“When I Was Alive”: William T. Vollmann’s Climate Letter to the Future

By Ted HamiltonJune 22, 2018

“When I Was Alive”: William T. Vollmann’s Climate Letter to the Future

No Immediate Danger by William T. Vollmann
No Good Alternative by William T. Vollmann

WHAT CAUSES CLIMATE CHANGE? Scientists have answered this question in their own way, telling us about heat-trapping gases and feedback loops. Through no fault of their own, their reasons haven’t done much good. We continue to pump suicidal amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere while raging at inaction and praying for a miracle fix. For those of us who take unfairly large bites out of the carbon budget, the knowledge of our folly is matched only by our abashed inability to overcome it.

This curious mix of certainty and confusion is a defining affect of the climate crisis, and it’s one of the main themes of William T. Vollmann’s new two-volume Carbon Ideologies. An elegy to our damned epoch that’s also a work of enlightenment and education, the book — the first volume, No Immediate Danger, was published in April, while the second, No Good Alternative, arrives in June — combines a heavy dose of scientific instruction with Vollmann’s reporting from energy-producing regions around the world. The work’s stated goals are to help readers understand the costs and benefits of their own energy use and to explain to future generations the hopeless complexity of our reckless dash toward cataclysm. The hope (even if Vollmann doesn’t invest too much in hope) is that our wrathful heirs will at least understand that it wasn’t deliberate, not all of it.

And so, to start the work, we get a 193-page primer on energy use, replete with musings on Vollmann’s own daily BTU consumption (British thermal units; one BTU equals the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit) and lengthy comparisons of the fuel requirements of different refrigerators. Vollmann wants to know: “What was the work for?” Personal anecdotes and choice quotations from technical manuals and poets pepper a heavy stew of unit conversions and historical statistics. Here’s a sample: the bolded number is a comparative power requirement, “in multiples of what was needed per minute ca. 1975 to operate a plug-in vibrator,” with BTUs per minute in brackets:

Enjoying a plug-in vibrator, ca. 1975 [2.28 BTUs per minute]

Operating a cell phone charger, ca. 2012 [34.13] 

Average per-minute power consumption by William T. Vollmann during December 2013 [36.26].

Removing 1 cubic inch of cast steel, using a round-nosed lathe tool, ca. 1945 [42.42-76.35]

Enlightened yet? These numbers can be hard going. It’s certainly useful to compare one’s everyday energy-sucking practices with the historical demands of industrial processes and locomotion. The unfortunate truth, for those not generally inclined to perusing conversion tables, is that the truth lies in quantification. Still, the lasting impression of this often tedious numerical inquiry is that, in an age of endless production and consumption, we can’t possibly know ourselves.

These difficult lessons are merely a prelude to the omnipresent figures and measurements that accompany Vollmann’s report from the area around the ruined nuclear reactor at Fukushima, Japan. It’s somewhat odd to feature nuclear power as a “carbon ideology” ahead of coal, natural gas, and oil. Vollmann justifies the decision by noting that nuclear power production depends on fossil fuels, and by comparing the nuclear wagers of risk versus reward — which we have often spectacularly lost — to our much larger bets on carbon sources. The heavy dose of calculations only makes the first volume an even more demanding experience. Vollmann is instructing us, and he’s generous enough to admit in his “Note to the Reader” that his lessons can be dreary. But more than a fountain of facts, the book is a performance of the vexations involved in trying to understand our energy reality. The human account of what happened at Fukushima, the interviews with refugees and the excursions through abandoned cities, demands scientific context. And so Vollmann annotates his reportage with monotonous radiation readings. These readings in turn require their own context, which is complicated by debates over the efficacy of various units and devices of measurement. No wonder we throw up our hands and dream of Mars.

