Today was the 23rd anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. I had been invited to give a sermon at a nearby Unitarian church connected to both this anniversary and the May Day (Beltane) that’s coming up in a few days, and my thoughts, in preparation, revolved around how both of those dates, along with Earth Day four days earlier, combine a significance in cyclical time — the ritualized time by which people shape their daily, monthly, and annual life rhythms — and in world-historical time, that is, the time of events that have redefined humanity’s relationship to the world at large.
Earth Day 1970 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 both served as moments of recognition of environmental risk and hazard. Earth Day instituted the practice of large-scale political demonstrations and teach-ins on the environment. The 1970 Earth Day involved about 20 million people in the US; the 1990 Earth Day, at the peak of the ‘second wave’ of environmental activism, is thought to have involved 200 million participants in 140 different countries. Earth Day’s evolution thus offers a kind of gauge of the popular pulse of environmental awareness, and with its institutionalization into childrens culture, a gauge for the struggle over how our kids’ attitudes towards nature develop and, in turn, for how they may put pressure on us to change our ways.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, was the single most important shock to a system (the Soviet) that was eventually brought down by the events it triggered. This was especially the case in Ukraine, where it catalyzed an environmental movement that ultimately mutated into the national independence movement. More so than most environmental disasters, Chernobyl remains mired in debates over its impacts. The International Atomic Energy Association’s 2006 report (co-authored with the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program) cited data suggesting that no more than 4000 cancer deaths can be traced to the radioactive release from the Chernobyl accident. In response, Greenpeace International produced a report citing scientific data that the number is really between 100,000 and 200,000. Victims’ groups, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and even previous WHO reports appear to line up on the side of Greenpeace in this debate. Critics on both sides dispute the other side’s research methods, their use of epidemiological data, estimates for escaped nuclear fuel (which the IAEA puts at 3-4%, while others have claimed that 50% or even almost all of the reactor’s fuel escaped into the environment). See here , here, and here on the “body count” and other controversies.
Chernobyl, in this sense, is a marker that we’ve clearly entered the era of what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls the risk society: we know there are pervasive, invisible, anthropogenic risks all around us, and that these risks emerge from technological systems too complex for any single individual to understand — so that even the experts disagree on them — but we also know we have to rely on their tools and expertise to make sense of them. The way forward, for Beck, is to institutionalize a reflexive and democratic politics of knowledge, but that’s easier to do in relatively eco-enlightened social democracies like Beck’s Germany than in the USA. (The Soviet Union’s inability to deal with it helped bring down the entire system.)
Meanwhile, journalist Mary Mycio , author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, is cited on the IAEA web site describing the evacuated zone today as “a vast and beautiful wilderness of forests and wetlands that are gradually consuming the remains of towns and villages” and “teeming with moose, deer, wild boars and some 250 species of birds”, with wolves seen in broad daylight, and even endangered lynx making a comeback. “Human activities,” she argues, “are far more damaging to nature than radiation—at least the type and amounts of radiation released by Chernobyl. Perhaps we are the real environmental disaster.” (Take that, IAEA!) (See the photos on Sergiy Paskevych’s remarkable Exclusion Zone web site for a glimpse of the zone today. The photo above is taken from there and gratefully acknowledged.)
May Day, meanwhile, has roots in springtime festivities found across northern Europe, including in the pagan cross-quarter festival of Beltane . Among agro-pastoralist northern Europeans, these involved fire and purification rites: bonfires were lit across the country in Ireland, cattle were “purified” by being driven between two fires on their way to their summer pastures, and so on. The festivities around “bringing in the May,” celebrated in some form from England to Russia and known in Germanic and Scandinavian countries as Walpurgisnacht or St. Walburga’s Night, included collecting greenery and flowers at dawn, adorning buildings with garlands of flowers and greenery, singing May songs, drinking and dancing around maypoles, accompanying the spirits of nature (or of the dead) back into the fields, and other such activities. (Much of that was retained in the Eastern rite Christian ceremonies I grew up with surrounding the month of May, dedicated to the May Queen, Mary, and the “Green feast day” of Rosalia, celebrated on the Pentecost.) That’s the May Day of cyclical time.
The May Day of political or world-historical time is the one that was instituted in the late nineteenth century by the Second International, formed by socialist and labor groups in 1889 in Paris. This was partly meant to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Massacre of Chicago, during which several striking workers were shot and killed by Chicago police. (The general strike, calling for an 8-hour work day — among other utopian desires we can thank them for — included over a hundred thousand socialists, anarchists, and labor union participants across the US.) May Day has remained a day of protests, demonstrations, sometimes riots, and in formally Communist countries such as the USSR and China, of huge official military parades. Just as pagan holidays had been christianized (Yule, with its yule logs and evergreens, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia becoming Christmas, and so on), so did May Day — in the hands of the Soviet and Communist Chinese authorities — become appropriated into the new political religion of Marx and Engels. (Hitler also tried to nazify the workers’ May Day celebrations.)
Chernobyl and May Day rub each other crosswards insofar as the first is effectively a repudiation of the overbureaucratized, mass-industrial state-socialist productivism represented by the second — in its Soviet-style military parade version, at least. But that can be a fruitful tension. There are some today who celebrate May Day’s ‘green’ (pagan) and ‘red’ (socialist) roots together, in an indication of the coalitional politics that might be needed in a risk society. The point I take from them is that labor is as sacred as anything — the way we make a living from the Earth is central to our survival and flourishing, and ought to be turned into a renewed sacred compact with the natural world.
So these three dates — Earth Day, Chernobyl Day, May Day — together revolve around a trinity of related themes: (1) the ravaging of a parched earth, the shadow side of our relationship to nature, and the increased awareness of risk to ourselves and to other life forms through our own technologies; (2) rebirth and renewal, the celebration of new life and of the powers of fertility that give rise to it; and (3) the experience of our own power as agents of history who, when we recognize what’s occurred, can take action toward mending it and preventing it from occurring again.
The first two are examples of ‘cyclical time,’ the third of ‘historical time,’ but together they point to the potency in bringing the two together so that the ‘deep’ time of our relationship to the Earth — a time marked by changing subsistence and production relationships — can be turned into the ‘revolutionary’ time of our action today. If we are to move into a sustainable set of production relationships, a new post-carbon sacred compact based on renewable use of the Earth’s resources and an industrial ecology for which, as McDonough and Braungart put it, “waste equals food” (our waste feeding itself back into the system for other organisms), then we can only do that through a socially just greening of our labor practices, performed in love and solidarity with others – and this time with all others, humans and other sentient creatures alike.
(There you have it — what’s a sermon without a call to love and revolution?)