The Atlantic: Address Climate Change, or You Might End Up in a Cave Drinking Urine and Eating Radioactive Insects

William T. Vollmann

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.

NATHANIEL RICH
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.

Read more: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/william-vollmann-carbon-ideologies/568309/

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.

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156 thoughts on “The Atlantic: Address Climate Change, or You Might End Up in a Cave Drinking Urine and Eating Radioactive Insects

    • Oh well , if there is nothing to be done, I guess we”ll just have to grin and bare it with the current pleasant climate and relatively cheap and abundant energy we have been blessed with.

      • gotta love how the commies are all about money and capitalism when it suits their purposes, and in the same breath demonizing capitalism.

        • Engels came from an independently wealthy family and was one of the original “limousine liberals”. Whenever Marx got behind in his rent, which was often, Engels would pick up the tab so the family wouldn’t face eviction and Marx could keep writing his anti-capitalist agitprop.

        • Believe his two volumes would make a great semester project for a graduate English’ honors class. The assignment? Combine and edit these two oxford tomes down to a minimal number of lucid pages (minimum required to be called a book generally is at least 100 + pages, or somewhere north of 50,000 words.). Students with the lowest number of pages that made sense and followed some sort of documented logic would get the A’s, next range the B’s and so on.

          First rule of good writing–never waste a reader’s time.

          Have no inclination to waste mine with these doorstops. Can’t imagine what this scribbler took 1200 pages to say that hasn’t been clarified in well-written, referenced, article-length pieces on WUWT. Do understand The Atlantic’s intention and bias for hawking it, however.

          • You shouldn’t give students an impossible task. In order to get something that “made sense and followed some sort of documented logic” would require them tossing the source material completely and making something up out of whole cloth which would violate the “combine and edit” portion of the assignment.

        • Nah, first and only printing should use one or two trees. After they return the unsold copies and recycle should be practically carbon neutral.

          Pass the radioactive cockroaches would you?

      • A few years ago the dude wrote a 5 volume 3000 page treatise on violence titled “Rising Up and Rising Down”.

        One suspects an undisciplined mind.

    • In a way this person is right that nothing can be done because CO2 levels are not the control knob. Stop all Human CO2 emissions now and nobody will notice any difference from natural cycles. After all global warming becomes climate change is blamed on all natural climate change anyway, the sun and oceans.

      Only in the authors mind does a temperature rise lead to such shortage of water forced to drink you own urine or cause anything radioactive.

      I can’t take becoming radioactive at all even remotely serious, so the only alternative is for a much drier climate.

      Does the author care to even show any examples of this happening ever?

      The fact being during geological times the driest periods of the Earth by far were at the coldest periods of the ice ages. We know this because the drier the climate, the more dust particles were present in proxies that had once been in the atmosphere.

    • That one is truly mystifying and bizarre. Last I checked CO2 isn’t radioactive and neither is methane, unless some agency irradiates and transmutes the elements in the molecules for each one.

          • When I was in the Navy (EM1/SS), we where told that “SCRAM” was an acronym for the “Super Critical Reactor Ax Man”. Enrico Fermi’s early reactor “pile” experiments in Chicago had university football players standing by with an ax to cut the rope on huge bags of graphite beads suspended over the uranium pile.

            [Borated water? The beads would have fallen, then bounced off the pile of graphite bricks and rolled away from the reactor. .mod]

          • It was “Safety Control Rod Axe Man” when I went through NPS in the mid 80s but most folks assumed this was a backronym.

        • The last worker to leave the control room can execute a controlled shut down. And, since he probably lives within a reasonable driving distance, will have incentive to do so.

        • Okay, assuming each and every one of these power plants go all Hollywood Evil on us, would you like to describe in rational terms just how high you expect these 400 plants to rise planet wide radiation levels compared to the current baseline.

        • “… and with them our capacity to safely shut down 400 nuke plants.”

          If your vision of the future is dystopian, you can generate all sorts of Hollywood-style fantasies.

          What kind of nuke plants? Some people in the world didn’t stall at 1970-era technologies. And why would anyone shut down a power plant in the first place? Because Ehrlich won the argument are we are going to start killing 6 billion people to ‘reduce the population’?

