Only Desert in China Lake

May 10, 2017   •   By Kevin Zambrano

China Lake

Barret Baumgart

IN 2017, calling climate change a “catastrophe” just proves you read the news. Rising global temperatures continue to fuel crises worldwide, from water shortages in California and Mexico, to wars in Syria and Yemen, to the smog in northern China that has already shortened the lives of millions. But the overwhelming complexity of our climate (both ecological and political) has confounded any meaningful progress. Humans, hardwired to conceive of ourselves individualistically, seem ill-adapted to apprehend — let alone address — systemic problems. If, as philosopher George Berkeley wrote, “To be is to be perceived,” then, to the millions of individuals whose day-to-day lives continue unimpeded while the planet asphyxiates, the crisis does not really exist. Throughout China Lake: A Journey Into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe, winner of the 2016 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, Barret Baumgart repeats Berkeley’s line, as if he has made it his task to bring this vast, inchoate catastrophe into our perception.

To fully grasp something on the scale of climate change undoubtedly requires a multitude of perspectives, and indeed writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, who blends environmental history with scrupulous field reporting, and Margaret Atwood, whose MaddAddam trilogy imagines a dystopian future brought about by inequality and genetic engineering as well as the failure of Earth’s climate, view the crisis through the unique filter of their own heuristics. But it is doubtful that any book on climate change is as proudly a product of its author’s idiosyncrasies as China Lake, which centers on Baumgart’s tour of Naval Ordnance Test Station China Lake, “a 1.1-million-acre bombing range larger than the state of Rhode Island that abuts Death Valley,” though it includes musings on ultramarathon running, shamanism in pre-Columbian America, chemtrails, rock art, and even Baumgart’s childhood in Southern California.

In the fashion of the New Journalists, Baumgart weaves shoe-leather reportage — interviewing scientists and military personnel and drawing on a mélange of academic texts and US government records — with narratives of his personal experience. (Likewise in their fashion, he pays much attention to what he consumes: burritos eaten, caffeine and alcohol imbibed, e-cigs huffed.) But China Lake’s narrative scenes are more fluid and readable than its relaying of facts. The narrative can move abruptly between discrete pieces of information without an immediate semantic link, giving them a spliced-together feel akin to cinematic montage. One of montage’s pioneers, the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, wrote, “It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of being, to form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator's mind.” This sounds much like Baumgart’s approach; “I’m still trying to understand the contradictions,” he keeps insisting.

Most salient among these contradictions is that the United States Department of Defense, which spends billions of dollars protecting oil assets across the globe and consumes more fossil fuels than any other entity in the world, also expends more resources than any other entity in the world toward advancing solutions to climate change. (It’s no coincidence that the greenest member of the Trump Administration — albeit an extremely low bar — is the current Secretary of Defense, former General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a longtime advocate of “unleashing [the military] from the tether of fuel.”) Baumgart views the Pentagon as both the main driver of climate change and humanity’s only hope in combatting it. Unsurprisingly, then, China Lake can slip into easy fatalism:

I feed the dashboard a disk and press the gas pedal down […] The sign says it’s seventy-three miles to Death Valley.
There’s no more mountain left to get behind.
No more shamans […]
Only desert.

This is the close of Baumgart’s personal journey (followed only by a fact- and stats-driven epilogue) — his vision of the road forward: “Only desert.”

Perhaps he inherited his bleak outlook from his mother. In a book full of telling repetitions, the line she repeats is the most disquieting: “Bump, bump,” i.e., “If I get sick, drop me behind the car, put it in reverse, and back over me.” Then, too, Baumgart writes about two of the bleakest places in the world: Death Valley and the Pentagon. This focus is a consequence of his pragmatic approach to reckoning with climate change, the exploration of two seemingly workable fixes: weather modification and biofuels. However, with a deluge of information, Baumgart adumbrates each option’s irreconcilable scientific, financial, and political pitfalls. Biofuels are expensive, inefficient, and often do not even offset carbon pollution, and with weather modification techniques (the most horrifying example being Solar Radiation Management, which Baumgart informs us “involve[s] dumping millions of tons of opaque white sulfur aerosol dust into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s light back out into space”) the cure may be as bad as the disease. Neither biofuels nor geo-engineering prove to be actual improvements to the system; rather, they are climate hacks, flailing shortcuts that fail to address the fundamental causes of the problem.

And the causes are not mysterious. The US government first acknowledged climate change in 1965, when a Johnson Administration report acknowledged that “[t]hrough his worldwide industrial civilization, man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by pumping carbon dioxide into the air, which “will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.” Even so, Baumgart writes, “Nowhere does the report acknowledge the possibility of limiting the burning of fossil fuels.” George W. Bush’s objection to the Kyoto Protocol, he explains, was due to its “negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers.” Though Baumgart never explicitly makes the argument, it is clear to the reader that we will not find solutions to climate change without asking questions about industrial capitalism.

And yet: The only time a variant of the word capitalism comes up in China Lake is in a quote by Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Tewksbury, where he seems to confuse anti-capitalism for a basic sort of humanism: “The public’s understanding [of “energy security”] must transcend the anti-capitalist chants of ‘no blood for oil’ and public distrust of oil corporations.” Baumgart sarcastically dismisses Tewksbury’s paper as “very fine literature” and uses it as evidence that “pity for Mother Earth and her children was not the primary impetus behind the Pentagon’s pursuit of fossil fuel alternatives.” However, as is true when he emphasizes that the military “cannot […] support investment in clean energy technology solely for civilian purposes or environmental relations,” the reader wishes Baumgart would question the economic assumptions that undergird these positions.

Baumgart juxtaposes his tour of the Pentagon with a climate protest he attends the following day. He skeptically mills around, finding the whole thing self-congratulatory. “I used to be an activist,” he writes. And then:

Activism is a depressing game […] Apathy and complacency are death, no doubt, but nobody rewards your passion, your action, or your belief. They call you a bum, a bastard, an anarchist, and anti-American, or they simply tolerate your naïveté. I got kicked out of my high school graduation ceremony for speaking my mind, never received my diploma, and didn’t change anything. It’s possible, though, that I’ve been approaching everything the wrong way.

One wants to ask, “What would the right way be?” but to upbraid a literary writer for failing to answer such questions would be to make a category mistake. Literary nonfiction, especially the gonzo tradition that Baumgart works in, does not need to advance an argument; China Lake is rather a journey into the self, through the lens of climate change. The “contradicted heart” brought into perception turns out to be Baumgart’s own. By this measure, the book is unquestionably successful. But it also explains why complex, structural solutions (such as, for example, upgrading and redesigning the United States’s century-old electricity distribution grid) get ignored in favor of mythical panaceas like blotting out the sun or fueling cars with algae.

The kind of literary nonfiction in which voice and sensibility stand in for an overarching thesis can yield powerful results; so China Lake often does, especially in its depiction of Baumgart’s family life. But it is a delicate line to walk. So much wit, depth of research, observational prowess, as well as activist bona fides are on display throughout the book. But when Baumgart, a grad student from the (once-CIA-funded) Iowa Writers’ Workshop, fresh from official tours of military facilities, takes weary nips from his flask, barely tolerating the naïveté of people who have not yet given up on the future (and facile targets at that: had he waited a few months, he could have attended in the People’s Climate March in Manhattan, which had 10,000 times more protesters), some readers might be repelled. And later, at the end of his quotation-laden book, when he offers up that bleak, simplistic vision of the future — “Only desert” — those same readers might recall another famous quote, the one by critic Fredric Jameson, about how it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.


Kevin Zambrano is a writer from Long Beach, California.