The Importance of Disaster Tourism – A Conversation with Kate Brown

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

“A professional disaster tourist.” This is how Dr. Kate Brown describes herself. Brown is a Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the most recent guest in the Facing the Anthropocene series. In her conversation with Dr. Norman Wirzba, she became a disaster tour guide, leading listeners to contested borders, the Chernobyl disaster zone, and radioactive waste sites in Siberia and Washington. As she went, she demonstrated the importance of both faithfully telling the stories of disasters and learning from the “experts of survival” living in their aftermath.

Take, for example, the Chernobyl Zone, which Brown addresses in her most recent book Manual of Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. Located officially in the northern part of Ukraine, the Chernobyl Zone is multi-ethnic borderland that was forcibly depopulated because of the radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. The consequences of improper handling of radioactive waste, both in the Chernobyl Zone and around other nuclear powerplants in Siberia and Northwest America, have spread far and wide – into food, water, air, and human bodies. This damage, according to Brown, is “a lesson about what happens in the wake of progress and modernity.” The rapid spread of radioactive contamination became ominous, irrefutable evidence of the vast communicative power of an ecosystem.

As a result, the potential threats of modern technology reach well beyond any delineated “zone,” as demonstrated by discrepancies in mortality reports following the Chernobyl disaster. While the United Nation’s official fatality count is between thirty-three and fifty-four, Brown asserted that the death toll was much higher. If one goes to the communities surrounding the Chernobyl Zone, she said, “you’ll meet fifty-four people who will tell you about fifty-four family members who died from… Chernobyl causes.” Viewing these disasters as isolated and contained is a dangerous mistake. Brown put it into simpler terms: blueberries picked in radioactive wastelands will show up on cereal bowls in middle-class American households. Economies do not abide by national borders, and neither do disasters.  

In her discussion of the Chernobyl Zone, Brown highlighted the role of embodied knowledge.  She said, “There’s all kind of people who are experts. There are scientists, there are medical doctors, and there are also the people who have had to experience tragedy and trauma and the impact of the Anthropocene on their bodies themselves.” Citing the example of textile workers exposed to contaminated drinking water from Chernobyl, Brown described the way these women understood the spread of radiation in their bodies. Though most of them did not have even a high school education, they were able to pinpoint the presence of radioactive isotopes in their organs. Brown said, “their bodies become these very modern wastelands or landscapes which makes living that much harder.”

For Brown, embodied knowledge fuels the research questions: “Tak[e] cues from these villagers and these workers and believ[e] them,” she told Wirzba. In addition to believing them, Brown also substantiated their stories with archival evidence. She identified the systemic incentivization that often kept the truth of radioactive contamination from emerging, explaining that consultants at the United Nations profited from nuclear powerplants and needed protection against lawsuits. For Brown, disasters never “just happen;” there is a web of power structures, economic systems, and incentivized secrecy that augments them. But while managers, government officials, and corporations provided “expert” witnesses that minimized the impact of a radioactive disaster like Chernobyl, bodies, animals, and ecosystems also testify to harm done. From the conglomeration of scientific, historical, anthropological, and environmental evidence, a concrete account of the deleterious effects of disaster emerges.

The cues of villagers and workers are not only important when speaking of disastrous places, but also when speaking of healthy places. Brown spoke of her own neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Deanwood, once a predominantly Black neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Faced with minimal infrastructure, Deanwood residents grew accustomed to growing their own food, composting, and keeping chickens and pigs. Homeowner occupancy rates were on par with some of the wealthier areas of D.C. For Brown, Deanwood residents’ investment in the land creates a picture of a healthy place. “We could have more equity, more sustainability, better diets, healthier food. We’d have our hands in the ground so that we could join our lives with the microbial world arounds us.” Thus, Brown portrayed an urban environment that is also uniquely agricultural, a rarity when one considers the concrete jungle of the typical modern city.

A healthy place, according to Brown, is one that fosters an awareness of humanity’s interconnectivity with the world. From DNA to air to the tree outside an office window to neighbors, the world Brown described was not one in competition but instead, in communication. “Instead of thinking of separate entities, private properties, bounded nations, I think we need to think in terms of commons, in terms of cooperation, in terms of…the human as an extended organism,” she said. This idea is more than theoretical for Brown. She described a collaborative project to garden in any available green space in her neighborhood with the aim of creating an “edible forest.” This gardening effort renewed her connection with her neighbors—sheltered and unsheltered—and with the plants themselves. Brown argued that working the landscape makes us more attuned to and better gatherers of embodied knowledge. Strawberry plants or livestock can become “barometers or Geiger counters,” giving information normally reserved for the technically proficient to the one who is simply attuned to living things.

The Anthropocene epoch promises more disaster in the future. As a “professional disaster tourist,” Brown has become an expert on how we might navigate such disasters. The road is not an easy one. In many ways, the people living in the Chernobyl Zone and other disaster locales have faded from public memory. But by faithfully attending to their stories, Brown ensures that these “experts of survival” are not forgotten. The world needs them, perhaps now more than ever.

Join us on February 11, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Yale Professor of Law, Douglas Kysar. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.