Geiger counters rarely appear on a travel packing list. But for New York–based author Andrew Blackwell, visiting unusual destinations entails bringing along some rather serious protective items. His book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, chronicles his compelling journey to some of the world’s most polluted locations—to a town deserted after nuclear meltdown, on a ship searching for plastic flotsam in the Pacific Ocean, and to deforested regions of the Amazon.
What inspired your book?
I got the idea from visiting Kanpur, the city that was named the most polluted in all of India. I realized that I had very little first-person experience of the environmental issues that we are constantly talking about. I realized that there must be something to be learned about environmental problems by smelling them and touching them instead of just reading about them.
And although Kanpur had terrible air, sewage in the water, heavy metals in the river, feces on the beach, I actually found it quite pleasant, although somewhat smelly. There are no other travelers, it wasn’t dangerous, and people are more open. I couldn’t believe that there were no other pollution tourists out there, the alter egos of the eco-tourists. And I decided I’m going to be that guy who opens up that frontier. So it became my quest: to see the most polluted places.
Is pollution travel really the next step for eco-tourism? Are they different sides of the same coin?
I think pollution tourism is a kind of eco-tourism. I’m not interested in rubber necking and just visiting a place to be grossed out by it. I’m actually interested in these places as environments, in the way that nature is transformed and survives, or what it gets replaced with.
You start your book with a quote from Georg Tobler: “Even what is most unnatural is part of nature.” Could you talk a little about your views on how sanctifying the environment hinders our deeper understanding of places like Chernobyl and the oil sands in Alberta?
I think that a lot of environmental consciousness is based on the idea that nature is pure and separate from human beings. And so it sets up this duality between places that are perfect that need to be protected and places that are ruined, where it is too late. So this is my attempt to reclaim some of the least natural places as still somehow part of nature and part of the world.
Why is getting off the beaten path is so important to you as a traveler and writer?
I think for many travelers, off-the-beaten-path travel is their dream, and I think it’s a little bit of a false idol. There are lots of overlaying paths in any place. Obviously, I don’t think it’s interesting to go around Times Square and go to the Hard Rock Café. But at the same time, even as a New Yorker, I am sure there are interesting ways to look at and experience and explore Times Square. So for me, I want to be radically open minded.
What surprised you most about visiting and reporting on the locations mentioned in your book?
They were nicer then I expected, which is not at all to undermine the serious environmental problems that they have. When I say nicer, it’s that they were much less viscerally shocking then I expected. That was interesting to me, because we expect a really bad environmental problem to be visually spectacular. And I think often that’s not true. The disconnect between how we think about these places and how they are when we walk around them is very interesting to me.
In the chapter that chronicles your voyage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you refer to “environmental aesthetics,” and how people require imagery to understand environmental problems. Was part of the reason for writing this book to humanize these marginalized places?
Absolutely. When I talk about Visit Sunny Chernobyl as a love letter to the world’s most polluted places, it’s not because I want the rest of the world to be like Chernobyl. Or to have San Francisco smelled like Port Arthur. Port Arthur is someone’s home and there are all kind of plants and animals there. It’s worth caring about and the first step is caring about Port Arthur as a place, and not just as a poster child for an issue. It’s like an underdog complex.
If you had one more location to visit on your pollution tour, what would it be?
Once you start looking for locations as a pollution tourist, for better or worse, the world is a candy store. I don’t have anywhere in Africa in the book, I would have loved to have gone to the Niger Delta and explored the oil fields. I would have liked to do a landfill chapter, and I did pay a short visit to the landfill outside Los Angeles. You really go right to the heart of what’s supposed to count as disgusting and trash but then you get to know the people that live there and the ways in which that even the landfill is like a breathing ecosystem.
What is it that you would like readers to take away from reading Visit Sunny Chernobyl?
I want people to consider that no place is so polluted or so ruined that it’s not worth caring about.
Author photo by Lucian Read.