On Facebook, RT asks:
I’d be interested to know where the data [in Visit Sunny Chernobyl] came from regarding the suggestion that CO2 emissions in Fort McMurray are double that of L.A. (pg. 61). Also, by “Fort McMurray”, can I assume that you really meant the overall oil sands development?
I’m more than happy to answer this kind of question (or any kind, really). Fact-check-y ones like this are especially great, because they allow me to live out a longstanding fantasy in which I field dozens upon dozens of challenges to the many factual assertions contained in the book… and emerge utterly victorious.
Before the book came out, I even intended to offer some kind of contest, in which I would challenge readers to find inaccuracies and mistakes—with a bounty of $10 per error. Crowdsourced fact checking! Just think of the social media engagement potential. But like many things that I think are truly brilliant ideas, I was the only one who thought it was brilliant, and so eventually I let it drop.
Still, good readers, if you do find any errors… Well, let’s just say I could still drum up a few prizes.
The passage in question reads:
…Don was no climate change skeptic. A huge amount of fuel was being burned to mine oil sands, and to extract and upgrade the bitumen—which meant a huge amount of carbon emissions. And those carbon emissions worried him.
“I once saw a map of CO2 emissions in North America,” he said. “There was a big fuzz up around Fort McMurray. The CO2 from Fort McMurray is probably the same as from all of Los Angeles.”
This leads me into a page-long digression (which, by the way, includes some pretty first-rate environmental philosophizing) and then the section wraps up:
As for Los Angeles, Don had his numbers wrong. Fort McMurray does not emit the same amount of carbon as LA. It emits twice as much.
So, RT, to your questions. To take the last one first, yes, you’re absolutely right: I’m using “Fort McMurray” here as shorthand for the entire oil sands industry, which is of course localized in the Fort McMurray area, but is by no means the same thing as the city of Fort McMurray itself. If I had to do it again, I might say “the oil sands industry” instead of “Fort McMurray” in that second-to-last sentence. Not that I think you deserve a prize for that one.
And now for the “twice as much” part.
I didn’t want to pass along Don’s contention if it was bogus, so first I went looking for a good number for Los Angeles’s CO2 emissions. (Actually, this research was most likely done by my colleague Adam. He helped me a lot with my fact checking.) What we came up with was a number of 18.5 million tons of carbon per year. This came from a 2008 Science Daily article about Purdue University’s Vulcan Project (“a NASA/DOE funded effort under the North American Carbon Program (NACP) to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions”).
To quantify the carbon emissions of the oil sands industry, we ended up at a 2011 post at the Oil Blog, which is written by analysts at a company called Evaluate Energy (“a UK based Energy information specialist”). The text of the post focuses on per-barrel emissions, but in the second graph you can see that total CO2 emissions for 2009 (including both “in situ” and traditional mine-and-upgrade methods) hit about 44 million metric tons, which converts to 48 million short tons. (“Short tons” is the precise term for what we just call “tons” in the US).
Science Daily and Vulcan looked rock solid to me, and Evaluate Energy’s work also seemed reliable, as it was a professional analysis. If anything, I would expect them to understate emissions (if, say, they are particularly cozy with industry).
So, now we have 44M tons for the oil sands, and 18.5M for Los Angeles, which actually amounts to two and a half times as much for our friends in Alberta. But the comparison isn’t ideal. For one thing, the data are for a few years ago. Also, they aren’t for the same year (2009 for the oil sands, 2008 for LA). Surely these numbers have fluctuated since then, especially considering the recession and what have you. Perhaps Los Angeles’s emissions have grown steadily, and the oil sands’ have declined. (Note that the main topic of the Oil Blog post is that per-barrel emissions had fallen. So even if production had remained level in 2009-2011, it seems entirely possible that total oil sands-related emissions might have fallen.)
With this in mind, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable calling it 2.5x, and so I rounded down—waaay down—to 2x. It seemed like ideal from a getting-your-numbers-straight POV: I get to make an outrageous claim, while at the same time being conservative in how I back that claim up.
