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No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies by [William T. Vollmann]
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No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for No Immediate Danger:

Carbon Ideologies is an almanac of global energy use . . . a travelogue to natural landscapes riven by energy production . . . a compassionate work of anthropology that tries to make sense of man’s inability to weigh future cataclysm against short-term comfort . . . one of the most honest books yet written on climate change.” —Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic

No Immediate Danger tussles with the comprehension-defying nature of climate change . . . terrifying insights are to be found . . . It embodies the confusion of our current moment, the insidiousness of disbelief, and the mania-inducing reality that our greatest threat is the hardest to act upon. It is a feverish, sprawling archive of who we are, and what we’ve wrought.” —The Washington Post

“In the face of complex, contested data, Vollmann is a diligent and perceptive guide. He’s also deeply mindful of those who’ve been sacrificed in the name of profits and political expediency. Amid the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environment protections, these are incontestably important books.” The San Francisco Chronicle

“Vollmann’s many fans . . . will not be disappointed . . . he packs research and voice into his impassioned works . . . Reading these two books did have an effect on me; I became even more conscious of the resources I waste in my own life.” —John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review
“One of the enjoyable things about this massive work is the way Vollmann employs irony, and that bluntest of irony called sarcasm, throughout the volume. He can be quite humorous. You might even call this the Infinite Jest of climate books . . . there’s something admirable, even noble, about the sheer time and effort—and sheer humanity—that went into these volumes.” The Baffler
“Equal parts gonzo journalism, hand-wringing confessional, and one hot mess . . . the books document Vollmann’s quest to understand how capitalism, consumerism, and fossil fuels are ruining the planet.” Sierra

“The best part of the books [are] the conversations Vollmann had during his travels, the sensitive histories he gives of the places he visited, and the moral impressions those conversations and places have made on him. It’s these parts that made Carbon Ideologies a unique, lasting, definitive contribution to the global warming literature.” The Humanist
“An elegy to our damned epoch that’s also a work of enlightenment and education . . . the book is a performance of the vexations involved in trying to understand our energy reality . . . [Vollmann’s] project—not unlike that of his historical fiction—is to show with utmost fidelity what it was like to be a human involved in terrible things.” The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Provides] profound insights into both Japanese society and universal themes regarding the human response to and preparation for major disasters and tragedies.” The International Examiner

“Vigilant in his precision, open-mindedness, and candor, Vollmann takes on global warming . . . [His] careful descriptions, touching humility, molten irony, and rueful wit, combined with his addressing readers in ‘the hot dark future,’ makes this compendium of statistics, oral history, and reportage elucidating, compelling, and profoundly disquieting.” —ALA Booklist (starred)

“[A] rewarding, impeccably researched narrative . . . Vollmann apologizes to the future that we’ve ruined, charting how our choices of energy sources made the planet scarcely inhabitable.” —Kirkus Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

When We Kept the Lights On

We all have in us the ghosts of long-vanished things, of fallen cities and marvelous machines.
Gene Wolfe, 1982

Someday, perhaps not long from now, the inhabitants of a hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet than the one on which I lived may wonder what you and I were thinking, or whether we thought at all. This book is for them.

When I read another embrittled document predicting the disappearance of bison from the American Plains, my melancholy is untainted by urgency. Captive bison do survive, but the great herds have been gone since 1884. And as I write this book about coal, oil, natural gas and atomic power, I do my best to look as will the future upon the world in which I lived—namely, as surely, safely vanished. Nothing can be done to save it; therefore, nothing need be done. Hence this little book scrapes by without offering solutions. There were none; we had none. All the same, it may not be uninteresting to learn what went on in the minds of buffalo hunters, Indian killers, coal miners, freeway drivers, homeowners and nuclear engineers.

In the time when I lived, it was still possible to meet Americans who disbelieved in global warming, although the ones I knew became shyer and rarer in about 2013. In 2016, they helped elect Donald Trump President, upon which their various carbon ideologies naturally came roaring back.