The second volume, No Good Alternative, picks up speed as Vollmann shuttles from West Virginia, where vanishing coal is as much an economic support as it is an emotional and psychological fixation, to the natural gas fields of Oklahoma and Colorado and the oil extraction zones of the United Arab Emirates, with stops in Mexico and Bangladesh along the way. He has endless sympathy for the workers and residents he speaks with and is constantly attentive to his own hypocrisy as a plane-hopping, car-driving, electricity-loving critic of dangerous fuels. (From his interview with the vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association: “He asked me to tell him straight up if I were an environmentalist. I said that I wasn’t, not really. How could I have called myself one, and lived the way that I did?”) This reflexivity extends to his journalistic methods: he tells us all about the payments he makes to cash-strapped subjects, the heroic assistance of various hired researchers and experts, and the flirtations with illegality that reporting on the energy industry requires. This is how he prefaces an account of trespassing on corporate property to reach a mountaintop coal mine: “When I was alive, the big boys of resource extraction (had they been inclined to read) would surely have characterized Carbon Ideologies as a work of fiction: they were correct, and I a fantastical slanderer. So let the following be fiction.”

You’ll notice the odd temporal clause at the beginning of that last quotation. It’s a refrain in Carbon Ideologies: Vollmann addresses himself to future readers and attempts to interpret his efforts from the vantage of their desperate, disappointed world. Svetlana Alexievich uses a similar trope in Voices from Chernobyl (1997), her oral history of the nuclear disaster that serves as an obvious model for Carbon Ideologies, especially its first volume. (Readers might also be interested in Kate Brown’s Plutopia [2013], an excellent work of oral and archival history that compares the effect of nuclear development and contamination in Ozersk, Russia, and Hanford, Washington, the latter of which Vollmann also visits.) Alexievich’s description of her method could also be Vollmann’s:

I travelled, I talked, I wrote it down. These people were the first to see what the rest of us only suspect exists. What is a mystery to the rest. But I will let them tell it for themselves. More than once, I had the feeling that I was recording the future.

Picturing his book surviving in “scorched or water-damaged pieces,” Vollmann flirts with the idea that his words might convince our descendants that they would have made the same mistakes that we did. But he quickly concludes: “[H]ow can you feel anything better than impatient contempt for my daughter and me, who lived so wastefully for our own pleasure?”

This idea of wasteful pleasure signals an important difference from the tragedies cataloged in Voices from Chernobyl. Three decades after that disaster, and from the perspective of a well-off American, the ratio of personal complicity to official deception is much greater. We’re walking into a catastrophe, and our reasons for doing so aren’t very good. While Vollmann’s book is largely an exploration of the difficulty of acting upon imperfect information and the inscrutability of expert claims, it doesn’t suggest any necessary relation between enlightenment and ethical behavior. To the contrary: After digesting the Carbon Ideologies, the informed reader will likely be an even more contemptible hypocrite. What explains this failure to act? The book makes the case that, behind the intricate accounts of science and economics, global warming’s real motive factors are the same dreary agents that have driven most of history: desire, ignorance, and greed.


Such themes are a novelist’s hallmark, and it’s telling that Vollmann — author of 10 novels, including the 2005 National Book Award–winning Europe Central and the multi-part epic of the European–Native American encounter, Seven Dreams — has pulled out his equally well-sharpened journalist’s pen to take on global warming. Literature has had a difficult time treating climate change and the fossil fuel use that spawns it. Prior to the apocalyptic imaginaries of recent science fiction and a handful of novels about oil and gas’s ill effects, such as Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light (2016) and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011), modernity’s reliance on ancient combustible sludge was manifestly absent from the world of letters, as Amitav Ghosh famously noted in his 1992 essay “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.” Writers have been too far removed from sites of fuel extraction, too dedicated to the individual moral drama — Ghosh’s explanations — or they’ve simply been too naïve to take fossil fuels as a matter of concern. In other words, they’re like the rest of humanity.

Vollmann, who’s made a name for himself smoking crack, jumping trains, and cross-dressing in the service of writerly investigation, can’t be charged here with avoiding the facts, places, or people most intimately connected to the fossil fuel economy. Why then, does he report on, rather than novelize, those fuels’ now-evident historical momentousness?