“Twice as much” is shocking, but from what I can tell, it may even be an understatement.
Get over it: there’s not such thing as Nature. We might as well abolish the word, for all the ways it muddles our understanding of how we fit into the world.
In slightly exaggerated form, that’s the idea that kept me busy for the past few years. And though I believed it, and believed—at an abstract level—that it must be an important idea—I still had a sneaking suspicion that I was, you know, full of it. I knew that traditional ideas of nature and environmental purity were played out, and that something else was going to have to take the place of treehugging as the emotional engine of environmentalism… but I knew this at what, generously, you might call an intuitive level.
Emma Marris, in her recent book Rambunctious Garden addresses these ideas in a far more immediate and necessary way: through a scientific prism. With engaging on-the-ground reporting, she shows how, far from being a mere philosophical issue, the rumored end of nature is already playing out in the field, as conservationists and environmentalists wrestle with a paradigm shift that may change what our environmental goals are, and how we try to reach them. If, by the end of this book, you aren’t convinced that the future of conservation positively requires that we abandon simplistic ideas of nature and environment, well, you haven’t been paying attention. And by the way, Rambunctious Garden and Visit Sunny Chernobyl are available as a handsome two-pack.
Marris spoke to me by phone this past spring, from her home in Missouri. (Edited for length and clarity).
Andrew Blackwell: There is a movement going on, this particular wave of thinking about nature and the environment. Was there a moment when you realized that?
Emma Marris: Well, I was working for Nature. I was on staff there and I was doing lots of stories about conservation biology and ecology, mostly because I just wanted to get out of the office. I began to notice that the stories I was drawn to had this shared theme of this sort of loss of Eden. That the ground was shifting underneath the feet of these ecologists and conservation biologists. So I became interested in this idea that paleoecology and overall ecosystem dynamism was sort of ruining their fun, when it came to this idea of being able to put things back [to a pre-human state]. I started striking up conversations with them about this topic at conferences and stuff, and usually at the bar, after the day was over. And their guard was down a little bit. And just started having lots of really interesting conversations about it. So yeah, I don’t know that there was one big epiphany—
AB: Well, it sounds like it was at the bar.
EM: Yeah, kind of! I mean, I can’t point to one moment at one bar, but it was sort of like lots of moments at lots of bars talking to ecologists. I was intrigued by the fact that a lot of times they would only say this stuff at the bar. Because there was a sense that it was somehow letting down the team to admit some of this stuff. To admit that your baseline [the estimation of the “original” state of the ecosystem] might have been crap, or that…
AB: Or that baselines don’t exist.
EM: Yeah, exactly. So it was a little bit of an underground topic for a while. I think its much more openly discussed now, just a few years later.
AB: So you’ve seen that change, just in the last three or four years?
EM: Yeah, though it’s hard to tell. Because on the one hand, I could be watching a field that’s opening up and starting to talk about it. I could also just be hanging out with the members of the field that are more into it, and self-selecting. That’s a problem when you get really into a subject like this. You start only interviewing people that are also into it, and then the next thing you know, you’ve convinced yourself a paradigm shift has occurred.
I think it’s got to be at least partially true. And then there’s been some debates about this. There was a big paper in Nature, a bunch of ecologists signed last year, saying that invasive species had been overly demonized. And then there was this response by like 250 ecologists, saying, “No, no! Don’t let them off the hook!” So I do think that we’re not just hanging out with people who find this interesting. I do think this is a real conversation that’s really excitingly going on.
AB: Sometimes, as you said, it’s so hard for people to discuss this, because it feels like it’s giving away the farm, or giving away the core argument of the whole [environmentalist] enterprise. Do you think there will actually be something different, a different kernel at the heart of American environmentalism in twenty years?
EM: I do, sort of. The thing that makes it difficult is that you’re not replacing one beautiful, crystalline idea with another beautiful crystalline idea. I often think that its analogous to energy discussions. Fossil fuels were like the be-all and end-all, and everything was fossil fuels. And then to say that we’re going to replace that with a piecemeal approach. Some will be wind and some will be solar. It’s just not as appealing. You want there to be one answer.
