“Visit Sunny Chernobyl – and other adventures in the world's most polluted places” by Andrew Blackwell (London: Random House, 2012), 306 pages
Not overtly a book about dark tourism, but (just like “A Nuclear Family Vacation
”) on a topic with a sizeable overlap with dark tourism. In this case it is “pollution tourism”, a new term (as far as I can see) coined by the book's author himself. The seven chapters are about certain individual sites, or sets of related sites in one country, which all exemplify serious contamination – be it nuclear, through the petrochemical industry, mining, logging and cattle farming, or simply through overwhelming amounts of sewage.
Two of the places have their own entries on this website as well, namely Chernobyl
, and the oil sand mines of Alberta
. Another “place” of sorts, namely the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Pacific Gyre, only gets a mention here under the general Pacific
entry, while not being recommended as a travel destination (and Blackwell's account of his sailing trip there confirms this decision!). Some of the places described in Blackwell's China
chapter are not that dissimilar to those covered here in the Wuda
entry under places not to visit
. The Yamuna, the most polluted river in India
, gets a mention in the Delhi
chapter. The other two places covered in Blackwell's book – Port Arthur in Texas, USA
, and the deforestation areas in the Amazon (but cf. Indonesia
!) – are not captured on this website at all. But still, the overlap is still considerable.
Also like “A Nuclear Family Vacation
”, this book has a title and cover image that plays with traditional mainstream tourism clichés in what I find a somewhat unsavoury pseudo-comical way (especially the inclusion of that keyword “sunny”). But in the actual content the writing is quite sober and to the point. In fact, Blackwell's style of writing is excellent, really captivating, and frequently exceptionally thought-provoking. Thus it is not simply boasting about some crazy adventure travel idea for the blokeish sake of it. Far from it. Blackwell really engages with the places he visits, and chooses them with accordingly well-thought-out care, and shows plenty of empathy with the local people affected by their respective pollution plights.
Moreover, he does not only have eyes and ears for the obvious victims, but also considers the “perpetrator” sides without any prejudiced condemnation. Instead of following that typical media short-cut of dividing sides into “good guys” versus “bad guys” he tries to get to the bottom of very complicated affairs. And that's a very rare thing in contexts where most people firmly take either the one side or the other and dogmatically cling to it. The way in which Blackwell avoids just that and thus makes the reader see a wider picture is pretty unique. Hats off for balance, then!
Some of his reports are more journalistic than truly touristic (yet another similarity with “A Nuclear Family Vacation
”), but that's not a criticism, as he never claims anything different. It just means that some of his experiences could not necessarily be had by “ordinary” travellers (who come without the added “powers” of being from the “media”).
Of all his reports, the one that gives the book its main title, i.e. Chernobyl
, is the most akin to a dark tourism experience. In fact, Blackwell's account of his experience at Chernobyl reads like it was largely identical to my own experience at the place a few years earlier – right down to the same guide displaying the very same mannerisms that I recall so well!
The chapter most remote from what can be had as an ordinary tourist is the one about the author's taking part in an expedition that involved sailing a boat straight into the Great Pacific
plastic garbage patch. That's really an adventure, not offered by anything akin to a tourist infrastructure. In fact, only very, very few people have actually ever been there, relevant marine pollution researchers included. In a way, then, this is also the most exotic chapter, a proper adventure tale.
Of the remaining chapters the one about the Brazilian Amazon rainforest stands out: it is such an eye-opener. Again, Blackwell finds there is no easy way of pointing the finger at any one “villain” when it comes to the threat that the rainforest is under. Logging turns out to be the least of the current threats. And even the relatively new onslaught of massive slash-and-burn clearing away of forest to make way for the large-scale monoculture that is soya bean production (then shipped off to the developed world as cattle and chicken feed) turns out to be no longer as destructive and unregulated as it is often portrayed. The damage done by cutting down forest to make space for cattle farming pastures still appears to be the worst aspect here. (Note that both of these two worst aspects are linked to the world's disproportionate appetite for meat! See also under climate change
The four other chapters, about oil sand mining in Alberta
), about Port Arthur (Texas, USA
) and its oil industry, about China
's pollution problems from coal mining and "recycling" electronics, and about India
's sewage-laden rivers, are all also very good, especially in their more general musings about environmental versus religious, economic, social aspects, but I won't go into further details about those parts of the book here.
Overall, I found “Visit Sunny Chernobyl” a superb read, one of the best I've encountered in recent years. If I want to be really pernickety then the only criticism I could voice is the fact that there are a few loose threads in the book. For instance, he begins his prologue with a description of a boat trip into the Zone of Chernobyl – it's like a teaser; it makes you expect that the story will be picked up again. In the actual main chapter on Chernobyl
, however, he only describes his regular overland tour. The boat trip idea is only briefly raised as something to try to do after the regular tour – but the fact that he actually got to do so remains unmentioned at the close of the chapter. I found that a bit of a let-down. A similar thing happens again in the chapter about the Amazon rainforest, which opens with an account of witnessing a slash-and-burn incident, with huge flames leaving behind a bleak ash-covered wasteland ... but this precise incident is not picked up again in the chronology of the rest of the chapter, so it too is left hanging somewhat awkwardly in thin air.
But that minor caveat aside, the book is splendidly readable, entertaining (without being just jokey) and most of all: enormously informative. If you have any interest in gaining something of a genuine understanding of the precarious state that the world is in in terms of environmental destruction and climate change, of why that is so, and of what the outlook is, then you cannot afford to give this book a miss. Highly recommended!