          In case anyone has not noticed by now, this planet is radioactive. Standing outside exposes one to continuous bombardment by ionizing radiation from the sun and space. “Purists” need to get over the fact that “radiation” is not dangerous “because it exists”. Get a grip! The poison of the medicine is in the dose.

          Walking around the Library of Congress exposes one to 1.5-6 times more radiation than is experience by visiting a nuclear power station.

          http://www.mitosyfraudes.org/Ingles/Capitol.html

    • The atomic weight of carbon is 12.0107. Approximately one carbon atom in 1 trillion is C-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon. It has a half-life of about 5,700 years. It is formed by bombardment of cosmic radiation. However, given its decay rate, it exists in steady state on our planet. Just about all elements have large numbers of radioactive isotopes.

    • I’d guess that he’s the only one who knows that it’s not normal carbon in the CO2 that is causing all the problems. It must be man-made “super carbon 241”.

    • You’re just not thinking “logically” Alan. Obviously after the conservatives cause Climate Change TM to go out of control by neglect, we would turn to nuclear power too late to avert disaster, and as nuclear power plants are wont to do, they will all melt down spilling radioactive waste everywhere, including in the boiling oceans. Duh!

  1. The green blob as created a whole industry out there, not just the windmills and solar panels, but the book business and of course the tourest industry to carry the truly faithfull to the next big conference.

    Is it any wonder that they want to continue with thiks myth.

    MJE

  2. dystopia future is hardly a new area , and certainly not when its comes to climate .
    But he may find there is a rather smaller readership for this work than he thinks , still he can blame that on the ‘right wing media ‘ and so be happy that he has proved his progressive credenitals , which is what really matters .

  3. Larry Niven wrote a book once about how everything in the global warming scare was correct, we had taken all the recommended actions, so we started a new ice age.

      • Fallen Angels is a fun book, detailing the universal struggle between rational, hopeful sorts, and people like Vollman, who are so mesmerized by their own dismal pessimism that they truly believe their pathetic hopelessness is a virtue to be shared with all the world.

        There is nothing ‘brilliant’ about putrid climate porn! It has less redeeming value than a Freddy Krueger highlight reel. We don’t know what Jim Jones said to his innocent followers that made them drink the poisoned kool aid, but if anyone characterized his words as ‘brilliant’, they would be considered one sick individual.

    • No, everything was incorrect, but we still took all the recommended actions, and continued to take them even after the glaciers we crossing the Northern US.
      There is a move called “The Colony” that has the plot you outline (of course it turns into a Zombie apocalypse story to make itself more believable).

  4. Degree in comparative literature and couldn’t hack it doing a doctorate in the same. All the qualifications you need to be a climate expert.

    • Good book, I remember the green character in the story talking about venturing out on the glacier to chase some fugitives – “ice is a crystal, and crystals concentrate the life force. Nevertheless some deaths have occurred…”

    • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
      Thou art more extreme and more intemperate
      Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
      And summer’s lease hath all too long a date
      At all times too hot the eye of heaven shines,

      with apologies to Mr Waggledagger

  5. I guess there will be a nuclear war for… reasons? Otherwise I can’t figure out how the world becomes radioactive.

    Maybe that’s supposed to be his hook? I don’t know. I read that line and was just confused by the bizarreness of it.

  6. “Because the soil is radioactive, she subsists on insects and recycled urine …”

    Worse yet, those insects were maggots feasting on her own feces.

  7. Well, thank you for the review. That’s another book I don’t have to add to my shopping list. Not even a desire to read it for free at the library. There is only so much drivel I can stand at one go.

    No, I’ll stick to 18th and 19th century cookbooks, in case I have to revert to that way of living, and focus on what a wonderful planet we live on, instead of perusing the angst and navel-gazing of a crank.

    Thanks for the warning!

    I hope this dope never knocks on my door requesting aid and comfort.

  8. But of course Vollmann keeps on using fossil fuel, naturally! He is allowed to because he is a believer and is swaying the little people to stop using fossil fuels, by writing persuasive books.

  9. oooh groan, cli-fi at its worst from the sound of it.
    Im coming across more of this stuff and it irritates me mightily,
    all assume the worst scenarios, and so far we look pretty pathetic at non attempts at adapting, which mankinds always done.