And I think the same is the case with conservation. We’re going to be replacing this really spectacularly clear idea—about the past as the destination—with this much more complicated idea of goal-setting and various possible different goals that society could agree on. And I think that there won’t be one goal that will do for every situation. It will have to be, you know, “This park has this set of goals, and this reserve over here has a set of goals, and my backyard has this set of goals.” It’s just not as intellectually appealing. And what it really implies is a lot of meetings.
EM: Like stakeholder meetings. Which just don’t sound fun. An entire generation of people sitting around talking about what do we want for the strip of wilderness at the edge of our town, what do we want for our city parks. It just sounds like a lot of bureaucratic work. So that’s something I really struggle with, as somebody who doesn’t really like meetings.
AB: Were there people you met that really caused you to question whether or not this is true? Was there someone out there who made you think maybe you should double back on what you were thinking?
EM: If anything, for a while the reverse was true. That I kept wanting to interview old silverback ecologist-types for the book, to play the role of the voice for the majority position. And they just kept disappointing me, because their ideas were all evolving. They all were embracing a much more nuanced vision. With the exception of Daniel Simberloff, who thank god he’s around. There were very few people who were really old school. You know, it’s been a very gradual process for many of them.
There are definitely some people who I love and respect who don’t really like this way of thinking that much. Like David Forman, who used to co-run Earth First. And I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, and this just doesn’t sit well with him. But on the other hand, he said, “Oh, we were never purists about the wilderness concept.” They used to throw beer cans out of the truck. [In the book] I talk about how I see him as someone who really promulgated this view of this really strict division [between humanity and nature]. And he sees himself as much more pragmatic.
AB: I was surprised by that. I thought, “Really? So, all the time you had the fist up, you were thinking, ‘This is a pose.’”
EM: That’s the thing. People are complicated. I’m sure he had his pragmatic days, but when you read what he writes, he’s clearly very passionate about the wilderness. And he’s not the only one. And I certainly have a lot of respect for this entire generation of people who did a huge amount of work stopping places from getting developed, under the banner of wilderness and pristine nature. And if it weren’t for those guys, there would be a lot less open space for us even to be having these philosophical conversations about.
Then of course more recently, there’s a couple of guys at UC Davis, Tim Caro and some other guys, who put out this paper in the journal Conservation Biology suggesting that all this talk of the anthropocene was a bad idea, basically. And more or less making the argument that we shouldn’t say these things out loud, because it was giving ammunition to the evil forces of development. Which is something I hear a lot.
AB: I was curious about that. How do people respond, especially readers?
EM: The number one question I get is a very personal reaction. And it’s usually by a guy who has briar scratches all over his calves, and he’s wearing Chacos. And he’ll say, “Ok, fine, invasive species maybe they aren’t all so bad. But what about species blah, which I have spent the last twenty-five years trying to eradicate from my place?” And it really shows just how deeply personal and emotional these kind of battles against invasive species can be, and these battles for a particular place and a particular state. You know, this isn’t just all about science. A lot of it is about emotion.
The second most common question is, “Maybe this stuff is more or less true, but if you say it out loud aren’t you just giving all this ammunition to the forces of evil.”
EM: But my response to that is, “Yes.” I am giving ammunition to the forces of evil. But A) they’ve been doing just fine without it. It’s not as if they’ve been struggling to convince people to develop undeveloped land. And B) if we suppress what we know to be true, for the sake of desired policy outcomes, that can only bite us in the ass. I mean, the general public can be very skeptical about what scientists tell them about the environment.
Take a look at the climate change discussion. All you need is like one climate scientist to kind of make a sneery comment about people, and everybody feels like they’ve been tricked and duped. And then if you actually try to trick the public, that seems like a really bad, bad approach. I mean, we just have to own up to the fact that this is much more complicated than we thought it was, and that we can’t go home again.
