No Immediate Danger

William Vollmann’s Brutal Book About Climate Change

It is also an almanac of global energy use. The initial volume opens with a 200-page primer busy with tables, lists, and data (“I assure you that there will be no harm in skipping to page 217”) and concludes with 80 pages of definitions, units, and conversions (“Readers should feel free to skip this section”). It is a travelogue to natural landscapes riven by energy production, most prominently Fukushima (nuclear), West Virginia (coal), Colorado (natural gas), and the United Arab Emirates (oil). It is a work of oral history, containing dozens of interviews with laborers who toil in or live beside nuclear reactors, caves, and oil refineries, paired with Vollmann’s own snapshots. And it is a compassionate work of anthropology that tries to make sense of man’s inability to weigh future cataclysm against short-term comfort. Carbon Ideologies is most fascinating, however, for what it is not: a polemic.

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.