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Andrew Blackwell ’94
Andrew Blackwell ’94

The Beauty of Ruined Places

(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)

When journalist and filmmaker Andrew Blackwell ’94 goes on vacation, he doesn’t just pack sunscreen and swimming trunks. He packs a Geiger counter. Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places, Blackwell’s first book, allows readers to vicariously experience the horrendously polluted Yamuna River in India, the bizarrely elusive Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the wildlife- and radiation-filled Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl sarcophagus. With wit, insight and moments of surprising tenderness, Blackwell reveals the hidden beauty of these “ruined” places, making us love them for the reasons he does: “for all the ways they aren’t ruined.” Cat Lazaroff ’89 caught up with Blackwell at his home in Brooklyn.

Cat Lazaroff: You say in the book that your mission was to find the world’s most polluted places, but you also criticize the very idea of naming the “most polluted” places, calling it “comparing cesium apples to carbon oranges.” So what was your goal? What inspired you to start this project?

Andrew Blackwell: I was living in India for six months, about nine years ago, and I just had this moment where I realized how interesting, informative and flat-out fun it had been to visit some of these incredibly polluted areas. There was this moment where I realized that these places aren’t in any of the guidebooks and I thought— well, there are other people who would be interested. Originally, it was just going to be a guidebook with maps, hotel recommendations, all the usual stuff. Then I realized I was really just interested in telling the narrative story of the exploration and the adventure.

CL: What was the most surprising thing you learned in your travels?

AB: The surprise to me was really how nice most of these places were, particularly when you hold your nose a little.

CL: During the most dangerous moments in your travels—like when waves were breaking over the deck of the ship you were on with Project Kaisei tracking marine litter—were you just thinking, “Please let me and my friends survive!” Or was some part of you also thinking, “What a great story this will be for my book!”

AB: When the wave was crashing over the boat and I actually thought that someone had been washed over, at that moment I was not thinking, “Boy this would make a great chapter opening.” It could have become a nightmare right at that point. But once I realized everyone was safe—and I actually counted to make sure everyone was there—then I started thinking, “This is great, we’re having an adventure.”

CL: In the book, you refer to yourself as “not a journalist” and not really an environmentalist, either. Tell us about that.

AB: I would say I am a journalist in terms of really caring about getting things right. I’m not making things up for effect. That’s the contract between myself and the reader. What I didn’t want to be beholden to was needing to be pious about the subject, not being able to tell a joke when I wanted to.

I’m not an environmentalist in any activist sense. I believe all the common-sense things about the environment and about sustainability that I think any sensible person would believe. I’m not trying to debunk any of those concerns, really. But a lot of reasons for our environmental concerns have to do with ourselves, and how we want to think about who we are.

CL: One recurrent theme in each of the places you visited was that there’s just no hope of cleaning it up. Is that what you believe, or do you have some hope that we could make a difference?

AB: I’m certainly not a pessimist about whether or not we can have an effect on our environment, and on any particular place. But it was important to me to sidestep couching the entire issue around whether it can be “fixed.”

It’s not about “Is it too late?” or “Contribute now!” It was more about experiencing these places as they are, right now. When I was onboard the Kaisei [hunting for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch], I told them I was skeptical about their approach. In their mind, the important thing is to produce a call to action. In my mind as a writer, the idea of cleaning up the Pacific Ocean is not viable. Other groups are more focused on changing consumer culture and prevention, and I think that’s probably more viable.

CL: You write about trying to find the “rind of beauty” that must exist in even the most polluted places. Is that what you hope readers will take away from the book—that there is still something to love in all the “ruined places”?

AB: The thing that I’ve realized lately, that’s the most important takeaway, is that the way we think of these polluted places as horror stories is a force for alienation, for detachment from the kinds of places that need the most care. For me, writing this love letter to these places is about engagement with a place that’s polluted or supposedly ruined. I really want to push back on this idea of “ruined.” There’s still life there—it’s not what it was before, but it’s still there.

The birds and the trees don’t write a place off once it’s badly radioactive or covered with oil.

I live in Brooklyn, and right down the street is the Gowanus Canal; it’s a Superfund site. There are things floating in there that I don’t want to know what they are. There is also a canoe club, and I’m a member of that club. Because where else can you go canoeing in New York City? Again, if you hold your nose a little bit …

There are a lot of these places that are going to live second lives and are being restored, and the reason that it’s happening is that someone said, “Hey, I think it would be fun to go canoeing on the Gowanus.” The people who care about the Gowanus have taken responsibility for it. It’s recreation as a form of conservation.

Cat Lazaroff is associate director for Resource Media, a nonprofit public relations firm that works with foundations and other partners to advance conservation issues.

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