Chernobyl and the new environmental paradigm. Post-crisis hope
Essay by Igor Polskiy
- What is the formula written on your vest?
- Heart + tree = FSС. These vests are gifts. They tried to make us retire with farewell presents. But we are holding on.

I am on a train with an FSC Russia expert. FSC is an international certification system for the forest industry. Having begun as a grass-roots initiative with thought-out democratic procedures, it allows ecologists and people to control the activities of timber producers. For wood and paper manufacturers decorate products with the FSC logo as a sign of environmental friendliness and responsible forest management.

An expert tells me that recent years the FSC Economic Chamber has been pushing its people to the technical committee, lobbying for the interests of the business, and they are also going to put “their own” environmentalists there.

- FSC Russia’s environmental rating will fall and I don’t know if they realise it but all this is becoming a big financial pyramid....
We are sitting at a small station in the south of the Arkhangelsk region. Cars with stacks of trees are slowly passing by. “This goes to the paper mill. Birch - for plywood, Christmas trees - for cutting,” says the expert.
When my friends from an eco-community in Sweden tell me that in a dispute between a large oil company and the public, the court sided with the public, I understand how they manage to maintain optimism. If you live in a country where the state together with NGOs implement environmental programs, where cars use biogas and all energy switches to renewable sources you can maintain the belief that, although the situation is difficult, we can handle it. According to the creators of the film "Home" "It is too late to be pessimistic."

As for me I feel living in a completely different reality: when I am sitting on a bench and watching the stacks of the former forest passing by; when I am hearing that in Moscow radioactive waste has been buried since Soviet times and this does not stop officials planning the construction of a new highway; when I am reading about tons of garbage being exported from Moscow to the regions - and all this on the background of the Green Boom, ubiquitous eco-profanation and greenwashing.

What reality most of the planet lives in? What is the reality of tropical forests, melting glaciers, endangered species? Is it too late to be pessimistic?

Refusal to acknowledge the catastrophe - didn’t it cost the lives of many people, didn't’ it prevent from acting adequately on the first day after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station? What would you think while watching the Chernobyl series, when seeing a young and handsome fireman with a hose climbing up the wreckage to pour water on the nuclear reactor, just following orders from his superiors? Would you think: "What a fellow, what a hero, so bravely he is observing discipline, maintaining fidelity, perseverance and courage"? Or you’d think: “Fool! Trust your instincts, drop the hose and run away! Take your wife and save yourself!”?
People tend to stick to the existing picture of the world and follow social norms to the last, people hope and cling to the habitual. Paradoxically, even in a situation of crisis it turns out that it is easier to be optimistic than to recognize the catastrophe.
A month before the release of the Chernobyl series, I was visiting Swedish activists of the Extinction Rebellion movement. It was at the time when following two weeks of protests in London and other cities, the British government officially declared “Climate Emergency” - a state of emergency due to climate change. This news was greeted with rejoice: “Yuhu! We won! We were told that we can nothing change, but now an important European country has officially recognized the crisis. And this is only the beginning..."

Indeed, acknowledgement of a disaster is an important step. And I welcome it together with everyone. But in the reality where forest stacks continue passing by in order to be turned into certified office paper and juice packaging, I am asking myself and others: “What's next?”

What's next?

Living in this reality, neither optimistic nor pessimistic but as it is in front of my eyes, I am asking myself: “If I were Harrison Ford to speak at the global climate summit, or if I were an activist from XR, what would I demand from governments? What would be my political program?”
Forty years ago after the “The Limits of Growth” and the creation of the concept of sustainable development, I would probably have demanded a transition to renewable energy and a cyclic economy, implementation of universal separate waste collection, energy-saving and environment-friendly technologies - all that we usually mean by greening. But the environmental movement, its program and goals are not something abstract and eternal. We should act out of context. Time passes, the context changes, goals, program, requirements should change.

I don’t want to downplay the merits of environmentalists, I separate the waste and hand in the plastic for recycling but now I can’t consider this part of the solution. The situation has changed and continues to change very quickly. The authors of “The Limits of Growth” felt that we had a maximum of 100 years to change the track. Half of this period has passed but we have not slowed down the rate of environmental destruction and continue our completely non-sustainable growth.
On most part of the Earth “sustainable development” remained just an idea, while the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of the planet and the global climate imbalance are the reality in which we live as physical, biological and thinking creatures.
As Derrick Jensen writes, “What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse? The death of the salmon? Global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day? Four hundred? Six hundred? Give me a specific threshold, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word.
When shall we, I’m not talking about the entire society, but at least about ecologists and environmentalists, when shall we be ready to admit that we did not manage to prevent the catastrophe, that we are already experiencing it, and that we urgently need to reconsider the whole strategy and tactics of action in this regard, that the whole conceptual paradigm of the environmental movement should change?
Claiming that we did not manage to prevent the catastrophe - doesn’t it mean knocking the ground out of the modern environmental movement? What if despair comes to replace optimism and instead of activities in the name of sustainable development, people simply give up, will this help something? And then how shall we convince society and governments that it is still worth investing in environmental programs?