AB: I was struck by how, even inside the scientific community, where most of your book is taking place, just how much it’s rife with myth and taboo. It started to seem crazy. When [Shahid] Naeem, from Columbia, is talking about invasive species—
EM: Yeah. He’s a wonderful guy, by the way. I feel like I kind of sold him out a little bit.
AB: He has that quote, which is amazing, which is something like, If I had my way, I would uproot every amazing[ctk] species on the planet and put everything back where it belongs. And it’s just… holy shit, dude.
EM: [laughs] But its sort of unfair to single him out, because so many ecologists feel this way.
AB: That’s the sense I got. In some ways it’s a portrait of a huge group of people who are wrestling with some really important things, but only willing to talk about them at the bar.
EM: Yeah, definitely. And you know, some of these guys are very thoughtful about all this stuff, and when you ask them about it, you can tell they’ve thought a lot about it. But some of them are real scientist guys, who do the field work, and they do the papers and stuff, and they’re a little less reflective about this. Or you kind of have to push them to get philosophical about it. There’s sort of a caricature of the scientist who doesn’t think about all this values stuff as having anything to do with what they do. And when you try to press them to identify where the values show up in their work, they feel sort of insulted at the idea that there’s any connection between their work and emotions and values. So I did a lot of gentle pressing, and buying of beers.
AB: That’s what you need the book advance for. To buy beers for conservationists.
EM: Yeah, that’s right.
AB: People must inevitably ask you, “Oh, what does this mean for the average environmentally conscious person living in Topeka or Brooklyn?” What do you tell them?
EM: Well, the first thing is I try to get them psyched about the possibilities of whatever kind of space they have direct control over. Their backyard, or the roundabout on their street. Or their window box, if they’re in Brooklyn. It’s about rethinking: what kind of conservation value can I eke out of this tiny space? And there’s a lot you can do with fiddling with your garden and making it much more biodiverse. And if you want to get into it, you could be planting rare plants, you could be planting the plants that certain migrating birds and insects need.
The other thing, too, is getting involved in more community-wide discussions about what do we do with different spaces. If they’re saying, “What do we do with this park downtown?” then throw some nature into the park rather than just a big basketball court. So I guess it’s just participating in as many discussions as possible about what these goals should be for pieces of nature. But I think it’s also that, in a way, your average environmentalist is a person who lives in a world of sadness. And grief. And guilt.
EM: At least I am. I feel a lot of environmentalists, they do their work in a way of self sacrifice and working hard and spending a little more money for more eco products and green consumerism and stuff, and then maybe they reward themselves by taking a trip to go rafting in Yellowstone or something. And they feel like they have more of a claim on that beauty, because they worked. But we should be rewarding ourselves constantly, daily, with all of the little nature that’s around us. What I would like is if environmentalists became happier people. [laughs] Because we need to be happier.
It helps to have a toddler, because they’re so slow. You walk down the street with a toddler, and you move really slow, you look at all the beetles, you stop and you talk about what the different trees are, and you can actually have this rewarding natural experience in your own neighborhood, even if your neighborhood is Brooklyn. Cause there’s street trees there, there’s birds. So I guess that’s part of it, too, is that we shouldn’t just be shopping and self-sacrificing. We should also be enjoying nature. Wherever we find it.
AB: That relates to something I was thinking about. The whole purity myth, or whatever you want to call it, can really end up being a force for disengagement.
EM: Absolutely. That’s what I really worry about almost more than anything. This notion that if you want to get youth interested in nature, you have to drive them to a national park. Or put them in front of a TV screen that’s showing pictures of a beautiful pristine nature. I wanted to do more in the book about nature documentaries. Because I have a bone to pick with them. I mean, there are some fantastic books out there, about the tedious work of editing out every single trace of humanity from these documentaries, and about the tricks of the trade, to get these amazing shots without having any wires or fenceposts in the shot. And I think they have a lot to answer for. In a way, that they’ve created this idea that there is a place somewhere without fences and roads, and antennae and car tracks and stuff.
