'Water’s toxic, wish you were here'

One man’s whimsical tour of some of the world’s most polluted places -- including in Alberta

Water’s toxic, wish you were here

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

It was in India, in 2003, that the idea came to Andrew Blackwell. He was invited to visit Kanpur, an industrial city of three million that finds no place in any popular guidebook. But it had received—from its own government—the title of India’s Most Polluted City, a designation that required, as Blackwell notes in an interview, overcoming “some fierce competition.” What he found there was an environmental movement “that feels more like a civil rights struggle, where activists focused on their kids’ everyday experiences and economic future, rather than the moral stance for pristine nature we take in the West.” And Blackwell realized too, as he watched Hindu pilgrims immersing themselves in the Ganges river in that city and “collecting holy, chromium-laced water, all without another tourist in sight,” that the world must be littered with “unvisited but fascinating places.”

Nine years later, the 40-year-old American journalist has been to more than a few of those places, and describes his experiences in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. His seven destinations range from that Ukrainian city, which a 1986 nuclear catastrophe rendered the iconic site of human environmental overreach, to the computer-recycling hot spot of Guiyu, China, where he tried (and failed) to keep up with a cigarette-smoking, eight-year-old motherboard stripper. Most uncomfortably for Canadians, who will wince at seeing a hunk of Alberta included in what one reviewer of Sunny Chernobyl casually summed up as seven global “toxic spots,” Blackwell also went to Fort McMurray. (The other sites are Delhi, India; Port Arthur, Texas; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; and Amazonia.)

Blackwell has lived in the U.S. since he was two, but he was born in Calgary, the son of a Canadian mother and an American father. He headed to Alberta partly as a homecoming, and partly, he adds amiably, because “Americans don’t expect this kind of environmental destruction in Canada.” But mostly he went because he can’t think of a better locus for what he calls the “paradox” of our lives, the one shared by everyone who both benefits from industrial civilization and cares about the environment. If there wasn’t a collective worldwide lust for what Syncrude and Suncor provide, Fort McMurray wouldn’t have carbon emissions twice the size of Los Angeles’s, a city 100 times larger.

Blackwell is sympathetic to how acutely that paradox vibrates in the Canadian psyche. The “CO2-belching petroleum giant” to the north is also a place where 1,600 dead ducks became a national scandal demanding the prime minister’s attention: Canada seems torn between “pioneering the era of dirty oil and leading the fight to stop it.”

Not that awareness of his own stake in fossil-fuel-fired abundance stopped Blackwell, in a book peppered with wry asides, from having a great deal of outraged fun with the oil industry and its friendly provincial government. Indeed, since he found it as easy as shooting ducks trapped in a tailings pond, he could hardly help himself. The provincially operated Oil Sands Discovery Centre, Blackwell writes, “represents some of the best industrial propaganda in the world,” adding, “which I mean as a compliment: you try writing the brochure for Mordor.”

His sympathy for the locals is far more overt elsewhere. Fort McMurray, for the most part, provides high-paying jobs, which are noticeable by their absence at the other end of the proposed oil pipeline from Alberta. Downtown Port Arthur, riddled with deserted buildings, is home to an industry that doesn’t sustain it and to community activists who can’t decide if the smell of its sulphurous air means money or death. Most, as troubled by poverty as by health outcomes, would settle for both.

It was the stories of such people, as much as the weird, off-kilter beauty he sometimes found—the peaceful, depopulated countryside around Chernobyl sounds lovely—that power Blackwell’s book. Environmentalism will fail, he says, if human needs are ignored and it focuses solely on an idealized beauty. “The world is already past that point. We have to learn to see civilization as part of the natural world.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.