Tag Archives: Pollution

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.

 

The New Northwest Passage and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

Last week the NPR program Fresh Air broadcast a pair of interviews that are to be recommended.

On Tuesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist McKenzie Funk about the commercial opportunities related to global warming. The opening of the Northwest Passage with the shrinking of Arctic ice, for instance, is but one of many commercial opportunities that global warming provides, and there is a scramble amongst nations and business interests to exploit new shipping lanes and extract fossil fuels and mineral resources suddenly made accessible. There is plenty to be learned here about capitalism, coercion, and environmental degradation.

On Wednesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist Ken Ward about the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. The story is one of a profound failure of regulatory oversight, but also the failure of a discursive regime that disempowers the citizenry by distorting basic reality. The interview ends on a hopeful note, though, as Ken Ward suggests that a cultural shift may be afoot that we outsiders may be largely unaware of.

Buy Nothing Day Blessings

Reverend Billy appeared on Democracy Now! Tuesday. Reverend Billy is facing jail time for a protest action staged in September against JP Morgan Chase for the bank’s support of the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth watching, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Reverend Billy’s courageous work.

Reverend Billy appeared in a documentary a few years ago produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. In the last scene Rev. Billy strolls through Disneyland shouting a kind of desperate protest as the “park’s” day trippers look on, some enjoying the spectacle, others devoutly ignoring what’s taking place. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with the exact opposite political program. The scene itself is remarkable, by the point in the film Rev. Billy has traveled across the country visiting malls and big box stores, and after all the amusing stunts and tricks, pleads with the crowd to break through the ideological fantasy. The Disney security promptly descends on him, insisting that he “needs” to stop. At the end of the scene, he is sitting in handcuffs for having disrupted Disney’s carefully structured illusion.

The trailer for What Would Jesus Buy? can be viewed here.

The full film is also now available for viewing pleasure on YouTube.

Love Canal Retrospective

Retroreport.org this week published a retrospective on Love Canal. I’m reminded a bit of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s thoughts on such “concerned citizens” movements in his essay “A Critique of Political Ecology:” That their targets are limited in scope and susceptible to social illusion, but they are germs of greater mass movements.

The Retroreport series, I might add, is an incredibly thoughtful and enlightening antidote to the pace of the news cycle, what with its painfully short historical memory.

Environmental Degradation and the Geography of Beer

I’ve been doing some reading around on the collapse of Braunschweig’s water supply in 1891.  I was struck by this little quip, which appeared on January 5, 1892 in the Braunschweigische Anzeigen in an article looking back on the year 1891:

Die Schmerzen, die es Anfang des Jahres und zwischendurch noch einige Male das Okerwasser bereitete, mögen von abgesagten Wasserfeinden und ausgesprochenen Verehrern des Münchener Bräus vielleicht weniger empfunden sein, als von den Hausfrauen, deren feinste Tafelwäsche unter den Einwirkungen des verunreinigten Elements litt, das so klar aus den grünen Harzbergen kommt und erst in der Nähe unserer Stadt jenen Geschmack annahm, der, weniger süß als der Zucker der schuldigen Fabriken, diesen letzteren schon manche berechtigte Verwünschungen eingetragen hat.

Sworn enemies of water and worshippers of Munich brew may have felt the pain that the Oker river water brought at the b of beginning of the year and intermittently since then less than the housewives whose finest tablecloths suffered from the effects of the dirty element, that runs clear from the Harz mountains.  Only in the vicinity of our city does it take on that taste that, being less sweet than the sugar of the guilty factories, justified certain curses directed against the sugar.

Obviously there is a certain facetiousness here, and in my use of the quote.  But it strikes me not only because I recently pointed out that the origin of one’s beer matters in Der Stechlin, but because of the way that beer is implicated in what American environmental discourse imagines as “place connectedness.”  The author, whose name was not attached to the article, may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless the drinker of the beer from elsewhere is contrasted to the housewife, who depends on the water supplied by runoff from the Harz mountains not far from Braunschweig.

Incidentally, I often wonder about the analytic of “place” which seems to have considerable currency in American ecocriticism especially.  I recently had the chance to read Ursula Heise’s book Sense of Place and Sense of Planet.  I’ll have more to say about it another time, but Heise, who notes explicitly that she is writing from a German perspective, sees this thinking about place as specific to environmentalism in the U.S., and shows that it is caught up in both American and international imaginaries of the socially and geographically mobile U.S. citizen.  But given the way that industrialization and urbanization seems to alienate one from the familiar – and here I’m mostly thinking about Raabe, if only because he writes about this problem so explicitly and so consistently – is place an analytic that is apparent in Germany prior to the twentieth century?  Is “place” to be distinguished from “Heimat,” or when American ecocritics talk about “place,” are they really talking about “Heimat?”  And finally, how much mileage does a project of literary criticism get from these kinds of concepts?