There are at least two good reasons. The first is the educational purpose of Carbon Ideologies. For all his doubts about knowledge’s import or writing’s potential to illuminate global warming — a project “more necessary than possible” — Vollmann thinks it’s worth trying. He encourages his readers to perform their own cost-benefit analyses of energy use. He tests assertions against facts. He endorses the civic-minded ethos of science writing for the general public:

All too often when I was alive, generalists who could look at overarching meanings and patterns (and therefore most thoughtfully consider where we were going and why) lacked proficiency in math and science. Meanwhile, some of the scientists and mathematicians I met were naïve, or worse yet, indifferent, concerning our where and why. Carbon Ideologies strives, however unsuccessfully, to bridge the gap.

The second reason for Vollmann’s choice of form is that the characters in his drama of attachment — attachment to deadly fuels and to endless profits — are alive today. Vollmann is less interested in how we imagine the future than in how the future imagines us. This requires documentation. His project — not unlike that of his historical fiction — is to show with the utmost fidelity what it was like to be a human involved in terrible things. And just like his books exploring the Eastern Front in World War II or the Jesuit missions in North America, this project involves a masterful orchestration of historical and scientific sources, thoroughly rendered characters, poetically evoked settings, and an unsettled, self-questioning authorial voice. The main difference is the lack of distance.

This places Carbon Ideologies closer to Vollmann’s great works of nonfiction reporting and research such as Poor People (2007) and the seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), a history of justifications of violence. Vollmann says in an introductory note to Carbon Ideologies that all three works “use induction to generalize from subjective case studies into analytical categories of the phenomenon under investigation.” It must be said that the present work offers much less guidance for what one should do than even Rising Up and Rising Down, which attempted to describe a set of rules for when and where it might be permissible to kill (not often, it turns out).

Carbon Ideologies’s hybrid genre — oral history, scientific précis, journalism, essay — lends it an interesting place in recent writing on climate change. Its emphasis on ideology rather than impact provides a nice contrast to reporting like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), which looks at how people are affected by a changing climate instead of the patterns of thought, behavior, and culture that make energy extraction so durable. Living in Denial (2011), Kari Marie Norgaard’s study of a small Norwegian town’s passivity in the phase of the evident effects of warming, traces similar themes of harmful attachment with a pointed focus on a single community. Carbon Ideologies’s technical material deals more with energy combustion than with the atmospheric science of global warming, making it both more practically useful and less comprehensive than works like Joseph Romm’s Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (2015). The book’s method of looking at our actions from the perspective of a broken future has something in common with Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), though Vollmann is much more hesitant to draw conclusions and to offer philosophical responses to civilizational decline. Finally, Carbon Ideologies’s ruminations on the role of big business and corrupt politicians in prolonging our fossil fuel addiction lacks the systemic sweep one finds in Naomi Oreskes’s Merchants of Doubt (2010) or Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014), and its indictment of our economic system doesn’t aspire to the sort of theoretical sophistication of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism and the Web of Life (2015).

Instead, Vollmann’s book engages in critique from the position of — and directed at — imperfect individuals. Vollmann goes out of his way to mention his personal affection for an oil executive he meets, even as he questions his vision of the world. He expresses gratitude for the work of coal miners whose climate denialism he can neither condone nor completely condemn. Carbon Ideologies is no jeremiad or prescription; it’s an earnest effort to understand a complex social and scientific phenomenon using the limited resources of literary journalism.

Here’s a particularly interesting example of Vollmann’s style at work: he’s at a union hall in Barapukuria, Bangladesh, interviewing coal workers. He describes the men as “mere ambulatory causes (and imagined future sufferers) of climate change.” His reflection on their situation leads him to quote from Trotsky’s preface to his History of the Russian Revolution (quotations are in italics):

Consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. And what were those conditions? What moves things in a steam engine is not the piston or the box, but the steam. For [Trotsky] that steam was revolutionary energy. When I was alive, it was carbon’s combustion products. Steam turned our turbines; carbon dioxide and methane rose up. If I cannot know these men, I can at least reveal what is to Carbon Ideologies the most relevant manifestation of their conditions.