  10. We need to make another “The Truman Show”, but a bunker where we would convince (using some fake CO2 induced disaster) Mann et al. to enter. To make it easy, we’ll tell them they have been specially selected to save mankind, egos would take care of the rest. Fake news reports from the ‘outside’ would be played all day showing natural disasters, famine and social chaos, all the while a thermostat would increase simulating runaway GW. Everyone would just sit around saying “I told you so”, “I predicted that” and “boy, it sure is getting hot”.

  11. The trend reminds me of the theatrics at the Kavanaugh hearing—”the world will end if we don’t get our way . . .”

    It’s like dealing with the flagellants in the 14th century.

  12. Sounds more like a not-so-distant future one might expect if the anti-carbon eco-fascist Progressives were to get their way, and the economies of the world and the comfy benefits thereof that people like the author now enjoy but don’t seem to appriciate were to collapse.

    I know. Bad run-on sentence. But I doubt this book is written any better.

    • Yeah but Gilligan and co didn’t need to eat bugs, Mary Ann provided them with a never ending supply of Banana and Coconut Cream pies. Though they did once have radioactive vegetables.

      [The mods note that they may have had radioactive vegetables, but never did get a radio-active radio to emit radioactive … .mod]

  13. Maybe the enlightened folks of San Francisco living in the streets with their filth, drug needles, and feces are actually working to pre-adapt to climate change?

  14. As I always do with environmental imbecile authors like Vollman, I find out about their personal life and their education. With a wife who is a radiation oncologist he has no money worries so he can play at pseudo science. Like so many of the environazis, like Harvard English major grad Bill McKibben, he has no science training whatsoever. He has a degree from weird Deep Springs College out in the desert and a degree in Comparative Literature from Cornell. Why are so many of those who scream the loudest about AGW liberal arts majors from Ivy League schools or Berkeley? He’s the worst sort of BS artist who “don’t know nuthin bout nuthin.” He’s merely pitiful and what he writes is total nonsense.

    • Yes, they want us to give up meat and eat insects to prevent climate change from forcing us to eat insects in the future. I think I’ll take my chances. I’m guessing that climate change won’t be near as bad as they claim it will be. They have a vested interest in exaggerating the possible effects of climate change to further their own political agendas.

  15. Ah, this means they have reached the 5th and final stage of grief – acceptance, on the death of their precious ideology. ‘Bout time. Now, if they would all just shut up about it.

  16. This story (and that’s exactly what it is) sounds exactly like the plot of a 1980’s post nuclear holocaust sci-fi film, of which there were many…. if he is going to write fiction, at least he could be a bit more original.

  17. Living in caves? eating insects? isn’t that what the green blob wants for mankind in order to “save” the planet? the radioactive soil and drinking urine is a new twist, but basically that’s the same results as the “solution” for “fixing” AGW. So basically, we’ll be living in caves and eating bugs if we do nothing about AGW and we’ll be living in caves and eating bugs if we waste all our time and money “fixing” AGW. Damn if we do and damned if we don’t. Might as well save our time and money for other things then.

  18. Psychiatric disorders in advanced stages are not a pretty simple.
    I hope he receives the intervention and long term care he desperately needs.

  19. So one female of the future (no date given?) will be living in “… the darkened recesses of an underground cave”. Good, the underground kind are the best.

    And the Atlantic review states that Vollman “… writes fiction”. Clearly.

  20. I want to know more about the methane fireballs racing across the oceans…they sound what any self-respecting student would call “really cool” no matter how deranged the author of this latest brain malfunction wants to terrify us all.

    All he missed was Satan rising from the depths to eat us all. Wonder what his food additives are and who might be putting them in there?

  21. The Chernobyl experiment, the only one of its kind, evidently indicates that the radioactive landscape of Mr. Vollmann’s heroine may be rich in biodiversity and floral wonderfulness.

    Why eat insects, when slightly radioactive moose are available? With a miner’s lettuce salad on the side.

    And who knows, Vollmann’s Ms. Heroine may end up living longer and be more healthy from her dietary radio-hormesis, discussed here.

    Of course, she may like eating insects and drinking recycled urine. Maybe the true horror of Vollmann’s story is that Ms. Heroine is living out her eco-nutter fever-dream of a ruined country side while the actual external world goes on in fine order.

