In 2018, thanks to an onslaught of deadly weather and a series of increasingly grim scientific reports, the news of our impending climate doom finally seemed to go mainstream. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an alarming report predicting that a 1.5 degree Celsius increase of global average temperatures over pre-industrial levels with cataclysmic weather, food shortages, and mass migration baked in could be expected in as little as eleven years. Hurricane Michael was the first recorded Category 4 hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle, and the Camp and Woolsey fires devastated major swathes of California, killing over eighty people. In November, the Trump Administration came out with a multi-agency report stating that, by 2100, climate change is on pace to reduce the national economy by billions of dollars annually. It might be fair to ask at this stage of the game if it is rational to speak of “solving” climate change at all.
William T. Vollmann seems to think that it is not. His two-volume Carbon Ideologies, nearly 1,300 pages long with “129,000 words of source notes, citations, and calculations” published online, avers early and often that there is no hope for us. “I do my best to look as will the future upon the world in which I lived,” he writes in his preface. “Namely, as surely, safely vanished. Nothing can be done to save it; therefore nothing need be done.” Vollmann’s project is really three books in one: a roughly two-hundred-page statistical prelude that Vollmann calls a “primer” on predominantly non-renewable energy sources—their comparative advantages and disadvantages, and their destructive impact on our atmosphere; a nearly three-hundred-page reported disaster picaresque in post-tsunami Fukushima that also covers the ensuing nuclear meltdown; and an entire second volume—over six hundred pages long—analyzing local cultures that rationalize the continued production of coal, gas, and oil despite the dire consequences of burning them. All three sections assert that, even though we should know better, our unrelenting need for energy will one day spell the end of us.
Carbon Ideologies does not appear to aspire to readability. The primer’s level of technical detail simply doesn’t justify the hemorrhaging of readers it will unquestionably induce. It should have been published online, along with the notes. The section on Fukushima makes a certain amount of chronological sense (the disaster occurred in 2011, as Vollmann was embarking on the project), but from a conceptual and narrative point of view it is misplaced. For one thing, this leg of the project doesn’t fit neatly under the heading of a “carbon ideology.” The argument seems to be that, once we have come to terms with the damage we are doing to the atmosphere with our overuse of carbon fuels, we will move onto newfangled forms of energy that are equally destructive, albeit in different ways. But then why not include all this at the end, as a disconcerting epilogue? Coming as it does in the middle of the project, the section feels like a detour. The nature of the reporting in “Nuclear” is similarly perplexing. Vollmann pays drivers to take him around the area, fretting about putting others at risk of exposure to radioactivity and therefore pulling back from the most dangerous and telling sites. He compensates his sources, who still end up coming across as uncomfortable and wooden. Vollmann is trying to say something about greed and self-destruction, but after three hundred pages the reader is no closer to a lucid explanation.
Though the book’s title promises a work about carbon and the catastrophic climate change it will one day bring about, the two volumes of Carbon Ideologies function more as an ethnography of our present-day denial. Not just our climate change denial, but our denial of the mortal dangers we inflict upon ourselves in our Promethean quest for the rich spoils of modern life. Water tastes like chemicals and families flee ancestral homes; children suffer clustered cancers, but etiology is hard to prove; coal miners die in sudden blazes underground—all in the pursuit of vaunted energy.
It is in the second volume on hydrocarbon fuels proper where Vollmann finally finds his narrative footing. Much of No Good Alternative takes place in America, in hardscrabble places like McDowell County, West Virginia, and rural parts of Colorado with which Vollmann seems to feel a more natural affinity. In these sections, conversations flow more freely than they did in the first volume, No Immediate Danger. Activists and experts are quoted often and at length, and though the officers of the carbon industry, like the nuclear apparatchiks of Fukushima, still refuse to comment, the reader gets a good idea of what the people who exist under their hegemony believe. “How would you sum up the pros and cons of coal?” Vollmann asks a Mrs. Glenna Wiley, aged 89, who survived a catastrophic mining-related flood in Logan County, West Virginia in 1972 that killed 125 people:
“I am all for coal, 100 percent, because there are people living here that have given their young lives to coal, 100 percent, amen! It’s dirty, but it’s powered our country for ever so long.”
“Do you believe in global warming?”
“Honey, I don’t know.”
“Some people say that fossil fuels are making the planet warm up, and some say there isn’t any problem.”
“You know,” said the sweet old lady. “I just really don’t know. Just don’t know what it’s all about.”
