We are all people of Pripyat now

I have just finished reading David Attenborough’s witness statement: ‘A life on our planet’. I was particularly struck by the metaphor he uses to describe us – our global civilisation in the 21st century – as being synonymous with the population of Pripyat, the town that was devastated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  The metaphor suggests that we have harnessed great power and energy to power our civilisation, but that power has the ability to destroy as much as it did to help build. David only mentions this briefly in the introduction but I got me thinking, how does a nuclear accident in an oppressed Soviet Union compare to climate change (i.e. fossil fuels) in a global free market economy? let me explain…

A recap of Chernobyl

Nuclear power is a testament to human ingenuity and it gave the people of Pripyat bountiful amounts of energy, allowing them to live far more comfortable lives than just a few decades before. Little did they know that danger was just around the corner. Something so complicated and magnificent, must have a comparable amount of safety regulations; with such innovation must come with the foresight and wisdom to manage such power… Right? Perhaps it would likely be a disservice to the people or Pripyat to assume that they were not acutely aware of the danger of such technology, but it is unlikely that they could ever conceive of such misguided leadership, and so they believed they were safe living in Pripyat, believing the powerful leadership of the Soviet Union had things under control.

Recently, a historical drama series portrays this innocence in a harrowing way, as residents watch the beautiful radiative sky from the ‘Bridge of Death in Pripyat after the explosion, mesmerised by the beauty of human’s creative destruction. The chief engineer Dyatlov was orchestrating the reckless procedure, pushing the reactor to the limit. The question then begs.. why did Dyatlov and the others let this happen? There are two simplified reasons here, individual agency (the choices of a few ‘bad’ people) or the influence of the structure around them (the political and cultural context that guide people in their actions). The first is more obvious, Dyatlov wanted to show off and climb the ranks of the communist Party, essentially he wanted more power and status and was willing to act in illicit ways to do so. The second is more difficult to untangle, it is about how the system pushes people to act in a certain way that results in terrible consequences. The engineers that fateful night who pushed the buttons were pressured by Dyatlov, who was pressured by those above him wanting results, who were in turn pressured by those above them, and so on. At each level people are driven by their own own desire until that pressure was manifested on those at the reactor that night. The communist party likes a scapegoat, blaming individuals who were incompetent – like Dyatlov – and that they will clean up the mess. This idea that the state will save the day is epitomised in the Chernobyl series when a local senior government official told everyone to “have faith” in the communist party. This faith in the powers that be creates the context that if the state is allowing these behaviours to occur then it must be ok. However… the communist party fail to mention that they hid key bits of the science, which meant that while Dyatlov caused the accident, he acted in a way that they thought was ok, or at least wouldn’t cause a nuclear meltdown.

We don’t live under an oppressive regime, so do we have faith in our governments now? Or more appropriately we should ask, do we have faith in those who have power? There isn’t one hegemonic ‘state’ anymore, we live in a far more complicated world. Governments are just one of a cacophony of actors enmeshed in a global political economy, there are: powerful oil companies, transnational corporations, international trade associations, intergovernmental bodies, global accreditation and standard setting organisations, the list goes on. Let’s just focus on the oil companies to make it easier.

How does this relate to where we are now?

Let’s use the metaphor of Pripyat for where we currently find ourselves. Fossil fuels – like the reactor at Chernobyl – are equally providing us with a bountiful supply of energy, allowing us to (seemingly) thrive. We rely on this technology to provide us with our way of life, yet this creation of energy will be our downfall. Unlike the people of Pripyat, we know the precarious position we are living in. We know that the technology that has created the abundance of energy is causing a serious problem (check my other post), that fossil fuels lead to global warming and climate change. We know this because we don’t live in a society that oppresses the freedom of information, we have come a long way from oppressive societies and we know that scientists have been raising the alarm, unlike the soviet scientists who were forced to conceal information on the orders of the Central Committee. Yet there has been a more insidious misinformation campaign, rather than the censorship of scientists, our supply of misinformation comes from the oil companies; the merchants of doubt. Exxon mobile, for example, have been purposefully hiding the truth of the dangers of this fossil fuels impact on the climate, they have sown doubt and made us question the information. These organisations have hidden the truth, lobbied governments to use of fossil fuels to whack the economy into sixth gear, told us to drink the black gold medicine, and get on board for more and more and more! They have put us on a trajectory that that means the likelihood of human-induced disaster is uncomfortably palpable.

