Book review: A manual for survival. A Chernobyl guide to the future by Kate Brown

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baboon
Book review: A manual for survival. A Chernobyl guide to the future by Kate Brown
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Footnote

A few days after this piece was completed, the Daily Mail Online (9.5.2019) carried a long article with photographs from the 10 square kilometres "Red Forest" in the Zone of Alienation within the 2,600 square kilometres Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The article was prompted by recent work from the Lancaster-based Centre for Ecology and Hydrology under the auspices of Professor Nick Beresford. According to the article the area "... hosts great biodiversity", it shows an area "... far from a wasteland", an area which demonstrates ... adaptive responses to life with radiation" and a "... general lack of big negative effects of current radiation levels". It was a "wildlife refuge", an "excellent natural laboratory" where radiation had been "coped" with. Scientist from the Centre didn't actually go to Ukraine but they did send a lot of motion detector cameras to be attached to the dead, radioactive trees and the latter planted ones. These cameras don't measure levels of radiation of course but they did get some good pictures of various forms of wildlife which the Daily Mail and other news outlets that picked up the story published with similar comments to above. Nick Beresford is not only the head of the centre but he is also an advisor to the World Bank and has been a director in charge of UN development programmes making him qualified to paint a picture of a Garden of Eden when behind the canvass lies nothing but the threat of death and destruction.

The Daily Mail, in its profound ignorance, seems surprised that the area is not an actual desert and instead depicts a forest of illusions. The trees in the forest, those already there and those since planted, have absorbed much radiation and stored it except when a large part caught fire and released the poison into the atmosphere. The forest is not a "desert" in the sense of a mass of sand and the fact that the forest hasn't decayed is not a good sign. On the contrary, forests should decay; they should have the distinct odour of organic decomposition, along with the smell of growth, because that is part of the life-cycle of forest - decay, decomposition and new life. The fact that there is little decay, that the rule of forest life and death is subverted, is a cause for concern and not a hope for the future. As for the "abundant wildlife" photographed in the forest, wandering in from natural curiosity could well spell their doom if they stay there too long because the leaves, roots or plants that they consume will be repositories of radiation.

Kate Brown met two biologists, Tim Mousseau and Anders Moller, who up to then (2015) had spent 15 years studying nearly a thousand spots in the Red Forest. The first thing that they noticed was that there were no spider's webs - a forest should be draped with them. There were no webs because there were no spiders. Similarly, there were no fruit flies and a miniscule amount of pollinators - bees, butterflies, dragonflies and insects because the soil where they laid their eggs was highly radioactive. The reason for the lack of decay was because there were no microbes, fungi, worms, etc., which break organic matter down and bring new life to a forest. The soil, which contained large amounts of strontium-90 and caesium-137, with half-lives of around 30 years, is in fact a nuclear desert and no amount of wildlife pictures of unsuspecting animals will alter that.

Added to this is further disturbing news about the double-whammy of atomic-testing radiation previously locked into ice-caps and glaciers being released with global warming and the atomic-testing radioactive carbon found in small crustaceans at the bottom of the ten kilometre deep Mariana Trench in the Pacific.

This is the legacy of capitalism so far and another mess for the proletariat to clean up.

jk1921
The review refers to "Russian

The review refers to "Russian" authorities, instead of "Soviet" authorities in a few places; was this an oversight or was it intentional?

The idea that nature takes its revenge on a decadent humanity seems to echo the Gaia hypothesis, but I think this repeats the anthropomorphic error that sees the environmental conditions that produce and sustain human life as some kind of normal stasis point from which humanity has for whatever reason deviated. "Nature," doesn't really care what we do it. If we are going to destroy the conditions that sustain our species, broader nature could care less. We wouldn't be the first species to do so. Moreover, the idea that we can somehow pervert nature or make the natural something other, seems to be riven with certain moral-religious overtones. We can change nature; either consciously or not, for the better or for the worse for our species, but the idea that we can make it something "other than natural" seems wrong. A universe in which humanity has destroyed itself is no less natural and it may be that our destruction is some other form of being's opportunity.

Finally, the description of the Chernobyl disaster summons up thoughts of the likely similar long term effects of the toxic fallout from the 9/11 attacks, which the state intially told us was not likely to be very dangerous. Although on a smaller scale than Chernobyl, the destruction of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan sent a toxic cloud of dust into the atmosphere for days afterwards. While the increased rate of cancer some 15 years later among those closest to the scene (the first responders) is well known and publicly acknowledged, the incidence of other chronic health conditions caused by passive exposure to this fallout is likely to be under-recognized.

