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Carbon Ideologies: ‘The most honest take on climate change yet’

From Vox.com: “For a long time I was a climate change denier,” says William T. Vollmann, the award-winning American author, journalist, and war correspondent. Yet, he has just completed a sprawling, two volume polemic called Carbon Ideologies, which explores the ideology of energy consumption, and is addressed to humans living in a “hot dark future.”

Eric Allen Been, Vox.com

“For a long time I was a climate change denier,” says author, journalist, and war correspondent William T. Vollmann. “I didn’t want to be stressed out by something that might someday affect people after I’m dead.”

And yet for Vollmann — a brilliant, idiosyncratic writer whom some have described as a plausible candidate for the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature — the reality of climate change has become a personal obsession. Last week, he released the first volume of a sprawling, two-volume polemic called Carbon Ideologies. Titled No Immediate Dangeritexplores in more than 600 pages how our society is bound to the ideology of energy consumption. Addressed to humans living in a “hot dark future,” the book is highly technical, chock-full of tables, studies, and hundreds of Vollmann’s own photos.

Vollmann traveled the globe for years reporting for this project, going so far as to self-finance after his publisher’s patience wore thin. “I spent my own money,” he writes, “and occasionally other people’s, to hike up strip-mined mountains, sniff crude oil, and occasionally tan my face with gamma rays.”

I recently called Vollmann — who doesn’t own a cellphone or use email — at his hotel in New York City while he was on his book tour. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.

No Immediate Danger is written as a letter to the future. Why did you decide to craft it this way rather than for readers in the present?

If I were to write for the present, I would either be preaching to the converted or else wasting my time on the unconverted. Those fault lines are pretty hard, unfortunately. But since I’m writing to a future time, where I’m trying to tell readers what some of our motivations were for letting this crisis escalate, hopefully this book will still be of some value to the future.

Do you think some Republicans sometimes deny climate change in bad faith? Maybe, perhaps, because they know if they accept that it’s real, their economic policies would need to come to an abrupt stop.

Well, that’s certainly a possibility. But I also think it’s human nature. For a long time I was a climate change denier. I just thought, I have other things to worry about. I didn’t want to be stressed out by something that might someday affect people after I’m dead. I still want to think that it’s not a problem, because the alternative is quite miserable. I think that people can deny climate change in good faith, and that a lot of people do. It takes a certain familiarity with numbers, with the scientific method, and a trust in experts to begin to say, “All right, yeah, this is a serious problem.”

And experts have often abused their positions, you know? I’m quite thrilled to live in a state, [California], where recreational and medical marijuana is finally legal. I remember as a boy being told that the experts said marijuana was a dangerous drug and would lead to hard drugs and all the rest of it. There’s no reason not to have skepticism about any so-called experts.

People who are self-educated and look at the world from the perspective of their own experience are often very functional, competent people. I met a pastor in West Virginia who I liked and admired very much, and he said to me, “You know, Bill, when I fly over the Earth and I see all of these trees, I just have to ask myself, ‘How can man-made equipment put up enough smoke to make a difference?’” That is a very reasonable question. To answer it, it takes a lot of work, or it takes some kind of faith in experts.

If you ask the average person to prove that the Earth goes around the sun, he or she would probably say, “Well, you know, I’ve seen satellite photos or footage from NASA,” or whatever. But if there were none of those pictures, do you think that most people could do what Copernicus did, to work it all out with geometry and so forth?

I very much liked what a vice president at the Bank of Oklahoma told me. He said, “We’re all ideologues one way or another. If you attack somebody else’s ideology, he’s going to attack you or leave you. That’s human nature.” Most of the people who don’t believe in climate change are perfectly reasonable people, and I don’t blame them.

Central to this book is what you call “carbon ideologies” — the reasons people give to continue using fossil fuels at such a large scale.

Well, we all have beliefs, feelings, and interests. They tend to be centered around our own personal comfort and our aspirations to make tomorrow better than today. I think most of us feel, legitimately so, that if we couldn’t drive our cars wherever we wanted, or turn on the heat or air conditioning when we wanted, that our lives would be worse.

What are we going to do about that? Are we prepared to endure lives with less comfort and maybe less safety? Are we going to be hard-asses and deny people in the Third World the ability to achieve the level of comfort that we’ve achieved? These are very, very powerful inducements to continue the train of behavior that we currently follow. Those are our ideological underpinnings, if you like.

And yet you believe those ideological underpinnings are wrongheaded?

Unfortunately, that’s what I think. I do think that some of this stuff can be accomplished through better industrial processes. You know, in 2012, Greece emitted something like 35 times more of the dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, per volume, when making nitric acid than the UK did. And the US emitted something like 27 times more. Well, that means it’s possible to do things better.

There are things that that can be done and maybe won’t be done if somebody says, “Well, it’s going to cost too much money to make that change.” Then what do you say? Do you say, “Well, we’re going to make you do it at a loss”? Or do we say, “All right, we’re going to give you money to help you change”? I can’t pretend to have an answer about stuff like that. All I can do is say, well, there are lots and lots of problems.

It’s not just what some consumer does at home. It’s niggling little issues that add up. In Japan, roughly 50 percent or so of all the methane emissions — and that’s one of the three most dangerous greenhouse gases — are caused by rice growing. All this stuff that seems so innocuous. It seems to me that you have to drag people into some kind of regulatory hell, unfortunately. Maybe there’s a better way to do it, but I don’t see one.

You’ve regulated yourself, in a sense, from the conveniences of the modern world. It’s my understanding that you don’t use the internet or own a cellphone, for instance.

