...Refused interviews by fuel-industry executives and U.S. Department of Energy staff, Vollmann portrays individuals who have endured intimidation to speak out against the 'callous villainies' of fuel corporations. Unflinching, exacting, and forthright, Vollmann brings abiding respect, empathy, and tenderness to this endeavor, both documenting the fuel industry’s betrayal of hardworking people and recognizing 'the stubbornly irrational component in human affairs.' Invaluable, enlightening, and heartrending testimony to how enmeshed we all are in the carbon-industrial complex and accelerated climate change.
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 ... 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.
So is this the book on climate change we’ve all been waiting for? Maybe not. Carbon Ideologies, Vollmann’s two-volume exploration of the energy sources we use and the mess we are in, is prodigiously reported but sprawling and undisciplined ... Vollmann’s many fans are drawn to his literary hoarder aesthetic, and they will not be disappointed ... He has stacked his reporting high, giving us interview after interview with local people in places ravaged by our need for power and by our wastefulness ... We hear them at great length, but with little interpretation or analysis ... the biggest problem with this monumental work: not its length, or the way it might test your tolerance for sarcasm, but the author’s tendency to assume the absolute worst consequences of climate change ... Vollmann...gives short shrift to renewable energy sources like solar power that can help to provide a pathway to a less damaged future ... Reading these two books did have an effect on me ... I do feel worse about myself. Maybe that’s what the work was for.
Carbon Ideologies is a 1,200-page book published in two 600-page volumes (No Immediate Danger), (No Good Alternative) of fierce, relentless clarification, studying at exhaustive length modern humanity's relationship with non-renewable energy sources like coal, natural gas, oil, and most of all nuclear power ... The whole work is framed in a past-tense conceit in which the world has been ravaged by climate change and humanity has been devastated, a barren, blasted world whose traumatized inhabitants will look back at the late 20th and early 21st century with a combination of confusion and anger ... Two hundred pages of this would ordinarily constitute a dire publishing gamble – 1,200 pages of it should be completely unreadable. And yet, weirdly, the brightness and intelligence of Vollmann's own prose, absorbingly readable as always, acts as a kind of ideological counterweight to the gloom of his tidings ... It's extremely unlikely that Carbon Ideologies is irrelevant – but it may be premature, at least in part. Vollmann interviews dozens and dozens of people who are caught up in furthering and profiting from non-renewable energy industries, but there are many people in the world – Vollmann talks to some of them – who are every bit as invested in finding solutions before it's too late. We can all join the author in grasping at such hopes.
Having heard from coal miners and refinery workers, oil executives and nuclear engineers, fracking enthusiasts and carbon lobbyists, politicians and industry-captured regulators, residents of variously poisoned communities and even a few beleaguered activists—Vollmann beseeches his future reader to go easy on him and us. 'If you could end up saying, ‘well, yes, we might have made the same mistakes as you, if we’d been lucky enough to live when you did,’ I’d feel that Carbon Ideologies had accomplished some of its purpose,' Vollmann writes. 'How you judge us can mean nothing to us who are dead, but to you it might mean something, to accept that we were not all monsters; and forgiveness benefits the forgiver, so why wouldn’t I prefer you to call our doings mistakes instead of crimes?' But Vollmann suspects this is a bit much to ask. 'Most likely,' he wearily admits, 'you are a hard, angry person...Beset by floods, droughts, diseases and insect plagues...fearing for your children in the face of multiplying perils, how can you feel anything better than impatient contempt for my daughter and me, who lived so wastefully for our own pleasure? ... One of the enjoyable things about this massive work is the way Vollmann employs irony, and that bluntest implement of irony called sarcasm, throughout the volumes. He can be quite humorous. You might even call this the Infinite Jest of climate books.
The world’s attachment to fossil fuels is questioned at length but with little depth in this second volume of the author’s scattershot jeremiad on global warming and unclean energy ... In rambling interviews with townspeople, workers, government officials, and anticarbon activists, he uncovers both dismay at the local downside of fossil fuels and support for them as necessary sources of jobs, energy, and cultural tradition despite the prospect of climate change ... the book often feels like a confused, omnidirectional assault on all of industrial civilization. The result is long but feckless, a lightweight analysis of energy and society.