"It's the overpopulation stupid!"
There are typically three successive and overlapping inhabitational
stages attaching a 'new organism surviving into an econiche' -
diasporative: that of the new organism proliferating into some
'essentially new' econiche-whole dynamic; saturative: the organism
overpopulating what the econiche can support of it, and -organism population
receding, consequently- stable: manifesting 'the dynamic stability of
classical, econiche biologies'.
(-from The Unemployability Conjecture)
It is not difficult to understand -but no one wants to touch, that we have been
needing successively more energy only because we have continued to
reproduce and overpopulate like all the primitive animals of our
origins, and primitively absent too, accordingly, is properly scientific oversight regarding such things as
'the genetic nature of man and his future on the planet.
A handful of dilapidated roads cross the zone, half overgrown
with weeds and grasses, and the whole area is littered with pockets of intense
radiation, but nature doesn’t seem to mind. The zone is reverting to one big,
untamed forest, and it all sounds like a fantastic success story for nature:
Remove the humans and the wilderness bounces right back. Lured by tales of
mammals unknown in Europe since the Dark Ages, we’re setting out on an atomic
April 1, 2011 The Week Magazine
Essay - After the apocalypse
Twenty-five years after the meltdown at Chernobyl, says Henry Shukman, an
irradiated Eden is coming to life
THE WILD BOAR is standing 30 or 40 yards away, at the bottom of a
grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance, I can see its
outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles
along its back. And it’s far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a
man. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of
it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful
legs twice as long as a pig’s, and vanishes into the trees.
I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. This is
northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles
across in places, that’s been off-limits to human habitation since 1986. At
the Chernobyl Center, a kind of makeshift reception building in the heart
of the old town, I have to hand over a solid 9 inches of local
bills—hryvnia, pronounced approximately like the sound of a cardsharp
riffling a deck—sign a stack of agreements, compliances, and receipts, and
then get checked on an Austin Powers–style Geiger counter made out of
chrome. Finally, under the protection of a guide, a driver, and an
interpreter, my photographer and I are free to set off into the zone—as long
as we do exactly what our guide says.
A nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, nearly 25 years after the catastrophic
meltdown in the Ukrainian city. Photo: CC BY: Martijn Munneke
IT WAS SOON after 1 a.m. on the night of April 26, 1986, that one of the
world’s nightmare scenarios unfolded. Reactor 4 in the huge Chernobyl power
station blew up. The causes are still the subject of debate, but it was some
combination of a design flaw involving the control rods that regulate reactor
power levels, a poorly trained engineering crew, a test that required a power-
down of the reactor, and a dogged old-style Soviet boss who refused to believe
anything major could be wrong.
At any rate, it was spectacular. Eight-hundred-pound cubes of
lead were tossed around like popcorn. The 1,000-ton sealing cap was blown clear
off the reactor. A stream of raspberry-colored light shone up into the night
sky—ionized air, so beautiful that inhabitants of the nearby city of Pripyat
came out to stare. When it was all over, estimates former deputy chief engineer
Grigori Medvedev, the radioactive release was 10 times that of Hiroshima.
Thirty people died on the night of the explosion or soon
after. Two days later, a convoy of 1,100 buses shipped out all the inhabitants
of Pripyat, turning it into a ghost city overnight.
In the following weeks, bureaucrats in Moscow designated an
1,100-square-mile Exclusion Zone—roughly the size of Yosemite—reasoning that
the farther from Chernobyl people were, the better.
Today, around 5,000 people work in the Exclusion Zone, which
over the years has grown to an area of 1,660 square miles. For one thing, you
can’t just switch off a nuclear power plant. Even decommissioned, it requires
maintenance, as does the new nuclear-waste storage facility on site. The
workers come in for two-week shifts and receive three times normal pay.
There are also some 300 people living in the zone: villagers
who’ve been coming home to their old farming lands since not long after the
disaster, and teams of radioecologists from around the world who’ve come to
study the effects of radioactive fallout on plants and animals. They’ve
effectively turned the zone into a giant radiation lab, a place where the
animals are mostly undisturbed, living amid a pre-industrial number of humans
and a postapocalyptic amount of radioactive strontium and cesium.
On the outside, the fauna seems to be thriving: There have
been huge resurgences in the numbers of large mammals, including gray wolves,
brown bears, elk, roe deer, and wild boars present in quantities not recorded
for more than a century. The question scientists are trying to answer is what’s
happening on the inside: in their bones and in their very DNA.
ONCE YOU ENTER the zone, the quiet is a shock. It would be eerie were it
not so lovely. The abandoned backstreets of Chernobyl are so overgrown, you can
hardly see it’s a town. They’ve turned into dark-green tunnels buzzing with
bees, filled with an orchestral score of birdsong, the lanes so narrow that the
van pushes aside weeds on both sides as it creeps down them, passing house
after house enshrined in forest. Red admirals, peacock butterflies, and some
velvety brown lepidoptera are fluttering all over the vegetation. It looks like
something out of an old Russian fairy tale.
Ukraine officially opened Chernobyl up to tourism in January
2011, but small groups have been able to visit the zone for the past few years.
There are small tour operators based in Kiev that take visitors on day trips.