And did you see this poll that came out from the Nature Conservancy? They did this poll of American teenagers about how much time they spend outdoors, and about their barriers to spending more time in nature. And 61% of their respondents said that they didn’t spend more time in nature because, “There was no nature nearby.”
EM: So, the vast majority of teenagers think that they don’t live anywhere near nature, and that just has to be false. I mean, unless they’re in solitary confinement.
EM: They do live near nature. So that’s really frustrating to me. And I remember this in my own youth, too. When I was a little kid, I was a total nature geek. I was like, little John Muir-ette.
AB: You had a beard?
EM: Exactly, I had a fierce beard. And I wrote really sappy nature poetry, and I was really into this whole notion of spiritual transcendence through nature, and spent a lot of time in the back yard staring at the moon in the middle of the night. And then when I was a teenager, it all went away, because I became educated that my backyard and my local parks and second growth forest that was near Seattle weren’t good enough. And I didn’t really have the money, or the gear, or the friends who were interested, to go to the Olympic Peninsula every weekend. So with the exception of a few camping trips, I spent the better part of one or two decades just living in the city and assuming that there was no nature there, and having no relationship with nature. And it wasn’t really until I started doing the research for this book that I got hooked back into it.
AB: That’s how I thought about my whole project. Sort of this radical embrace of non-obvious nature. I want to go to some completely wretched spot and then get my Muir-style reverie on.
EM: Yeah, right! And I think you can. Part of it is you can be inspired by the chutzpah of these weeds. By how much life will find a way to cling on in these circumstances. I lived in DC for a while, and you go into the DC subway system—
AB: Yes! They have little weeds down there.
EM: Yeah! And those station are far enough down that they can act as bomb shelters in case of nuclear attack on the capital. And there are those little weeds, just hanging out, growing along. That’s got to make you happy.
AB: You make a big point of framing this as an optimistic book. And that’s clearly not just an accident of the publisher saying, “Oh, make sure you don’t depress people, because it’s about the environment.” That’s actually a central part of your project. Trying, as you said, to hope that environmentalists can be happier people.
EM: Yeah, and I’m not an optimistic person by nature. [laughs]
EM: I was very firmly in the “We’re going to hell in a hand basket, armageddon is around the corner, climate change will ruin the planet, we are already screwed” kind of thing. But having the ground shift under your feet in this way, where return is no longer possible, and the only direction that you can go is forward… I think it just forces you to get excited about where you can go.
Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, by Emma Marris. Bloomsbury, 2011.
Last month, a curious publicity campaign spread across the internet. “Quarantine your city!” said the tweets. The public was encouraged to go to a website where they could vote to have their home town declared a radioactive wasteland. Not wanting to be left out, I cast mine early. Within a few days, the needle on New York’s vote meter had spiked into the red, and a large radiation symbol was stamped on the map.
“New York, NY has been quarantined,” read the text underneath the meter. “Exclusive screenings of Chernobyl Diaries have been unlocked!” Thus did I score free tickets to an advance showing of Hollywood’s new Chernobyl-themed horror movie. And this only days after I published my own treatment of the subject. Hello, zeitgeist!
As you might expect, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t exactly hew to the facts. Where would be the fun in that? In the movie, a group of tourists gets stranded while on a visit to the Exclusion Zone—the radioactive quarantine that surrounds the accident site. This isn’t so implausible as a premise; the Chernobyl authority recently reopened the zone for escorted day trips by tourists. And I’ve spent some time in the zone myself, which was one reason I was so eager to see how it would be portrayed.
The zone’s main attraction, in the movie as in real life, is Pripyat: a city of nearly fifty thousand people that was evacuated after the disaster. Today, you can wander the deserted streets, past crumbling apartment blocks and into empty classrooms, where school supplies still lie on the floor, moldering in the dust. The movie wasn’t actually shot in Pripyat, but from my own experience there I can tell you the art directors did a first-rate job recreating the place—right down to an abandoned toy car that I could have sworn I recognized from my own visit. And the characters in the movie are amazed, just as I was, by how fully the Exclusion Zone is being reclaimed by nature.
