Sometimes a project becomes so big that you have to split it in two. That’s what National Book Award winning author William T. Vollmann discovered as he worked on his latest book(s), Carbon Ideologies, a mammoth set of texts in which Vollmann turns his keen eye on the issue of climate change.
In a note to the reader, Vollmann says that Carbon Ideologies was supposed to be a single work, but when the end result was longer than “its contractually stipulated maximum,” his publisher Viking decided to let him split the manuscript into two volumes. The first volume, titled No Immediate Danger—a phrase appropriated from Japanese authorities after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011—was released on April 10, and the second volume, No Good Alternative, will be released on June 5.
On Saturday, Vollmann will speak at the Houston United Way about No Immediate Danger. We caught up with Vollmann to talk about his new book and what gives him hope for the future of the planet.
When did you know that this book was a project you wanted to pursue?
When I came back from my first visit to Fukushima, the tsunami and earthquake damage was horrendous, and the stories of the people who suffered were quite haunting, whereas the effects of the nuclear explosions were still just very, very—I won’t say invisible, but they were very understated. I remember being in the village of Kawauchi, and there were umbrellas leaning up against doorways, potted plants beginning to wither, the blinds all closed, and I thought, Wow. What’s this going to look like in a few years? And so I got to find out.
Was there anything that made you hesitate before embarking on such a journey?
No, nothing really. What’s more fun than a big project? (Laughs.)
It’s very clear that you did a massive amount of research for Carbon Ideologies. Who or what surprised you the most along the way?
I’m always surprised at how little I actually know and how sympathetic I am once I begin to understand the other person’s point of view. I had this somewhat bad opinion of coal: It’s polluting, it causes a lot of health problems, and it gives off an awful lot of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. So I went to Appalachia, where coal is a so-called heritage fuel, and people were just telling me very sweet stories about how much they love coal. Their great-grandfathers had been coal miners. If they wanted to, they could go out to a little seam on the highway, break off some coal and put it in a bucket, and bring it home and have something for the winter. There was one guy who was still doing that in 2014. And who was I to say, “Oh, you’re doing the wrong thing!”? I ended up with a huge amount of respect and empathy for all of these people who are in fossil fuel extraction.
I’m actually from Kentucky—not a particularly rural part—but it can be hard to reconcile your beliefs with other people’s reality. People do live that way, and that’s their way of life.
That’s right. And one thing that I kept feeling when I was talking to those folks was that they feel really ignored and really disrespected. And when I think about everything that I owe to electricity and to all the people who have generated for me, then I want to do something for them. I think this was one of Hillary Clinton’s big mistakes with her campaign—thinking that we’re just going to put all those coal mines out of business. Instead I would like to think of a way to create a transfer of money to people who have been impoverished by the disappearance of these various fuels. And maybe people who were proud of being coal miners can become proud of making American-produced solar collectors made out of Appalachian hardwood, and we can be grateful to them still.
Working with and digesting huge amounts of information must be grueling, but what was the most rewarding part of writing the book for you?
I would say the friendships I made, and the chance I had to get out of the very narrow limits of my own self. It was really beautiful in a way to be in these abandoned, radioactive towns like Fukushima. The goldenrod towers, the pampas grass—it’s quite beautiful and peaceful and quiet. And I couldn’t really imagine that. I also couldn’t imagine the really, really creepy abandoned storefronts, the weeds coming up through the sidewalk, everything dark and cold, and my pancake frisker [radiation detector] reading out quite unsafe radiation levels.
There was one guy in Fukushima who I really hit it off with who was a former engineer in one of the power plants, and he was trying to help the Fukushima nuclear workers who he felt were victims of discrimination and prejudice as a result of the accident. He was still very pro-nuclear, despite the accident. I had a great time drinking with that guy!
Is there any other issue that seems like “no immediate danger” that will end up biting us in the butt in the future?
Oh, I think there are so many! I think the answer is a very typically human kind of short-sightedness. It’s not just our so-called technological progress, which of course is making things better and worse at the same time. It’s every time that we do something without understanding the consequences. I was very sad and angry about the 9/11 attacks, and I wanted those people hunted down. Now, though, we're in this situation that we don’t really know how to get out of. So there’s “no immediate danger” if we go and expand our program of drone strikes. But what’s going to happen? More people are going to hate us, and that means more drone strikes. That’s not a very popular point of view, but that’s what I feel. So I’m quite alarmed about it.
Was there anything that gave you hope for the future as you worked on the book?
I interviewed a solar expert, Canek Fuentes Hernandez, at Georgia Tech, and I had no idea that solar was so far along. He was telling me—and this sounds impossible—that it may be possible to have greater than 100-percent efficiency. In our power plants and internal combustion engines, we’re looking at something like 30-percent efficiency. You burn three pounds of heavy heating oil in a power plant to generate one pound’s worth of energy. But he was saying that you can get one photon to split into two photons. And if you have several different solar collectors that are tuned slightly differently, you can actually capture a greater range of the energy. He thought that with sufficient improvements in efficiency, you might be able to have a solar reserve around the size of North Korea. That could generate more than enough energy for the entire planet. So that’s kind of exciting.
William T. Vollmann, April 14 at 3 p.m. Tickets $40/$45 (includes book). Houston United Way, 50 Waugh Drive. More info and tickets at brazosbookstore.com.