The Literary History of Braunschweig’s Water Supply

Wilhelm Raabe’s 1884 novel Pfisters Mühle was famously inspired by an actual court case in the city of Braunschweig in the 1880s.  Raabe’s novel is often hailed as German literature’s first “Öko-Roman,” although as I have indicated in a prior post, that is by no means Braunschweig_Brunswick_Marienbrunnen_von_Süden_(2007)uncontested.  Be that as it may, the novel is responding to a significant moment in German environmental history.  Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of trash and untreated human waste dumped into rivers and streams was the most pressing pollution problem, particularly in the cities.  With the rapid industrialization of Germany, the byproducts of industrial production predictably eclipsed urban sewage as a source of woe.  The degradation of the water, in turn, meant that mills, baths, and other commercial establishments that depended on the water downstream were effectively put out of business.  The result was a series of so called “Wasserprozesse,” or “water trials” at the end of the 19th century.  Most of these trials were suits brought by commercial enterprises seeking to recoup profits lost from industrial pollution.  Pfisters Mühle dramatizes (or more accurately, under-dramatizes) the trial of the real mills in the villages of Bienrode and Wenden against the beet sugar factory Rautheim, all of which are now located within the Braunschweig city limits.

Here’s a bit of interesting history.1

  •  Braunschweig was a major center of beet sugar production in 19th century Germany.  The first factories began operation in the 1830s, and by the 1860s the industry was a cornerstone of the city’s economy.  The production season began in September, after the harvest, and lasted until late January or February.
  • Beet sugar production produces an incredible amount of waste water.  The processing of a single beet for sugar produces 30 to 40 cubic meters of waste water.  In the 1880s Rautheim would have processed about 25,000 tons of beets during the campaign, pumping out around a million cubic meters of waste water.  And Rautheim was just one of many in the Braunschweig area.  Some factories tried to dilute the byproducts of sugar production, but this only increased the consumption of water and put further pressure on the overall supply.
  • German cities began building filtration facilities in the 1860s, but the technology was often regarded as too expensive to be worth the allocation of city resources, and so they remained uncommon for decades after the technology was developed.  Braunschweig maintained filtration facilities to protect the water quality in the Oker river, which runs directly through town and provided the city with most of its drinking water, but these were ill equipped to handle the growing volume of waste from the beet sugar factories.  Rautheim maintained a small sewage farm on its premises, but this was not nearly enough to absorb all of the waste, and so most of it went into the Wabe stream, which drains into the Schunter, all of which are part of the Oker river basin.
  • The denizens of Braunschweig began noticing the decline in drinking water quality around 1880.  During the campaign of 1884-1885, shortly after Pfisters Mühle hit bookshelves (where, unfortunately for Raabe, most of the copies stayed), pollution from the beet sugar factories overwhelmed the city’s filtration facilities, and the drinking water supply collapsed.  This became a regular occurence until 1895, when the city finally expanded its purification system.
  • In January of 1891 the factory at Broitzem attempted to clear its waste water by releasing iron salt into its waste water.  This apparently cleared the water of the byproducts of beet sugar production, but gave Braunschweig’s water a red-brown color, meaning that nobody could do their laundry without staining all of their clothes.
  • In Pfisters Mühle, it is the smell of the water that drives away most of the mill’s guests and employees.  The waste water from beet sugar production contains a considerable amount of hydrogen sulfide.  The bacteria beggiatoa feeds off of the hydrogen sulfide.  Hydrogen sulfide is also the gas often responsible for the offensive odor of human flatus.

In Raabe’s most famous novel Stuffcake (1889) we learn that Heinrich Schaumann is financing his amateur archaeology by renting out some of his arable land to the local beet sugar factory.  When I taught that novel, I made sure to draw the students’ attention to this.  Later that semester I was as surprised as they were when W.G. Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn falls into a conversation with a beet sugar farmer who pointed out “the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and th history of art” (194).2  Sebald’s novel links this to the global networks of exploitation that evolved out of European colonialism, a problem that also lurks in the background of Raabe’s 1889 novel.

1.  See Behrens, Christian. Die Wassergesetzgebung im Herzogtum Braunschweig nach Bauernbefreiung und industrieller Revolution: Zur Genese des Wasserrechts im bürgerlichen Rechtsstaat. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2009 Hamburg.; Blasius, Rudolf, and Heinrich Beckurts. “Verunreinigung und Reinigung der Flüsse nach Untersuchungen des Wassers der Oker.” Deutsche Viertelsjahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27.2 (1895): 337-60.;  Kluge, Thomas, and Engelbert Schramm. Wassernöte: Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers. Aachen: Alano, 1986.; Uekötter, Frank. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg, 2007.

2. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1998.