From there, however, the story begins its departures from reality: our feckless tourists are soon catching sight of mutant fish with giant teeth, and being harried by unusually large dogs, and finally—this isn’t really a spoiler—getting hunted down, one by one, by a troupe of bloodthirsty radioactive bogeymen. This differs notably from my own experience of the Exclusion Zone, which I found to be pleasantly free of mutant freaks.
It’s implied that the superhuman ghouls that are providing all the thrills and chills in this scenario are victims of the nuclear accident—perhaps even former residents of Pripyat. Exactly why they are driven to cannibalistic rage, or why almost all of them are corpulent bald men, are details the filmmakers do not see fit to explain. And did they really have to cast the disaster’s survivors as monsters? It’s like making a movie about the aftermath of 9/11 in which the first responders all become serial killers. A little rude, to say the least.
More than anything, though, Chernobyl Diaries is a reflection of our almost gleeful obsession with the effects of radiation. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a conversation about Chernobyl in which I wasn’t asked, only half jokingly, whether I saw any mutant animals in the Exclusion Zone. The popular assumption is that there simply must be some around. Similarly, most people assume that thousands of people died outright from radioactive exposure, that cancer in the region is pervasive, and that the accident left a well-documented legacy of congenital deformities among children in the area. And yet none of these things has been firmly established, and some of them are simply false. To take just one example, there are indeed effects on the wildlife in the zone—but they are subtle. There are no three-eyed fish or two-headed dogs. (And definitely no crazed thugs out for blood.)
Our obsession with deformity and cancer leads us to miss the most significant toll of the disaster: the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The people of Pripyat were uprooted from their lives with only a couple of hours notice; you would think that would be tragedy enough, especially with the health-related fear and uncertainty that comes with it. But this is far too unspectacular to satisfy our need for potent imagery.
Chernobyl Diaries, then, is exploitative and sensationalistic—but it’s not so different from the sensationalism that swirls around Chernobyl even in more sober contexts. Meanwhile, if you want something less suspenseful but more true, go watch Half-Lives. A beautiful short documentary directed by Maisie Crow, it is probably the single best piece of filmmaking ever done on the subject—and you can watch it online, for free. In it, the remarkably un-goulish former residents of Pripyat reflect on the legacy of the disaster.
The pain they feel most keenly? That they miss their old home.
Two and a half weeks ago, the venerable English soccer team Aston Villa announced that Stiliyan Petrov, the team’s Bulgarian-born captain, had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Petrov is 32.
Petrov—-often called “Stan” by his English fans—also plays for the Bulgarian national team. Which explains why, about a week after the announcement of Petrov’s illness, the Bulgarian national team’s medic saw fit to comment on the matter. Petrov’s cancer, he said, had been caused by Chernobyl.
At the time of the disaster, in 1986, Petrov was six years old and living 650 miles away, in an area of Bulgaria called Montana. That might sound like a long way away, but Bulgaria was well within the reach of the radioactive cloud.
Still. I wish the team doctor hadn’t said that.
It seems to me that one particularly horrible thing about cancer is that often you can’t attribute it to a particular cause. As the CDC says, regarding lung cancer:
We know a lot about risk factors, but they don’t tell us everything. Some people who get cancer don’t seem to have any known risk factors. Other people have one or more risk factors and do not get cancer.
Treating anecdotal evidence as proof opens the door to all kinds of bogus reasoning. Soon, people are pointing to the eighty year-old grandpa who smoked all his life but never got sick—and questioning whether smoking really does cause lung cancer. You need to rely on the numbers to tell you what may have caused a cancer—and even then, it is a matter of probabilities. (With smoking, the numbers are pretty damn compelling.)
