Gyre—a swath of ocean known as “Garbage Island” for the enormous amounts of refuse bobbing in the water—he observes periodic knots of trash but not the floating garbage dump the “size of Texas” described by campaigners. What he witnesses is “vast and problematic,” but how big a problem is it, really? Should governments dedicate resources to cleaning up the garbage that is there? Mr. Blackwell returns to dry land with a string of questions that will likely be similar to those of his readers. But we want answers from him.

Still, Mr. Blackwell is a smart and often funny writer, who has produced a complex portrait in a genre that typically avoids complexity in favor of outrage. Without the usual predictions of imminent environmental collapse, though, will anyone listen?


3 Comments on "A Guided Tour of Catastrophe"

  1. BillT on Sat, 26th May 2012 10:18 am 

    Another Wall Street pimp pushing his book and a lot of misinformation. Cancer take years to develop. When we finnaly recognize the causes, it is always too lat for millions. Same for radiation and chemicals. They are slow killers that are hard to pin down as the cause, but the deaths occur anyway and the GDP goes up. Death and illness is very profitable…keep that in mind.

  2. Kenz300 on Sat, 26th May 2012 1:50 pm 

    In some parts of the world we have a food crisis, a water crisis, a fish stocks crisis, a climate change crisis, a financial crisis, a nuclear crisis, a jobs crisis and an over population crisis. Every problem continues to grow and becomes harder to solve with the never ending world population growth.

  3. VP on Sat, 26th May 2012 9:13 pm 

    Besides describing Mr. Blackwell as a journalist, sensitive (LOL?), and an eco-friendly journalist, the article does not state his background, training, or the knowledge base from which he works. If this is your cup of tea, enjoy. Time will tell. (Bill McKibben as a Maltusian? Oh, the NY Review of Books, in which he publishes, must be a freakish rag, as opposed to the WSJ, now owned by Murdoch, that paragon of wisdom and selflessness.)

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