“We sure need a good Sierra snowpack this year,” said a contractor friend of mine. “Skiing was lousy last year and the year before. If we can only get some snow, that will make those global warming people shut up.”—That was just before Christmas. Come spring, the snowpack was 6% of what we had been calling normal. But why not call California a special case? Up in Washington the snowpack was a full 16% of what it should have been; and by May, “seeing things happen at this time of year we just have never seen before,” Governor Inslee declared a “statewide drought emergency.”—Fortunately,my contractor friend was vindicated, and those global warming people utterly foiled, for after a long dry year, the subsequent winter blew flurry-rich,and by January the Sierra snow level had reached 115%!

February turned unseasonably warm. The leftwing hoaxers got impudent again. As for the skeptics, they took strength in the fact that carbon forecasters of other stripes had been wrong before, in token of which I quote from my grandfather’s Mechanical Engineers’ Handbook, copyright 1958: Petroleum would soon run out! The peak of production in the United States should come about 1965. . . World shortage of petroleum may be expected to begin about 1960.— If only!— As for coal, in predicting that American production would reach its height in about 1975 the Handbook was not far wrong, but it anticipated that a world shortage of total world fossil fuels. . . would be noticeable around that same year, which is precisely when a build-your-own-alternative-style-house primer warned us all: A Federal Power Commission staff study, released in January of 1975, concluded that natural gas production from the forty-eight contiguous states has reached its peak and will decline for the indefinite future.—We were all on theverge of getting cold!—But in 1993 the National Coal Association announced that “at present rates of use” our coal reserves can be expected to last nearly 250 years. There are about 1,000 tons of recoverable coal for every man, woman and child in the United States. Then came fracking, which afforded gas enough to toast us in our planetary oven.

In each of these dull and distant comedies, we got condemned to future deprivation, and then the diagnosis brightened! (I myself got cynical; I didn’t care; I chalked it up to financial manipulation.) In 1999 my atlas advised me that oil might last another 40 years if we were lucky. And in 2015, as I sat beside the automatic gas fire, writing Carbon Ideologies, Iran announced intentions to increase her gas output by 40% in the next five years, while coal prices fell farther; oil prices had just decreased again: There remained enough fossil fuels to choke us all! So why not deal sharply with pessimists, or refrain from dealing with them at all? Mr. Jonathan Lee, whose company rented out supertankers, felt as excited as a rookie because you are seeing history change before your eyes! China and India meanwhile began seizing a bargain opportunity to top off their petroleum reserves. The prior errors of prophecy proved that no one knew anything about anything; therefore, climate change was the merest hot air.

Not far from the disbelievers dwelled those who couldn’t be bothered about “an ecosystem somewhere.” In 2016 a kindly barber told me: “I don’t really think none about it, although I have to say that when I see people pick up cigarette butts from the sidewalk I appreciate their caring, and people that care about the earth, I mean, that’s nice, and when I think about the polar bears losing their land, I do feel touched about that, because I care a lot about animals.” For him, an ecosystem was something to watch on television while he ate takeout pizza. He was a decent fellow who had never been consulted by the carbon vendors—whose systems of extraction and delivery had long since become invisibly ubiquitous.

In 2014 my friend Philip, a cheerful, hardworking realtor in his early 40s, allowed that global warming might exist, but that it was natural and “evolutionary”; the human race had little to do with it. For years we had drunk together and listened to each other, so I asked him to tell me more. “Why should I concentrateon anything that stresses me out?” he demanded, and when I saw that the subject might dent his cheerfulness, I changed it.