Like all honest ethnographies, Carbon Ideologies also functions as an intellectual autobiography. We learn that, during his six years of research, Vollmann depleted his original advance and then spent his own money and unnamed others’ to “hike up strip-mined mountains, sniff crude oil, and occasionally tan my face with gamma rays.” (He relegates renewables to just a few pages, largely dismissing them, as he explicitly does solar, as “an ideology of hope—not my department.”) He loves gadgets and toys. In the first volume, this love expresses itself mainly in the form of an unmistakably phallic pancake frisker he carries around Fukushima, which he uses to measure the radioactivity of everything from roadside vegetation to the ubiquitous black bags of nuclear waste that line the empty streets. Dozens of pictures serve to document his travels. In one we see Vollmann’s hand grasping the frisker at the neck, pointing it at a bald statue of a praying man at a temple called Hen Jo. In another we see him frisking a hatchery grate. We learn throughout that he has a daughter he loves dearly; that he likes to take hot showers, especially before and after making love; and that he loves to drink hot tea. (Though likely made in the name of transparency and candor, Vollmann’s decision to mix so many personal details in with his exposition of the terrifying enormity of anthropogenic global warming can read as boorish.)
Above all we understand that after Vollmann’s years of scary research, he feels unbearably guilty for his awe and use of fossil fuels. This expression of guilt over the use of fossil fuels has become a common trope in climate change writing. In Windfall, his excellent investigation of how climate change is monetized, McKenzie Funk makes a point of calling himself out on his use of airplanes to travel to assignments. Naomi Klein mentions her choice to have a child in This Changes Everything, preempting readers’ criticism of the decision to reproduce into the pre-apocalyptic, late-capitalist economy she ties so forcefully to fossil fuels. As he does with so much else in his work, Vollmann takes this trope that much further. Not only does he fret about his use of airplanes and hot water heaters, but he also excoriates himself for nearly every convenience he might conceivably enjoy. Lighthouses, ice-makers, breakfast, books. Glasses and a nylon bristle brush. There is nothing like an impending apocalypse to make a person grateful for the life he takes for granted now. Both a paean and an elegy, Carbon Ideologies can’t help but luxuriate in the lush plenty of contemporary life, or at least the version that Vollmann experiences in the West.
At many points in the volumes, Vollmann addresses a figure I came to think of as “the starving wretch of the future.” This figure, he imagines, will, in perhaps only a few generations, live by an acid sea, taking cover from frequent storms in a flimsy makeshift structure devoid of windows. (Vollmann predicts that glass, which, like everything else, is surprisingly carbon-intensive to manufacture, will become a dear commodity.) Terrified and desperate, the starving wretch will wonder how it could have been that we, the last generation with the chance to significantly curtail climate change, could have continued burning fossil fuels at such a decadent rate. “We all lived for money, and that is what we died for,” he explains:
Now that we are all gone, someone from the future is turning this book’s brittle yellow pages . . . he wishes to know why I didn’t do more, because when I was alive there were elephants and honeybees; in the Persian Gulf people survived the summers without protective suits; the Arctic permafrost had only begun to sizzle out methane; San Francisco towered above water, and there were still even Marshall Islands; Japan was barely radioactive, Africa not entirely desertified.
The speculative writer William Gibson has famously said that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” This line tends to be deployed to describe the acquisition of exciting new technologies and gadgets—iPhones in use by the rich before everyone else, experimental treatments for the terminal and privileged, and so on. But even in an age of accelerating climate change, it can be turned on its head: Vollmann’s wretch is here now. A billion people have no access to electricity. Every year, millions starve, unable to shield themselves or their crops from the harsh elements. For many, glass is already dear, and while climate change promises to further exacerbate nature’s capriciousness and violence, it is hard to imagine that inequalities will not exist as they have existed for all of human history. As other writers have imagined—most vividly Margaret Atwood in her MaddAddam Trilogy and Chang-rae Lee in On Such a Full Sea—in a future of environmental devastation there will still be rich and poor. Medical, agricultural, and material technologies will likely continue to advance. The built environment in wealthy countries will be adapted to the elements as it has been for centuries in places like the Netherlands. That Vollmann, a literary novelist in his own right, is unable to imagine a more vivid and more variegated human future is surprising.
Early on in the first volume, Vollmann examines some brittle 19th-century pamphlets that lament the imminent extinction of the bison of the American Plains. He likens their disappearance to all that we are despoiling now. But of course there is no comparison. The biggest, most meticulous books in the world can hardly explain to a contemporary reader, let alone to the depredated wretches of the future, why we continue to burn fossil fuels when we know what they are wreaking. Vollmann explains that like glass, the production of paper is also carbon-intensive. He speculates that in the future, as civilization collapses, the goal of universal literacy will become an artifact of the past. Even if he allows that some future wretches might know how to read, I was surprised that Vollmann, in his characteristically fatalistic style, didn’t simply imagine that they would burn these hefty books for fuel.