Volume I of Carbon Ideologies

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Volume I of Carbon Ideologies

William T. Vollmann

2018, Viking (Penguin Random House LLC)




I’ve been reading Vollmann’s double volume Carbon Ideologies just about every morning with coffee for the past couple months. I’m currently making my way through volume II but starting to feel dizzy at the amount of information to take in, so I’m pausing to write. Vollmann’s book is like some type of power plant, converting information into potential energy the reader can use to change their awareness and behavior. The efficiency of information convertion is probably very low, Vollmann has done a very commendable deed, but I can sense that I’m only retaining a small percentage of the raw data included in this book. None the less, I find doing the reading is raising my level of awareness, and I’m attempting to integrate that awareness into the practice of living. I’m moved more than anything by the vision that drives the work of this writing.

Below are just two excerpts from volume I, I have neglected to copy any of the information from the About chapters, because I think they just need to be read for themselves. There are also charts that summarize wide-scope information and photos taken by Vollmann during his traveling land-surveyor’s investigation. I highly recommend this book to anyone willing to look into a future – Vollmann is an artist – it’s a gift for us that he took it upon himself the challenging task of trying to see an invisible monster for several years of his life, and came out of that time with this book we can read and thereby better understand the collosus of destruction and its ideologies of influence for ourselves.

The end of volume I is an account of Vollmann’s visits to the Fukushima disaster zone in Japan, where nuclear power plants were wrecked by a tsunami wave in 2011. Radioactive decontamination is underway, which means that toxic waste is piled in mounds of black bags, houses are grown over with goldenrod and oceans of yellow weeds, radioactive wild boar are not afraid of humans because they have never seen humans before. I couldn’t help but think of the giant feral hamsters in the toxic wasteland of Infinite Jest when I learned about the radioactive wild boar in Japan. The ruined land that we see through Vollmann’s investigation of reality is a reality that reads like literary premonition and archetype, forcing us into a vertigo between immediate human empathy and far-reaching questioning, “what was the work for?” has to keep being asked. It’s haunting.

a lengthy excerpt follows, from a transitional part of the book, out of the About information, and into the March 2011 journalistic experience into a world of radiation, beginning with a tooth X-ray and buying a dosimeter from a salesman before departing for disaster-zone Japan:


from Volume I

pg. 272-274

When The Wind Blows From The South


Since this is Carbon Ideologies, I considered this matter of the reactor to be the real story. Sad as the rest of it was, the damage had been done, the people killed and property ruined; and now recovery could continue until the next quake. But this other horror wrapped up in becquerels, sieverts and millirems was just beginning, and nobody knew how bad it might be.

(I had asked Peter Bradford: “Could it happen here in the States? I understand we have some reactors of the Japanese type.”

“I don’t think the likelihood is driven so much by reactors of that kind as by the fact that we’re just about as vulnerable as the Japanese to complacency about what used to be called a Class Nine accident. I don’t think we’re any less vulnerable than the Japanese.”)

About the earthquake-tsunami and the concomitant reactor disaster it may be apposite to cite the words of Buddha: Nothing in the world is permanent or lasting; everything is changing and momentary and unpredictable. But people are ignorant and selfish, and concerned only with desires and sufferings of the present moment. They do not listen to the good teachings; nor do they try to understand them; and simply give themselves up to the present interest, to wealth and lust, — to, for instance, the tax credits awarded those who dwell near a nuclear reactor, not to mention what the reactor enables and impels. In Tokyo the subway car darkens for a stop or two, thanks no doubt to power shortages. The information screen by the lefthand door informs us that one line happens to be down due to “blackout,” while two bullet trains have been cancelled due to “earthquake.”* Classifying the power inputs and outputs of Japan’s electric grid (capacity: 290 gigawatts, of which Fukushima Daiichi once contributed 1.6%) would be vexing, and from the standpoint of this essay needless. Is, for instance, a bullet train nourished on atomic power? According to Japan Railways telephone operator, it is not, although “for security purposes” she declined to specify which kind of energy it does employ to flit so luxuriously past the blossoming cherry trees. The latest earthquake, a small one, has delayed our departure from Shinagawa Station by the merest quarter-hour. The pallid young salaryman across the aisle peers down over his white dust mask at his shining laptop; the stylized yellow man and woman glow side by side in their black square in order to inform us that both lavatories are occupied; and we fly onward over houses and garden. From Buddha’s point of view, it scarcely matters whether all this ease derives from uranium pellets, solar cells or perpetual motion; in any case, our complacency alone protects the lovely roofs and trees of this present instant from becoming the rubble into which the very next moment might in fact cast them. But how many of us (excepting monks) can live and hope — in other words, chase our present interests — without disregarding our inevitable ends? I say we are “better off” pretending that the bullet train won’t derail, that nuclear power is safe and global warming is a hoax. The peril is remote; probably we will die from something else. — When the peril comes nearer, present interest advises against disregard. (That is why you in my future do believe in climate change.) The more present the interest, the less present or apparently present the danger, the more irresistible the disregard. Hence the following parable, courtesy of the paterfamilias of the family who hosted me on Oshima Island. Refilling my sake glass as we sat in the dark and chilly mud-stained dining room, he remarked that following an infamous tsunamis back in the Meiji Era,* numerous oceanfront plots here and elsewhere were banned from resettlement, but “somehow,” he jocularly continued, people forgot or set the edict aside. Of course, even had they complied, this latest terror would have carried off ever so many, since it rolled in higher than any wave seen by the people of Meiji. Who can blame Oshima’s inhabitants for not predicting that?

*In 2010 Japan consumed 21.9 Q-BTUs (171.3 million BTUs per capita). In 2011 the respective figures were 21.0 Q-BTUs and 164.4 million BTUs. This approximately 5% decline surely resulted from the accident.


And one more excerpt, much further into the investigation of reality in the Red Zones, this thought is tucked away in the middle of a page-long paragraph, but it’s one of my favorite thoughts in the book, the context and placement of this thought in the book allows the most fleeting appreciation of alien beauty:

“— but these red zones were new places, not entirely ugly; when those oceans of goldenrod rose up in their own gentle tsunamis to drown the abandoned homes of nuclear refugees, I experienced something refreshingly non-human, reminding me that however much we might alter our planet, the planet itself would survive awhile, bearing its own loveliness, just as Jupiter or Venus must be lovely, even if lethal to us.” (pg. 461 The Red Zones)




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