Acknowledging disaster is always a difficult step. Someone can really give up but most people are able to recover from the shock and begin to act in this new reality in the name of human and inhuman life. To effectively save people and other creatures from the consequences of an accident, you need to take the first step - to recognize the scale of the disaster. The reports of the Club of Rome, the Stockholm Resilience Center, climate and other studies tell us about the scale of the disaster but no conclusions from scientists can convince people who refuse to recognize this reality while there is at least something that their mind can cling to.
We have been told since childhood that environmental problems can be solved by the introduction of new technologies and change in some of our actions. However, we actually do not know any major civilization that managed to live long and sustainably on this planet.
And what we know more or less clearly is that after the emergence of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago in the Middle East and then in other places, agricultural societies began to rapidly grow and occupy new territories enslaving or assimilating local residents. Centers of ancient agriculture, such as the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates or Sahara, eventually destroyed their own ecosystem which led to desertification of these territories. Developing civilizations needed the resources of other territories which resulted in a large-scale expansion and colonisation.

Exploitation of natural systems was exported to the colonies and resources were imported into the metropolis but the Earth appeared to be round and all this could not go on forever. And here we are. Science fiction and cosmists called us into space where we would find another America with infinite wealth to move the extraction of resources into space. But we could not find another America for exploration and here on the Earth we brought the situation to mass destruction of species and environmental disaster. I will repeat: we do not know a single major civilization that has existed for a long time. We came up with the concept of "sustainable development" but actually we do not know how civilization can reach to this condition which we invented. Nobody has ever done this before and despite all those pathetic words and the money spent, we have not made much progress on this path. We reassure ourselves that we still have some time, and this, apparently, will be our reassurance until the very last moment.

To regain awareness we need to be able to see that
We are not just on the decline of one of Kondratiev’s waves but on the decline of a much longer wave. It began with the emergence of agricultural societies, slowly growing with the increase of population and the development of technologies which subsequently gave rise to explosive growth in recent centuries and finally has come to the inevitable decline.
It makes no difference if we have ten, twenty years or more - we still don’t know what to do and how we will really change. We even refuse to see this wave. Or we can’t do this because a big wave is hard to feel when you are inside it.
But if we still imagine that we managed to see this; if at least within the environmental movement we recognize the disaster and begin to talk about it aloud, how will this affect our program and activities? What would then be the reasonable demands of green political movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future? If you put yourself in their shoes from this perspective, what would you require from governments, what program would you suggest?

The series "Chernobyl" shows the inertia, inadequacy and late actions of large hierarchical structures in response to complex crisis situations, and at the same time, the heroism and value of individual actions of those who manage to recognise the situation on time, take responsibility and act accordingly. The law of W. Ashby states that “for the effectiveness of management the diversity of the managing impact must not be lower than the diversity of the managed system”. It is at least naive to hope that governments, the UN or any similar bureaucratic and hierarchical structure can effectively manage the situations of environmental and climate crisis. The complexity of biosphere problems far exceeds the complexity of these clumsy, infrastructure dependent organizations, it is simply beyond their competence. And yet, if today I were a representative of an environmental movement that puts forward political demands to governments, I would say: “There is something which still can be done. Something very important.”

Disasters often have a chain character, causing one another. An example of such a chain reaction is a sharp reduction in the number of bees which results in the reproductive problems of plants requiring pollination and the loss of whole trophic chains. In a technologically advanced civilization the chain nature of disasters can be illustrated with the situation with water-filled tanks after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The water was not dangerous until the disaster happened but in the first days after the explosion the possibility of contacе with a huge mass of water caused a risk of another explosion of a greater strength and lethality. At that time the actions of people who timely drew the attention of the government to it, saved many lives.

Things and processes that did not cause a serious danger can suddenly become terribly deadly in a crisis situation. The well-known tragedy in Fukushima is an example of such a chain reaction. The catastrophe in the form of a powerful earthquake caused an accident at the stable nuclear power station.