In 2014, each American’s share of carbon dioxide pollution from fuel combustion was 35,754 pounds. The corresponding Bangladeshi figure was 862 pounds — in other words, 42 times less than mine. To what extent were our diverging consciousnesses determined by these facts? I must leave that to you from the future, who presumably detest all of us: I for consuming so much more fuel than you could hope to do, and these union men for doing their own mite to increase per capita fuel combustion.

Notice how Vollmann suggests that what’s most significant about any individual, at least from the perspective of the future, is her quantitative contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. But this suggestion is edged with irony and qualification: “When I was alive”; “I must leave that to you.” It’s also a reductively materialist assertion apparently inspired by the words of a historical materialist. But Vollmann performs two inversions on Trotsky’s text. First, he flips an abstract statement about the action of the masses into a particular observation of the consumption of individuals. Second, he literalizes Trotsky’s metaphor of the steam engine of revolution to produce a very different argument about history. The energy and consciousness of the masses, whatever their generative conditions, are not the machines driving history; fuel use is. And what determines fuel use and its variations across country and class? Well, ideology, of course — or if you prefer, “consciousness.” And consciousness, Carbon Ideologies shows, is utterly dependent on conditions. The vicious circle of matter and idea continues. Vollmann doesn’t seek to break it. His talent is to make us see it, to follow its pattern of thought, and to locate its roots in the everyday striving of ordinary people.


In an essay called “Literature and Energy Futures,” the critic Imre Szeman discusses the “gap” between our reliance on fossil fuels and our representations of that reliance. “This gap,” Szeman writes,

is the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies, one consequence of which is the yawning space between belief and action, knowledge and agency: we know where we stand with respect to energy, but we do nothing about it.

Where “we stand” is in a relationship to carbon-based fuels that sustains and fulfills us but will ultimately kill us. A primary point of contention between the fossil fuel industry and its critics is whether this relationship is best described as a dependence or an addiction. A dependence we can manage and accept without feeling too bad about ourselves; an addiction we must put an end to or die. The decades-long industry effort to hide the facts about climate change was never intended to obfuscate our reliance on coal, oil, and gas, merely to make it seem anodyne. Thus, the difficulty in convincing people not only of the reality of global warming but of its imminence. We must be taught to hate the things we love. Making matters more difficult is the fact that the pushers have all the power.

Vollmann reserves his only moments of real anger for the wealthy members of the “regulated community” who refuse to even entertain the possible dangers of their products. Proud oilmen are to be listened to and selfish nuclear executives are to be tolerated, so long as they’re willing to sit down and talk. But there is no excuse for the silence of the corporate “no comment.” Carbon Ideologies abounds with footnotes about unreturned emails and shameful tales of PR departments that, in the midst of flooding the public consciousness with news of oil’s wonders, refuse to so much as acknowledge a question on climate change.

The frustration with this selfish hypocrisy is understandable in a writer whose duty it is to elicit contrasting perspectives. But Vollmann’s rancor runs deeper. Despite decades of research and public debate on the effects of fossil fuel use, we’ve hardly even begun to grapple with what it would mean to cut ourselves off. Our writers have been late to this accounting, our politicians can’t be trusted, and industry, ever touting the wisdom of the marketplace, has done all it can to rig the economy of ideas. Instead of engaging in a fair fight over fossil fuel use, we’ve burned up our remaining reservoirs of time in a series of evasive maneuvers, trying to escape the shadow of the impending catastrophe.

For future readers, then, the true crime of our age won’t be denial. It will be indifference.


Ted Hamilton is a writer, graduate student, and climate change attorney based in New York.

LARB Contributor

Ted Hamilton is the author of essays on climate change, academic articles in environmental law, and a novel about radical politics in the 21st century. He is an attorney and co-founder of the Climate Defense Project, which provides legal support to climate activists, and is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale University.


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