You don’t need Geiger counters or special suits; you just have to stay with the
tour, pass through several checkpoints, and get tested for radiation on your
way out. The tours will shuttle you around some of the main sites—the deserted
city of Pripyat, a small park filled with old Soviet army vehicles used in the
cleanup, various concrete memorials to the fire crews who lost their lives
after the blast.
The most contaminated of the villages were bulldozed and
buried soon after the explosion, with only a few mounds and ridges left to show
they were ever there. The meadows are mostly gone, replaced by forest. Russia
is a land of forests, but the true forest, the primeval untouched forest that
human eyes may never even have seen, is called pushcha—which roughly translates
as “dense forest.” This is what has been reestablishing itself at Chernobyl,
regenerating at an unprecedented rate.
At the edge of Chernobyl, we stop by the half-mile-wide
Pripyat River. It’s unbelievably peaceful. Frogs plop into the water,
dragonflies hover—it’s like a weight has been lifted from the world. The main
sounds are the different shades of hissing of wind in the trees: high nearby,
deeper and steadier farther away. This must be what life was like 1,000 years
ago, when the entire human population of the globe was roughly 250 million.
Our tour guide, Sergey, tells us about the herds of boars he
has seen, 50 strong, rampaging through the forest. And about a starving wolf
pack that surrounded a scientist friend of his in a wood one winter day. He had
to shoot every last one to get away.
Is this the world before humanity? Or after? Is there a
TODAY THERE ARE around 5,000 adult wild boars in the Exclusion Zone. In
1995 there were many more, but they suffered an epidemic and have now
stabilized. There are 25 to 30 wolf packs, a total of maybe 180 adults. Many
more lynx live here than before, along with foxes, barsuks (a Ukrainian
badger), hundreds of red deer, and thousands of roe deer and elk. Out of the
disaster comes a paradise of wildlife. The Garden of Eden is regenerating.
But it’s not so straightforward.
For 17 years, biologist Igor Chizhevsky has been studying how
animals metabolize cesium and strontium. On the surface, Igor says, the
wildlife seems to be thriving, but under the fur and hide, the DNA of most
species has become unstable. They’ve eaten a lot of food contaminated with
cesium and strontium. Even though the animals look fine, there are differences
at the chromosomal level in every generation, as yet mostly invisible. But some
have started to show: There are bird populations with freakishly high levels of
albinism, with 20 percent higher levels of asymmetry in their feathers, and
higher cancer rates.
Covered in radioactive particles after the disaster, one
large pine forest turned from green to red. Some birch trees have grown in the
shape of large, bushy feathers, without a recognizable trunk at all.
“Genomes, er, unpredictable,” says Igor. “Genome not exactly
same from generation to generation. They change.”
No one knows what these changes could result in. “Soon or
late,” Igor says, “new species will evolve.”
In other words, new animals could actually be in the making
here. The area has become a laboratory of microevolution—“very rapid
evolution,” says Igor—but no one knows what will emerge or when.
Visiting the Exclusion Zone is like staring down the barrel
of our likely fate. We may wipe ourselves out with a nuclear holocaust, or with
carbon and methane, or some other way we can’t yet conceive of. Cyanobacteria
poisoned their own atmosphere two and a half billion years ago by releasing
vast quantities of a gas that was poisonous to them—oxygen—and in the process
created an atmosphere suited to higher forms of land life. Who knows what
creatures may adapt to a high-carbon, high-methane atmosphere if we keep going
the way we are?
They may include us, or not.
WE DRIVE ON to the old power station itself. It’s a large area of vast
concrete buildings. One of them is the stricken Reactor 4, some 200 feet tall,
with a giant chimney still rising out of it. For almost 25 years it’s stood
encased in a “sarcophagus” of cement, but the seal is far from perfect, and it
There are canals threading through the giant buildings, which
provided water for the old coolant system, and in one of them the catfish have
grown to prodigious sizes. We stop on a metal bridge and gaze down into the
brown water. Suddenly the monsters rise to the surface, some of them a good 10
feet long, black, whiskered, curling around as they hunt for the bread people
They’re not big because of radiation, Sergey insists. It’s
just that they haven’t been fished for a quarter of a century.
The whole area is like this: fecund, scary. Later Sergey
takes us to an army barracks where some soldier friends of his keep a few wild
pets. From the dark doorway of one of the sheds issues a terrific subterranean
grunt, and a moment later, as if in a hurry, out trots another wild boar. It
comes straight at the fence, presses against it with the weird, wet sucker of
its long, long nose, then raises its bristly head and eyeballs me as if I’m
something from another planet.
In a pen next door there’s another forest sprite—the barsuk,
a very close relative of our badger. When it comes out of its kennel, it runs
up a woodpile, turns at the top, and proceeds to stare right into me with
deeply strange eyes. Something in me seems to recognize something in it, and I
feel a pang of longing. Is it for the deep forest, the pushcha? For the trees,
the smell of autumn leaves, of mushrooms and mold? For the freedom to live our
own way, far from society?
Crouching and staring, the barsuk doesn’t move a muscle. It
could be a stuffed animal, with eyes of glass. Or perhaps a new species,
staring at the world with new eyes.
By Henry Shukman.