The surprising thing about Chernobyl is that the case for cancer is not a slam-dunk. Although it is popularly assumed that the cancer toll from Chernobyl is: A) known, and B) huge, the uncomfortably strong possibility is that neither of those things are true. I say this as someone without any financial interest in the nuclear power industry, btw.
Epidemiology is a dark art. And here, we are dealing with the epidemiology of a
once twice-in-a-lifetime nuclear accident that occurred inside the territory of a transparency-averse authoritarian state, and that involved the evacuation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. Just trying to get data must be a nightmare.
The astonishing thing is that we simply do not know the real toll of the Chernobyl accident. And it may well be a lot lower than you think.
From the Chernobyl Forum report of 2005:
Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence among those exposed at a young age, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the most affected populations. (p7)
You’re welcome to tell me that the Chernobyl Forum is a patsy in the service of the nuclear industry. Their findings certainly disrupt one powerful thread in the anti-nuclear narrative. (Greenpeace, by the way, has much higher cancer estimates.) To me, though, the Forum’s report has the ring of truth. It suggests a set of consequences that are less sensational and more complex than simple horror stories about epidemic cancer and deformity:
There was, however, an increase in psychological problems among the affected population, compounded by insufficient communication about radiation effects and by the social disruption and economic depression that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. (p7)
That seems so unsatisfying at first. Psychological problems? But I think it’s important to accept the possibility that the accident might have been catastrophic in ways that don’t conform to our preconceptions. You may have the impression that Chernobyl must have caused (and be causing) a lot of cancer. But it’s just that—an impression. The Chernobyl Forum report argues:
It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident — or indeed the impact of the stress and anxiety induced by the accident and the response to it. (p7)
“Impossible to assess.” That, if you ask me, is one of the worst things about Chernobyl, or indeed about the idea of someone getting cancer—especially when he’s 32 years old and at the top of his game. It conforms to no narrative, and accepts no human logic. Forget about justice—here we can’t even have injustice.
As for the radioactive cloud released by the destroyed reactor in Chernobyl, I think the real question isn’t whether it gave Petrov cancer, but why it didn’t give cancer to everyone else.
When I have conversations about Visit Sunny Chernobyl, I’m frequently asked whether there will be pictures. This question usually comes right after the question about just where I went in the first place.
I enjoy the where-I-went question a lot more, perhaps because it’s a question I can answer more satisfyingly. And the difficulty of figuring out what places belong on a list of the “world’s most polluted” is a major theme of the book. So I like to talk about it. Best of all, people soon start suggesting destinations, or trying to guess at mine, which shifts the discussion from “I’m telling you about my book” to “we’re coming up with ideas,” which is much the better conversation for people with manners.
I often end up feeling like a chump, though, for not having visited any of the excellent places people suggest. Just yesterday, for example, Matt Taibbi suggested Norilsk. Which is a first rate suggestion. And no, I have not been to Norislk. Thanks for reminding me.
But back to the pictures. No. There aren’t any pictures in the book. Or at least, not any photographs. It’s just words. The pictures are in your mind.
Which is not to say I didn’t take any photographs. I took thousands. And I have elaborate plans to post a series of excellent slide shows culled from those photos, as part of my master plan to attract attention to this book. (Which you can PRE-ORDER RIGHT NOW by the way.)
But there’s always some disappointment when I disabuse someone of their hopes for pictures in the book. And I never feel sufficiently able to make them understand why it’s so clear to me that there shouldn’t be.
There are various reasons. Some of them have to do with committing to one art form or another, instead of (for once in my life) trying to do two or three things all at once.
And then there’s the question of whether photographs even look good in a book. When’s the last time, when you think about it, that you enjoyed the photographs in a book? They’re either muddy little grey puddles of ink, or gathered into a ghetto of glossy pages in the middle of the volume. In magazines, photographs work great. But in books full of prose… not so much.
But the main reason that there are no pictures in Visit Sunny Chernobyl is that other pollution tourists have already done much, much better than I ever could. Astoundingly better. So the best thing, it seems to me, is just to cede the field.
What I’m trying to say is that Edward Burtynsky is my hero.