So fossil fuels are our equivalent of the nuclear reactor and the antagonist of our story are the fossil fuel companies, like the oppressive communist state was in Chernobyl. These companies know they are pushing us to the limit, but they want something just like those within the communist party, they want power. But here the more elusive element comes into play, with Chernobyl the mix of misinformation and the pressure of the state system led individuals to push the limit of our energy system. Just like Dyatlov at Chernobyl, attempting to climb the ranks of the communist party by pushing for more results, we too can point to morally dubious behaviour that is encouraged in our current global economic system to ‘climb the ranks’ of society. To be successful in today’s world it isn’t about showing off the the communist party. Nope, money makes the world go round and it is a barometer of how much power you have. The scramble for power in the Soviet Union was to climb the ranks of the communist party, but for us in a global free market economy, it is to make the most money. Making money or growth (economic, revenue, financial – take your pick!), is driven by energy demand. Fossil fuels provide this energy. So, today the ambition for power leads not to the destruction of a nuclear reactor by reckless behaviour, but it leads to individuals and organisations with carbon footprints of small countries that are destabilising climatic processes that will lead to disaster. Whether they are aware of it or not, these are the Dyatlov’s of our system, the individuals in Exxon who promoted the disinformation campaigns or even Exxon itself. They are enabled to act in reckless way that can have devastating consequences.

Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This brings up the debate of system-change or behaviour-change, of structure vs agency well… we need both. But where do we point the finger? Is it at Exxon? or the individuals at Exxon? Or is it at global neoliberal economic paradigm, where free-market reigns supreme? Or is no one to blame – we need to just focus on new renewable tech and those that are lost in the floods and fires just collateral? Is there someone or some entity to blame? Or is it “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism

Just like radiation is the negative consequence of nuclear energy, climate change is the negative consequence of fossil fuels. It might be a lot more complicated but, can you see the parallels now? Yes, have a system that encourages behaviours which will lead to climate disaster, but that equally cannot absolve our Dyatlov’s of their gross negligence. We can’t throw our hands up and say “oh well Exxon might have messed up guys but the system made them do it!”. We equally can’t say well Exxon had to do it. No, they had a choice, just like Dyatlov, but it was influenced by a desire for power. We are harnessing all this energy, this power, without the foresight to manage it in a way congruent with the science. Why? Because politicians aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves on the alter of oil. They are worried they will lose popularity trying to save our global environment. Again, why? Economic growth, if we cut fossil fuels without the alternatives ready, we stall growth – which is an abomination to 21st century politics. There aren’t easy answers, I am merely pointing out the parallels with Chernobyl. Just like Dyatlov pushing the reactor to “a state not specified by procedures or investigated before”, hoping it wouldn’t pop. The big polluters of our world are pushing our planetary climatic conditions to a state never investigated before, we just reached the highest carbon concentration in the atmosphere in 4.5 million years, the question is… when will we pop?

We all know there are dangers, climate change is ‘bad’, but do we really know the dangers? Just like the people of Pripyat, they surely knew radiation was ‘bad’, but even after the explosion many were uncertain or unconcerned. What about now? The global population, like the people of Pripyat that fateful night, are also standing on the ‘bridge of death’ watching our own crisis unfold, ours is just happening over decades rather than days. As we stand here on our own bridge of death looking at the fire burning over there, we can enjoy the sights, thankful we can watch from a safe distance and we aren’t the ones having to put out the fire. But our world is global, and our lives interconnected. We too are affected by the actions of others and the consequences happening to others. What happens over there affects us over here, just like the invisible bullets of radiation that night, inescapably penetrating everything within its radius. Our consequence of irresponsibility is not radiation killing us within days or weeks, it’s the carbon in our atmosphere slowly churning the climate towards a state of unknown.

Climate change is our invisible bullet. So, whether we like it or not… we are all people of Pripyat now.

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