Andrew Blackwell, author of ‘Visit Sunny Chernobyl,’ at Empiricist League

Trash talk! Park Slope ‘pollution tourist’ on vacationing in Chernobyl

for The Brooklyn Paper
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You’ve spent winter on the Gowanus, now try summer in Chernobyl!

Park Slope journalist, author, and self-proclaimed “pollution tourist” Andrew Blackwell is slated to speak at the next edition of bar-based science lecture series Empiricist League at Union Hall in Park Slope on Nov. 25. In his talk, Blackwell — whose latest book is titled “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places” — will recount his adventures travelling to the planet’s most notorious cesspools, ash heaps, and irradiated exclusion zones, all while attempting to convey the sunny-side of life in the dumps, he said.

“The idea for ‘Visit Sunny Chernobyl’ was to lay out the story with irony and humor — it being a sort of joke about going to ruined places in an attempt to find them interesting and beautiful,” said Blackwell. “But I really drank my own Kool-Aid, and found it very easy, with a little holding my nose, to fall in love with these despoiled places.”

“Visit Sunny Chernobyl” begins near the site of the titular Ukrainian power plant, which the author described as the “gateway drug” of pollution tourism. The residual radioactivity within the roughly 1,000-square miles of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still at dangerous levels, but the evacuation that occurred following the disaster left a void that was filled virtually overnight by foliage and wild beasts, transforming one of the most polluted places on Earth into an unlikely nature preserve, Blackwell said.

“It’s a good place to get in touch with how nature and pollution coexist and interact with each other,” he said. “It demonstrates how a place can be horribly polluted and compromised, but really beautiful in a wild and natural way.”

In his further travels of the world’s septic systems, Blackwell transitioned from exploring the relationship between nature and pollution, to discovering the way mankind has learned to live amongst the filth. In New Delhi, India, Blackwell visited the Yamuna River, which pollution has reduced to a veritable sewage line.

“There are some people who are going to be grossed out when they cross over the Gowanus Canal,” he said. “I’ve met people whose job is to wade through the river in New Delhi, which is almost entirely sewage water, and drag their hands through the muck, hoping to find some salvage they can sell.”

But regardless of whether you are sailing through the Great Pacific garbage patch or shopping in Kings Plaza, we all have a relationship with pollution, and recognizing that is a good way to start challenging it, Blackwell said.

“I believe in all the common sense things of having a less wasteful and a less-toxic society, but I think those things would come about a little more easily if we were sharing our pollution equitably,” he said. “In China, so much of their manufacturing is tied in with our own economy, going there is like a family visit with your own pollution.”

“Empiricist League: Apocalypse” at Union Hall [702 Union St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Park Slope, (718)638–4400,] Nov. 25 at 8 pm. $10 ($8 advance).

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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