William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologiesby Jacob Singer
William T. Vollmann
Carbon Ideologies: No Immediate Danger and Carbon Ideologies: No Good Alternative
William T. Vollmann’s two-volume set, Carbon Ideologies: No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative, combines journalism, research, and philosophy in a way that has become synonymous with his nonfiction. At the surface, these books report on how the energy sector has shaped our modern world, how related disasters have impacted communities, and how humans have contributed to climate change. Just as Rising Up, Rising Down looked at the justification of violence, these books show how industries have shaped ideology to explain why humans haven’t been able to address the greatest threat to life on this planet.
Scientists have been informing and warning the public about climate change for decades and still individuals are skeptical. It’s not simply that the topic is too difficult for some troglodyte to understand but that our brains have evolved to help individuals strive in social settings—not intellectual debates. These books are more than a “scattershot jeremiad” or “a confused, omnidirectional assault on all of industrial civilization.” Vollmann writes about individuals whose lives have been impacted by environmental disasters as a result of the energy sector. But the range of material shows the reader how the carbon ideology has been intentionally shaped, demonstrating a systematic approach by the industry. This is partially described in the 256-page “Primer” section which consists of encyclopedic entries about power plants, greenhouse gases, data, and data suppression. These sections synthesize a range of topics and voices—John Muir, urban sprawl, science fiction, obsolete science textbooks, and advertisements—to provide readers with a better understanding of the numerous issues at play in the body of the text.
The impetus for No Immediate Danger is the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The title comes from the official message of the Japanese government; there is “no immediate danger” from the disaster. Before heading to Japan, Vollmann purchases an instrument used to measure X-rays and gamma rays called a dosimeter. This calculator-sized device becomes a necessary companion in helping “see” the invisible radiation that is at the center of the first book. This is more than a protective measure. In “Note to the Reader,” Vollmann claims this book is an experience in induction. Without data there can be no inductive reasoning. He goes a step further by questioning the hand-signed certification enclosed with the dosimeter and is constantly questioning methodology and testing for radiation. The tools of science become ways for Vollmann to epistemologically examine his own biases, knowledge, and expectations, keeping him from becoming a quixotic paranoid.
Utilizing techniques of New Journalism, Vollmann writes himself into the story to present those individuals affected with empathy and genuine interest, keeping the books humane and readable. The details of the disaster are richly described and heartbreaking to read. Many victims seem powerless over aspects of their situation, but there are also significant moments that reveal distrust as a result of how the government managed the incident. In the village of Iitate, Mr. Shigihara Yoshitomo criticizes the Japanese government for creating a policy of isolation, separation, and division among his community. This sense of hurt stems from exposing his grandchildren to radiation and that Iitate wasn’t evacuated like neighboring communities. He blames the TEPCO, the nationalists, the government, and himself. The reader gets a sense of how Vollmann manages moments with interviewees when, “He [Mr. Shigihara] bitterly disdained to wear a mask, and I saw him watching me, so I did not put mine on, either, and that was how I fell into bad habits in the red zone. Since he was willing to expose himself for my sake, I would rather take chances with my health than offend him.” This authorial presence strikes a unique balance. He provides an abundance of data and facts to ground the writing in something objective, before switching to a subjective mode that is personal and sympathetic. This balance pulls the reader through the texts by addressing both the head and the heart.
No Good Alternatives shifts the attention to coal, natural gas, and oil. Eleven months before the disaster in Japan, twenty-nine employees died in Montcoal’s Upper Big Branch mine—the deadliest disaster in recent history and one that was preventable. In the previous year, the mine was written up for 515 safety violations—nearly twice the national average. Five years after the disaster “a special panel determined that conditions in many mines remained the same.” Vollmann reports that over 100,000 people have died on the job and points out that the carbon ideology is “not to hide such casualties, but rather treasure them.” An example of this is the memorial dedicated to “those who died in the Buffalo Creek Flood” when sludge dams gave way to destroy the town. The memorial redefines the incident by removing the company from any wrongdoing and describing it as a natural disaster. Vollmann criticizes the architects of the carbon ideology. He points out that Don Blankenship, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, used his wealth to help elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice and Republicans across the board in an attempt to ensure that regulators don’t obstruct his company. Vollmann demonstrates that this is how industrial accidents are repackaged as natural disasters and that “those who sacrifice people now will squander a planet later.” He points to the fact that people like Blankenship pillaged West Virginia for decades and left its people poor and its land contaminated. Yet those who have suffered the worst don’t seem capable of recognizing that the source of their hardship, which shows how ideology shapes perception.
Throughout the books, Vollmann addresses a hypothetical future reader—one from a future when climate change has made life beyond difficult. These books apologize to that reader. Vollmann speculates about the reader’s hardship and tries to explain the creature comforts of cooking with natural gas, cooling a house with an air conditioner, and flying around the world to write a book about global warming. Vollmann openly acknowledges, “I myself, an American born in the mid-20th century, enjoyed the best life that carbon could give.” Vollmann claims that reducing the demand of energy had been our only hope—one that we failed to live out. This points to the fact that we humans are more attuned to the short term than the long, more concerned with the local weather than the earth’s climate, the community we associate with than the strangers of the human race. Vollmann points out that after all the technological improvement, the source of all these problem is human nature—a cynical but honest assessment of our values and notion of progress.
JACOB SINGER's reviews and interviews have appeared in Rain Taxi, Quarterly Conversation, and American Book Review. He can be found @jacobcsinger