While public outrage did force the state to set up a "victim's compensation fund," and a WTC Health Program, the program has arbitrary qualification criteria covering only those who lived or worked in the immediate disaster zone; it is a giant bureacratic pain in the ass to get a response from, it is currently running out of funds and new applications are likely to be cut off soon, despite the fact that some of these health problems can take years or even decades to manifest or be properly diagnosed. Of course, tracing real but sometimes amorphous symptoms to exposure to the fallout a decade and a half later is difficult, such that the real effects of the disaster on the health of the community will likely never be known.

baboon
The "Soviet Union" and the

The "Soviet Union" and the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" are of course terms that come directly from the counter-revolution but I think the term Soviet is used above to refer to the USSR though it has nothing to do with workers' soviets, i.e., workers' councils. The term "Russian" is used correctly in the framework of Kate Brown's analysis of the post-Chernobyl political reaction. The decisions regarding the Chernobyl disaster were taken by the Russians, by Moscow, by the Kremlin, by the Politburo. Russian interests came first and foremost - it is entirely appropriate and important to make this point. It wasn't just Ukraine and Belarus and points west and south, that were dumped on by the Russians but other satellite countries of the "Union" paid in one way or another for the disaster under the decisions drawn up and effected by the Politburo, i.e. the Russians. Kate Brown talked to many high level Party members in Belarus and Ukraine, including senior KGB officials who bitterly contested, by reasons of politics and some humanitarianism, the decisions taken by the Politburo. It was an example of the growing fragility of the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" and the loosening grip that the Russians had on their "socialist partners".

The idea expressed above by jk that humanity is decadent is not the position of Marxists - it is capitalism that is decadent and humanity's hope for the future lies with the communist revolution. There is nothing "religious" about explaining capitalism's destruction of nature and it is necessary to examine the nature of this destruction in some detail as both Marx and Engels did in a materialist and not a moral-religious fashion.

 

jk1921
baboon wrote:

baboon wrote:

The "Soviet Union" and the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" are of course terms that come directly from the counter-revolution but I think the term Soviet is used above to refer to the USSR though it has nothing to do with workers' soviets, i.e., workers' councils. The term "Russian" is used correctly in the framework of Kate Brown's analysis of the post-Chernobyl political reaction. The decisions regarding the Chernobyl disaster were taken by the Russians, by Moscow, by the Kremlin, by the Politburo. Russian interests came first and foremost - it is entirely appropriate and important to make this point. It wasn't just Ukraine and Belarus and points west and south, that were dumped on by the Russians but other satellite countries of the "Union" paid in one way or another for the disaster under the decisions drawn up and effected by the Politburo, i.e. the Russians. Kate Brown talked to many high level Party members in Belarus and Ukraine, including senior KGB officials who bitterly contested, by reasons of politics and some humanitarianism, the decisions taken by the Politburo. It was an example of the growing fragility of the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" and the loosening grip that the Russians had on their "socialist partners".

So, the Politboro were all "Russian" at the time of the disaster? The idea that the USSR was some kind of purely Russian project that in some ways oppressed its other consituent nationalities is not without contention, given the fact that two of its most prominent leaders were not even Russian.

baboon wrote:

The idea expressed above by jk that humanity is decadent is not the position of Marxists - it is capitalism that is decadent and humanity's hope for the future lies with the communist revolution. There is nothing "religious" about explaining capitalism's destruction of nature and it is necessary to examine the nature of this destruction in some detail as both Marx and Engels did in a materialist and not a moral-religious fashion.

This implies humanity has some kind of esscence beyond what it does that is perverted by some alien force or structure (which in turn is given the agency humnaity is said to lack) and again, I don't know what it means to "destroy nature." Humanity, or capitalism if you prefer (but what is captialism other than a reification of human activity) can change nature for the better or the worse for our species, but it is not clear if nature can be "destroyed."

 

 

baboon
The Russian dominated Eastern

The Russian dominated Eastern bloc, is a far more accurate description of the contemporary state of things than are the terms Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Soviet Union. The fact that out of the 36 members of the 27th Politburo only two were non-Russians wouldn't necessarily have stopped them from supporting the interests of the Russian state over its "allies". There's plenty of excellent texts on the relationships of the Russian state with its satellites on the website under the heading "Stalinism, the Eastern bloc".