On Disaster Porn

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The “Elephant’s Foot” at Chernobyl.  This mass of melted nuclear fuel, concrete, and metal is still lethal after 300 seconds of exposure today.  Notice how the radioactivity affected even the photographic film in this image

I have just finished reading Chernobyl 01:23:40:  The incredible true story of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, an excellent self-published book by Andrew Leatherbarrow that particularly resonated with me because I suspect he very much shares my “down the rabbit hole” approach to topics that have had a deep emotional impact on him.  The book is part travel journal (his own trip into the Exclusion Zone, including photographs) and part narrative history.  Most significantly, he is fascinated with the same thing I am about Chernobyl (and about other disasters):  the actual mechanics of what happened.  As he mentions in his introduction, most books spend much more time on the aftermath than on the accident itself.  And no wonder–the average person probably does not really understand radioactivity or nuclear fission on a basic level (I know I barely do), much less how a nuclear reactor is constructed and how one might fail.

The Chernobyl accident is often sensationalized, as Leatherbarrow mentions, “for the sake of adding drama”–a phenomenon we now recognize as part of something called “disaster porn.”  According to sociologist Timothy Recuber, this epithet has evolved from one “directed at extreme depictions of suffering in the developing world” to its more current meaning, which covers all kinds of disaster-related media, “even fictional Hollywood blockbusters.”  It should also be mentioned that by “disasters”, what we are usually talking about (but not always) are events where the natural world plays a leading role, sometimes with human negligence or acts of violence co-starring.  As someone with a fascination with both disasters and ruins, I’ve often been troubled a little about what this says about me.   Why am I–or we–drawn to these depictions?  And is that a bad thing?

My first dip into the pool of disaster literature was reading about the sinking of the Titanic in Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.  It still holds up today as an outstanding narrative of the disaster, even after the wreck of Titanic was discovered and much more is known today about the physical facts of its sinking.  Lord focused on the people on the ship–who they were, where they were, and how they got off (or did not get off) Titanic. But he also interspersed this narrative with the facts, as they were known, about the construction of the ship and what actually happened to sink it.  He also presented the events almost as if they were a mystery to be solved.   This set a high bar for me in reading about subsequent disasters.  Some of them happened during my lifetime–Mt. St. Helens and Chernobyl being key examples–but others, such as the eruptions of Krakatau, Vesuvius (79 AD), and the 1900 Galveston hurricane–were historic events.  Without knowing it, I was developing a taste for the intersection of the natural world and the people who came into contact and conflict with it, as well as the investigations that revealed the scientific truths behind it all. And if there were ruins left to partially tell the story that human voices could no longer tell, all the better.

In the case of Chernobyl, it’s those ruins that have kept the disaster high in my consciousness over the years, along with the events’ occurrence when I was just 19. Ever since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 (forty years ago this coming Thursday, March 28, in fact), after reading the book Hiroshima in the ninth grade, and in the face of the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, I’d been not a little scared about anything nuclear.  But Chernobyl seemed to mark some kind of turning point, ironically enough.  It was almost as if it had to happen to prove such a thing really could happen.  Leatherbarrow notes that many believe that the accident played a non-insignificant part in the downfall of the Soviet Union due to its impact on the economy.  It also gave then-premier Mikhail Gorbachev the excuse to remove his more traditionally obfuscatory colleagues from political power in favour of greater transparency.  And less than two years after the accident, the US and the USSR had begun to decisively turn away from nuclear proliferation. Leatherbarrow states that the example of Chernobyl helped prove the case that nuclear wars were unwinnable and would likely destroy the planet.

As I mention, Leatherbarrow’s book focuses on the immediate causes of the accident in the design of the reactor at Chernobyl, the lack of complete testing, and the inability to believe, once the tragic events had been set in motion, that the worst case scenario was actually now reality–even when presented with clear evidence to the contrary. The operators of the plant–as well as the bureaucrats to whom then reported–had never prioritized risk mitigation or testing.  No one really knew what to do should something go wrong, because it was assumed that nothing ever could or would go wrong.  This tragic blindness is something we see in the Titanic disaster as well.  And if there is one mistake human beings keep making, it’s that one.

Another frequent trope found in writing about disasters is the stories of the heroes vs. those of villains.  Heroes are often found among those who sacrifice themselves so that others may live, and Chernobyl is particularly full of stories of the valiant young men who sacrificed themselves to help clean up the shattered site, as contrasted with plant managers who “caused” the accident.  Sometimes lost in it all are the greater mass of anonymous victims;  a good narrative is often able to bring forth their stories as well.  When we read of an event like Chernobyl, we are staggered by the young men who were sent in to clean fragments of fiercely radioactive graphite rods off of the roof of the reactor, the ones who in just 40 seconds received a lethal dose of radiation. But we probably identify more with the inhabitants of the nearby town of Pripyat, who were belatedly evacuated a couple of days after the disaster.  They believed the evacuation was temporary, and so they took little with them–meaning the town has been frozen in time yet rapidly returning to nature ever since.  And, as Leatherbarrow mentions–imagine leaving your pets behind because you assumed you were coming back.  As it turned out, these poor animals were mostly shot. Those that were not often died a gruesome and painful death from radiation poisoning.

Timothy Recuber states it this way: “Disaster porn, then, in all its iterations and for all its flaws, is a vital political terrain in which publics are at least implicitly asked to struggle with the social significance of the suffering of others. It connects public issues like war, famine, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks to the private lives of those they affect, and shows us how disruptions of social structure become disruptions in individual biographies.”   In reading these accounts, in looking at the photos and the artifacts, we place ourselves into the narrative, and we realize that yes, it could easily be us.

I am attracted to these stories precisely because my life has been privileged.  Reading about and understanding tragedy gives me perspective.  These stories and the physical artifacts they have left help me become more compassionate in the face of more mundane disasters, and even about the vicissitudes of everyday life.  It’s not about me, but it might be about someone close I care about, or about the community I love or live in, or about those who lack my privilege but share my humanity.

“When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.”  — Dmitri Shostakovich

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