Guest essay by Eric Worrall
A sneak preview of the next level of climate activism.
The Most Honest Book About Climate Change Yet
William T. Vollmann’s latest opus is brilliant, but it offers no comfort to its readers.
OCTOBER 2018 ISSUE
Authors like to flatter themselves by imagining for their work an “ideal reader,” a cherubic presence endowed with bottomless generosity, the sympathy of a parent, and the wisdom of, well, the authors themselves. In Carbon Ideologies, William T. Vollmann imagines for himself the opposite: a murderously hostile reader who sneers at his arguments, ridicules his feeblemindedness, scorns his pathetic attempts at ingratiation. Vollmann can’t blame this reader, whom he addresses regularly throughout Carbon Ideologies, because she lives in the future, under radically different circumstances—inhabiting a “hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet.” He envisions her turning the pages of his climate-change opus within the darkened recesses of an underground cave in which she has sought shelter from the unendurable heat; the plagues, droughts, and floods; the methane fireballs racing across boiling oceans. Because the soil is radioactive, she subsists on insects and recycled urine, and regards with implacable contempt her ancestors, who, as Vollmann tells her, “enjoyed the world we possessed, and deserved the world we left you.”
Carbon Ideologies is a single work published in two parts, No Immediate Dangerand No Good Alternative, the bifurcation due to the insistence of Vollmann’s weary publisher and the limitations of modern bookbinding. Of all the writers working today, Vollmann must be the most free: He writes fiction, essays, monographs, criticism, memoir, and history, usually merging several forms at once, taking on subjects as diverse as Japanese Noh theater, train hopping, and the Nez Perce War, all the while dilating to whatever length suits him. (After 25 books, his career word count now rivals Zane Grey’s.)
Nearly every book about climate change that has been written for a general audience contains within it a message of hope, and often a prod toward action. Vollmann declares from the outset that he will not offer any solutions, because he does not believe any are possible: “ Nothing can be done to save [the world as we know it]; therefore, nothing need be done.” This makes Carbon Ideologies, for all its merits and flaws, one of the most honest books yet written on climate change. Vollmann’s undertaking is in the vanguard of the coming second wave of climate literature, books written not to diagnose or solve the problem, but to grapple with its moral consequences.
Author William T. Vollmann seems a bit special even for a climate advocate. Back in April this year, Vollmann called for “regulatory hell” to force everyone to accept a greener lifestyle – an insight Vollman apparently reached by bathing his face in gamma rays, and other risky sounding activities.
My first thought after reading The Atlantic review was that I would rather choose the diet of radioactive insects and recycled urine than read Vollmann’s latest opus. But perhaps I am being unfair – after all, I haven’t read the work itself, just The Atlantic reviewer’s impression of the work.
If Vollmann wants to send Anthony a reviewer’s copy, I shall make an effort to read at least the first chapter, and report my impressions.