  22. The tortured look in his pic suggests he’s eating radioactive insects to give his prose authenticity. Why didnt we all make a fuss and take sides when Einstein’s general relativity came out? Probably because, unlike today’s dumbed down everyman’s post normal science, few could understand it.

  23. I suggest that he moves to central East Antarctica and sits down and waits. As soon as 600 meters of ice has melted the Gamburtsev mountains will begin to emerge as nunataks and he is free to start looking for suitable caves. Probably not a lot of radioactive insects there, but he might find the odd frozen dinosaur (nobody knows how long the Gamburtsevs have been glaciated, 40 million years is a minimum figure).

    Better dress warmly while waiting though.

  24. “an insight Vollman apparently reached by bathing his face in gamma rays, and other risky sounding activities.”

    Not as scary as it sounds. We have all done that. It is more commonly known as “taking a dental X-ray”.

    • gamma rays come from nuclear transitions. X-rays come from orbital electron transitions. All high-energy radiation, but different origins. Gamma rays can reach much higher energies than X-rays.

      • Actually both can originate by several processes, medical X-rays for example are usually produced by bremsstrahlung, which is from electrons, but not from orbital transitions. Originally they were distinguished by energy, but you are right that nowadays they are often separated by source. X-rays from sources outside a nucleus and Gamma rays from nuclear processes. Which means that some X-rays have much higher energies than most Gamma rays.

        Except in astronomy, where the exact source process is often not known, and the distinction is still based on energy.

  25. “..subsists on….recycled urine”

    Come to think of it we all do that all the time. After 4.5 billion years every water molecule (except a few recently arrived by comet) has passed through countless millions of creatures, including e. g. trilobites, Tyrannosaurus rex, giant redwoods and Homo sapiens to mention just a few.

  26. Actually he’s close to insightfulness but can’t escape what was done to his mind in gradeschool and college. It’s not ‘nothing can be done’, it’s ‘nothing need be done’. He doesnt have the deeper life experience that comes with age to appreciate that ‘nothing will be done’. One way or the other.

    I had planned to attempt to show that even willfully, man hasnt the capability, energy resources,point of attack… to do other than localized, temporary damage to this giant rock ball. The thought occurred to me because of:

    1) puny imaginings of great horror in measuring the damages in thousands of Hiroshimas (terrible to be sure, but within a year, radioactivity was back to background and they rebuilt the city; the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone became a Serengeti-like park with species, some of f which were thought to be extinct), or break up of ice sheets measured in Manhattans, or melting of Greenlandic ice in Olympic sized swimming pools worth.
    2) the horrific wipeout of Cretaceous life in one mighty asteroid impact that healed up like a papercut with newer forms of life rapaciously reclaiming the dusty scarred ball and once more making a Garden of it.
    3) the mighty spreading of the Atlantic ocean floor, fragmenting continents and setting them adrift and the concurrent grinding subduction zones swallowing ocean floor marked by the Pacific Ring of Fire and the throwing up of the Cordillera mountain chains. The Himalayas thrown up by the mighty collision of the Indian subcontinent crashing into Asia!
    4) and, in the human bantam weight corner, puffing SUVs, cement kilns and iron ore smelters, farting cattle and sheep, plunking down cash to pay for our CO2 flights…get a grip!
    5) Finally humans have a venerable history of world ending doom forecasting. Ya know what, not one has ever come to pass. I see this as empirical data. Try to imagine how we could go about a carefully planned destruction of the planet. Even scifi writers havent attempted to imagine it. Even Clisci guys havent been that clear on it themselves and thats what they get paid for.

  27. Your sitting in your grade school class and there’s this nice, pretty girl looking at you and seeming to flirt a little bit. Over time you become friends. The both of you reach high school. She’s prettier than before. She’s fairly smart. She’s fun. She giggles and laughs. After the last few years you’ve become good friends, but there’s a difference now; you’re both adolescents. So, the both of you experiment, and grow to a delightful understanding of what the different parts of your bodies’ are for. After such escapades you race home; hiding under the covers when you get there hoping your mother doesn’t walk in as you’re, so to speak, remembering the night.

    After high school she goes off to college. But, during the breaks and the summers she comes back home and she calls you up. She’s becoming beautiful now. And sophisticated. But delightful parts from the giggly high school remain. She’s becoming more than just a friend now.