Kindred sorts reassured me that our new weather was “natural” and cyclical,and therefore required no action. Indeed, precious little action was taken. For more than 40 years, Homer City Generating Station in Pennsylvania has spewed sulfur dioxide from two of its three units completely unchecked,. . . because it is largely exempt from federal air pollution laws. . . Last year, the facility released 114,245 tons of sulfur dioxide, more than all of the power plants in neighboring New York combined. This pollutant was both a killer of many organisms and a dangerous “precursor” gas with unpredictable effects on the climate. In 2011,the Environmental Protection Agency finally demanded that Homer City cleanup. After threatening immediate and devastating consequences and losing a lawsuit,the utility found a way to comply—without even raising its electricity rates. When I read this tale in the newspaper, my first emotion was happy astonishment that mitigation had proved so practicable—after which I felt all the more amazed that Big Coal kept digging in its heels against reducing harmful emissions elsewhere—and was allowed to do so—while Big Oil and Big Frack behaved much the same. (As for Big Nuke, its mantra, as we shall see, was: No immediate danger.)— In 2017, a fellow who had repeatedly sued the EPA was appointed to run the agency. Well, after all, who gave a damn about some old ecosystem somewhere? (A newspaper item: Pounded Again, Coastal Town May Consider a Retreat. Just repairing and repairing the sea walls—it isn’t a permanent solution with the ocean coming ever closer to us. Those words used to be exotic, back when I was alive.) Who could say whether somewhere might be here? That ecosystem’s peculiarities had always lain beyond our ken. Although odorless methane might be accompanied by the scent of crude oil, and while carbon dioxide, that colorless gas with a faintly pungent odor and acid taste, sometimes heralded itself in jet trails and smokestack-clouds, both of these quickly vanished into our all-accepting sky. Then what? As a West Virginian pastor told me (you will meet him in the coal section): “Here you do see the smokestacks and you know that they do put off the smoke and everything, but it seems to me that the earth is so large and there are so many trees and everything that how could manmade equipment put up enough smoke to make a difference?” His question was absolutely reasonable. Answering it would have required the help of scientists, instruments and historical records. Even then, causation could never be proved. All one might hope to establish was plausible correlation with predictive value. Most of us were non-correlators; to us the clashing claims felt wearisome, complicated, inscrutable. It took me all my life merely to understand aspects of myself—and why shouldn’t the latest scaremongers be as wrong as the Cassandras of  “peak oil”? In Bangladesh I met coal mine workers and even a labor union leader who had never heard of global warming; of course they asserted that there was “no alternative” to coal extraction. Indeed, they proved their own point.

I remember another courteous old West Virginian who had just been speaking cogently about his childhood, his coal miner father and the decline of coal extraction in Appalachia; he grew vaguer when I requested his views on climate change: “I’m sure it’s got something to do with the situation on TV”—meaning that he had seen television footage of weather-related disasters, and supposed that global warming might be part of the cause. “That’s part of the pollution problem,” he allowed. Then he added, and I failed to follow his logic, “That’s why the EPA is doing what they are, stepping beyond their authority, I think, in a lotof ways.”

“Do you think coal contributes to global warming?”

He reassured me: “They’ve got technology now that can cut all the pollution out.”

Had it only been so!— In fact it was so a little bit, as Homer City unwillingly proved—but our captains of fuel and electricity resisted even that little for all they were worth, which was plenty.

Anyhow, that good old man, who cannot be faulted for the incompleteness of his knowledge on greenhouse gases; and the disdainers of somewhere-nowhere ecosystems, the gloom-and-doom handwringers like me, the climate change deniers and the consoling weather-cycle asserters, we were all outnumbered by ordinary practical folks for whom cheap energy and a paycheck incarnated all relevance. One fellow wrote in to the newspaper: My son works in the coalfields ofsouthern West Virginia[;] he supports my two grandchildren by mining the coal that keeps the lights on in America—this last phrase being often used by my nation’s carbon ideologues. So I know first hand the importance of winning the war on coal that Obama declared five years ago. Whether it was truly Obama who started it, who our enemy was, and whether America’s lights might beneficially be dimmed here and there, failed to encumber him. The maintenance of his two grandchildren trumped other arguments; their needs caused him to know firsthand the small selfish thing that he knew. I will not celebrate him, but I decline to blame him, either. Why should his kin go hungry? (You in our future can go hungry instead; after all, we don’t even know you.)

In The Wall Street Journal’s “Notable & Quotable” section, a so‑called “environmental writer” enlarged his argument into a carbon eulogy:

In 1971 China derived 40 percent of its energy from renewables. Since then, it has powered its incredible growth almost exclusively on heavily polluting coal, lifting a historic 680 million people out of poverty. . . A recent analysis from the Centre for Global Development shows that $10 billion invested in such renewables [as solar energy] would help lift 20 million people in Africa out of poverty. It sounds impressive, until you learn that if this sum was spent on gas electrification it would lift 90 million people out of poverty. So in choosing to spend that $10 billion on renewables, we deliberately end up choosing to leave more than 70 million people in darkness and poverty.

In other words, back when I lived, some of us believed that heavily polluting coal could somehow lift people out of poverty without impoverishing us in anymore fundamental way. We believed that because it was convenient to believe it. So we kept the lights on.

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