To be honest, I think it’s all bullshit. I just don’t need that garbage. It’s not because I’m such a saint or something, but why on earth do I need instant communication? I see my stressed, overworked friends who are continually interrupted by some unimportant text or sent without consent some kind of nasty, targeted ad. That stuff is just not for me.

It’s crazy to me that the FBI and the CIA once suspected that you were the Unabomber — which you discovered by suing the agencies under the Freedom of Information Act, and subsequently wrote about for Harper’s magazine. In the secret document they had on you, they correlated you with him because, they wrote, “anti-growth and anti-progress themes persist throughout each Vollmann work.” In a New Republic profile of you, you said that you first found the whole thing humorous but then became pissed about it.

Well, you know, how are government haters made? I’m not one, and I don’t want to be one. But how do people start hating the police, for instance? When there is a pattern of what appears to be harassment.

There was a period where, whenever I would travel, the lining of my suitcase would get slit open. The next time I traveled, they’d cut it open a little bit more because it looked suspicious. My mother would send me letters from Switzerland and she’s pretty good about sealing the envelopes — and I’d get empty, unsealed envelopes. One of my Japanese translators gave up writing to me since she sent me six letters in one year and I never got one.

I believe that my mail is still delayed, intercepted, and sometimes not given to me. So that makes me feel isolated and a little bit crappy. At the same time, I don’t want to waste my time being a professional victim. And other people certainly have it more rough than I do. I’m going to get on with it and not let it ruin my life.

You wrote that the file on you was 785 pages and yet they only gave you 294 pages of it. Do you have any idea why they didn’t release more?

Well, maybe some of my file is still open, which would be plausible. They have to spend our tax dollars somehow. And maybe there were things that would have revealed secret searches or buggings of my house or my studio or whatever and they didn’t want me to know that.

It was quite an interesting document. I recommend to you, and everyone else, to get your file [by filing a FOIA request] and see what they say about you. You can see if you feel that they are spending your tax dollars on studying you and coming up with preposterous conclusions. It’s kind of fun.

Speaking of absurd stuff, and back to your new book, the BBC recently was criticised for not properly challenging a climate change denier in an interview. How do you think, ideally, the media should approach telling the story of climate change?

Well, here’s what I would say, Eric. My old physics textbook talked about the characteristics of a scientific theory, and there are two points that are relevant. One is that no theory can ever be proven; it can only be disproven. So the theory of gravity would fail if the next time I opened my hand and let a glass loose and it didn’t fall. And that’s always a possibility.

But the other aspect of a theory is that it allows you to make accurate predictions — and I feel that I can accurately predict that that glass would indeed fall to the floor if I let go of it. So let’s do stories about how accurate the predictions of the climate change model have been. From what I understand, they have been fairly accurate.

And in the meantime, it seems as if the smart thing to do, since they seem plausible, is to prepare for the worst, as we would with life insurance or flood insurance or anything else. We hope that it doesn’t happen, but we want to be ready if it does.

Nuclear power is often seen as this leading source of almost carbon-free energy and a possible solution for combating global warming. For this book, you made five visits to Fukushima, Japan, to investigate the aftermath of the reactor failure there following the 2011 tsunami. What was your biggest takeaway from those visits?

First of all, it is somewhat carbon-free, but not as carbon-free as people might think. The mining or the uranium, the transporting of it to the processing facility, the enrichment [needed to build new plants] — all of those things burn carbon. And then the nuclear plants need to have backup generators in case something happens to the ordinary power supply to prevent the fuel from melting down, and that’s what happened at Fukushima. Temco did not have their conventionally fueled backup generators high enough to withstand a tsunami. That’s why those fuel rods melted down.

And one thing many Americans don’t realize is that the nightmare at Fukushima is continuing right now. At tremendous effort and expense, Temco — the Tokyo-based power company — has built a wall of ice around the reactors, and of course it takes a huge amount of power to keep that thing frozen. The idea is to keep the groundwater from reaching out into the ocean. So they have reduced the flow, but there are still several tons every day of radioactive water that go into the ocean.

There are lots and lots of people who will probably never go home whose communities have been destroyed, and sometimes it’s hard for me as a Californian to understand this. Because we Californians tend to move around a lot. Maybe where you’re from, there are more people who live in their ancestral homes, but a lot of these nuclear evacuees at Fukushima can date back their family histories 100 years.

So suddenly to not be able to go back to the place where they were born, to not be able to visit their ancestors’ tombs, or to only be able to do so very briefly — it’s really, really sad.

And the cesium contamination [radioactive substance from Fukushima disaster] will take something like 300 years to get down to what it was in 2011. They’ve remediated it, so that means there are places that have been decontaminated by having leaves and downspouts and dirt stripped off, but there are plenty of places where the cesium is just in the soil. They said that any body of water that’s more than a meter deep acts as a neutron shield, so they don’t need to decontaminate that. All the hills with forest on them, what are they going to do? Cut down the trees? So it’s an ongoing nightmare.

You also label other alternatives like solar energy and wind turbines as carbon ideologies. Why is that?

It’s carbon that is the central environmental issue of our time. These carbon ideologies are like capitalism and communism: They are two sides of the same political debate. Nuclear, for instance, is a way of attempting to address the carbon issue. Solar is another. It’s all similar in a way based on what we have invested in each one of these fuels or ideologies.

You say in the acknowledgments that your publisher wanted a short book and you planned to give them one. Why, in the end, couldn’t you give them one?

Eric, have you read both volumes?

No, just the first one, No Immediate Danger.

Okay, if you do, tell me what you would cut. I wish that I had had the time and money to make this book longer. The publisher ran out of money and patience. I ran out of money and time. There’s only so much one person can do.


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