Currently, storages of nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons are concentrated in various parts of the globe, nuclear power stations are operating and are being built, tons of unused radioactive fuel and highly toxic substances are stored. Both in Russia and in Sweden and in other countries there are people who believe that nuclear power is a sustainable and “climate-smart” solution. I do not want to argue with them. Anyway this statement can only be true in a stable situation that does not provoke a catastrophe with a risk of causing larger catastrophes in a chain manner. We are in a crisis situation, in the process of environmental and climate changes which civilized humanity has never encountered before. Various chain reactions of this crisis are inevitable: in our holistic and interconnected world environmental and climate disasters are already causing economic, social and political crises. The number of so-called climate or environmental refugees could soon exceed the number of people fleeing war ...

Today explosive, radioactive, highly toxic and other deadly substances are mainly under the control of the military, scientists and governments. Their relatively safe storage and use requires special infrastructure and a certain level of social and political stability. If political and social stability is seriously disrupted by the climate and ecological crisis, what will happen to these substances? Who will then be able to take care of their storage, maintenance and take the necessary measures in case of an accident?

The purpose of this text is neither to frighten the reader nor to push to despair. The goal is to say that the situation has already changed and that we need to recognize what is actually happening. It is necessary to stop trusting fantasies and ideas that exist only at a symbolic level, but are slightly connected to the physical and biological reality of our lives. The reality which is undergoing very rapid changes. Acknowledgment of the situation is valuable in itself as it allows us to change our way of thinking and acting, to seek and find new guidelines and hopes rooted not in techno-utopism and the ghostly belief in “sustainable development” but in the real opportunities of maintaining life during the crisis and after it.

Such an acknowledgement presupposes to take actions aimed at transformation of our life and the whole culture, creating the future aligned with the real situation, laying the seeds of a future that can grow after a fire. But also acknowledgement of the current crisis leads to urgent actions aimed at saving people and other living beings from those disasters and accidents from which we can still protect ourselves. The mission of journalists, activists, scientists, environmentalists, politicians, the entire environmental movement and civil society today is to
Sound the alarm and demand that governments, corporations and international organizations, right after acknowledging the crisis take urgent measures of recycling and the safe disposal of nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons, radioactive, highly toxic and other substances that can cause mass death and long-term harm to human and non-human living things in the case of a catastrophe.
We cannot predict how the situation will develop, we don’t know which scenario the crisis will take. But we know for sure that there is a crisis, that the climate is changing, that the integrity of the biosphere is broken, and that disasters cause new disasters.

This is enough reason to act and include these requirements into the current agenda. Preserving the lives of people and other living beings is a universal enough value for the cooperation of various political, ideological and social forces. Big words often sound false, but it seems that our duty to mankind and to the planet today is no longer to prevent a crisis that has already come, but using the years of relative stability that we still have to plant seeds of the future and prevent crises and disasters even more terrible than those that we are facing now. It’s too late to be pessimistic, but too late to be optimistic. The time has come to become realistic - to recognize and accept the situation and act in the name of life.

I am in a small village in the south of the Arkhangelsk region. The catastrophe here took place a long time ago. The village lost in the forests is connected with the civilized world by a shaky hanging bridge and a road supported by lumberjacks. Many residents left, the store closed, good log houses are gradually rotting and falling apart but life in the village does not end. The new owners of four houses plant and sow, keep animals and repair buildings. The bridge was already twice broken and taken away by the river due to deforestation of coastal forests, electricity is sometimes cut off… But I have no doubt that people will manage to live here despite everything like in many other parts of the globe... You may think that we are talking about the end of the world or something like that but this is not true. We are talking here about a new hope which could be called post-crisis or even post-apocalyptic - the hope that the chain of generations will not interrupt and despite the current difficult situation life will go on in new conditions, in new social forms and new ecosystems that will adapt to changes. Perhaps, this crisis is our opportunity to rethink our way of living and managing, to create a truly sustainable civilization or something completely new, the name for which has not yet been invented. But for the latter we need to survive first. The "Chernobyl" series was released surprisingly on time. Like an alarm sound and a reminder of the recent past, it warns us of a possible future that we have to prevent.
Author Igor Polskiy, master of cultural studies, PhD in social philosophy, board member of Russian Ecovillage and Eco-initiative Union (GEN-Russia), leading educator in Forest School project, co-founder of Metaversity Ecostream and On the edge project.

Translator and editor Tatevik Gukasyan

Illustrations and design Peter Levich, founder of Future Foundation and monk at Technoashram

Photos by Tatyana Gulyaeva