    She graduates college. Comes back to town. You’ve known each other from childhood, through adolescence, right on up to young adulthood. She’s deeply in love with you. And, you’re deeply in love with her.

    So, you grab that rich velvet box you saved up for all year, put it in your pocket, pick that wonderful young woman up, drive out to the flower filled park. And, right before that princess, you get down on one knee, pull the box out, open it, and say;”Will you …”

    Before you can even complete the sentence she says,”Yes, yes, oh yes.” You both agree to go to each other’s homes and meet the families. And you’ve assured her you’ll also ask her father for her hand in marriage. And, as you enter her front door to greet him you discover that her father is … Vollmann.

  28. Poor sap, been eating rice again.
    Just look at his picture – A Shadow of his former self

    Should have took his own advice and eaten the bugz and got some colour back into his cheeks. not least

  29. Well, this Vollmann chap sure has an imagination, I’ll give him that. There’s no way that a few degrees of warming will produce the lurid results he describes in his book, so he just adds a zero, and presto, you have global warming hell. He is right about one thing though- nothing will be done, because the earth does not need saving.

    • For the seas to boil he’ll have to add two zeros. And for equatorial seas to reach boiling point even with the party line climate sensitivity of 3 C per doubling will require about 20 doublings, i e an atmosphere consisting of 99.75 % CO2, which makes any questions about food somewhat academical.

  30. a murderously hostile reader who sneers at his arguments, ridicules his feeblemindedness, scorns his pathetic attempts at ingratiation.”

    Took the words right out of my mouth.

  31. (After 25 books, his career word count now rivals Zane Grey’s.)
    This is just another Publisher’s attempt to get in more book sales before the Christmas market gets going.
    He just writes what comes into his head. Prepublication success is measured in column inches in the posher publications. then the second hand book stores are flooded with discarded copies.
    It all makes work for the publisher to do.

  32. “Vollman called for… everyone to accept a greener lifestyle…” Does he not realize that burning fossil fuels is greening the earth at an accelerated rate? Desserts diminishing as vegetation flourishes? We don’t need “regulatory hell” to promote the greening of the planet. CO2 has never been and never will be a pollutant.

  33. “William T. Vollmann’s latest opus is brilliant, but it offers no comfort to its readers.

    NATHANIEL RICH
    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”

    Such a shallow pathetic echo of science fiction.
    As written by William T. Vollmann with zero knowledge of science,
    with zero knowledge of climate,
    with zero knowledge atmosphere,
    with zero knowledge of fluid interactions,
    with zero knowledge of Earth Sciences,
    with zero knowledge of physics,
    with zero knowledge of particle physics…

    But apparently with a comic book level of super villain fantasies and delusions.

    Such a puerile work is unlikely to frighten anyone with common sense, or any smattering education of science, or basically any one with a maturity level greater than 10.

  34. Methane fireballs! Wow. This climate change thing sounds serious. I wonder if the people in his book wasted all their money on futile gestures like windmills and solar farms when they should have been moving the cities back from the ocean, and building, um… fireball catchers.

  35. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE ridicule this guy mercilessly. I’ll start.

    Vollmer is no doubt bracing himself for the social upheaval and disruption that will be caused by emergence of hundreds of new mutants / superheroes that will inevitably pop up in the areas that handle lots of radio-active insects.

    I’m personally hoping to become “Dragon Fly” but with my luck, I’ll probably be something like “Roach Man.”

    If I do become Roach Man, I’m going to live in Vollmer’s couch. He’ll try to spray RAID on me to kill me, but I’ll simply consume the chemicals and grow stronger. Be very afraid, you stupid effin’ nimrod. Roach Man is coming to YOUR HOUSE.

  36. The book is well named. Vollman is definitely an ideologist who has drunk the prevailing Kool Aid on global warming, but what if his fundamental assumption, that carbon dioxide causes global warming, is, in fact, wrong? My own research, in press with an international, peer-reviewed journal, and my numerous books on amazon, explain why this assumption is wrong, and why CO2 can’t function as a greenhouse gas in the Earth environment. The whole idea that doomsday is nigh may well sell books, but the reality that it’s not is comforting.

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