No Immediate Danger by William T. Vollmann
William T. Vollmann is one of the world’s best living writers, and his versatility and productivity is paramount: in the last four years, he has published over 2,500 pages across three books of varying genres. 2014’s Last Stories and Other Stories is a fevered collection of ghostly (and often erotic) stories inspired by folktales from around the world. Arranged geographically, Vollmann’s uncanny ability to channel fables of South American conquerors with the same grace that he regales those about Japanese spirits and Norse creatures is as haunting as it is astonishing. Only a year later, The Dying Grass was published: at over 1,300 pages, this is the fifth volume in his Seven Dreams series of novels about North American settlers and chronicles the destruction of the Nez Perce Indians in the late nineteenth century.
While Vollmann’s fiction often revolves around sex and death, he has always been fueled by an investigative eye, one rooted in both history and anthropology. Beyond his fiction, he occasionally settles into a project that is strictly journalistic, and his most recent book may be his most important work yet. Carbon Ideologies, which “intends to shine it’s wavering light across global warming’s dark mountain of hydra-heads” is a book so big his publishers had to split it into two volumes: No Immediate Danger consists of an academic “Primer” and a large section on nuclear power and the Fukushima reactor explosions of 2011 (portions of this second section were previously published in 2011 as the e-book Into the Forbidden Zone). No Good Alternative, which will focus on coal, oil and natural gas production, will be published in June of this year.
Today, our world is developing at an unprecedented pace: population is booming, technology racing to the future, and energy production has tipped into overdrive to match society’s insatiable needs. “What was the work for?” Vollmann repeated asks throughout No Immediate Danger. He cites an early twentieth century inventor named Lucien Lucius Nunn, who “proved that sending high-tension alternating current over long distances could be safe, reliable and cheap.” His purpose, Nunn writes, was “to raise man’s efficiency–to reduce man’s toil–to give him time and means to love his family, his country, and his soul…” Compare that to today’s energy lobbyists and ignorant consumers and wince at how far we are from our original mark.
It’s tempting to consider Carbon Ideologies Vollmann’s book on climate change, but that’s not quite accurate. Dedicated to his daughter and periodically addressing a future readership suffering on a ruined planet, Carbon Ideologies is more about the complacency and naivete in our present-day culture and how we’re unwittingly moving towards a global crisis. Modern man has grown so accustomed to “luxuriant selfishness,” passivity, and seeing effective results with minimal effort that we’ve reached a point where our energy production is perilously taken for granted. (The book’s title, “No Immediate Danger,” comes from an often-repeated belief in the energy sector that no action is necessary without a direct, obvious need.)
“Some of us lived in a fairly robust democracy of opinion,” Vollmann explains to his future readers, “but lacked any democracy of ideas, let alone of policy. Our various educational systems failed to impart the minimum knowledge which a citizen would have needed to judge coal, nuclear power, and other methods of keeping on the lights. This knowledge would have entailed some competence….most crucially, deciding what we needed to know, and how to seek that information.”
What’s most remarkable about Carbon Ideologies is that Vollmann doesn’t berate his readers with solutions: he’s the first to admit that he has no answers and that he can’t really blame a world citizen for their refrigerator usage, keeping their appliances plugged in even when they are powered off, or burning carbon in the name of comfort. There’s no easy fix to this plight, but we, as a planet, may have gone too far already to solve these problems. Although poorly managed, some of the energy crises that have resulted in global warming have been admittedly necessary actions needed to keep up with the world’s explosive population growth. “In much of Carbon Ideologies,” he explains, “it becomes my sad task to multiply discouragements and bewilderments: We destroyed ourselves not simply because we burned too much steam coal or heavy commercial fuel oil in our power plants, but also because we followed sound agricultural practices, and because we made useful and beautiful things of all sorts.” This conundrum is the crux of Carbon Ideologies, which attempts to navigate between the evils and the necessary evils of energy production. “And now,” Vollmann invites, “let us wander together through our predicament.”
The “Primer” section of No Immediate Danger is a dizzying blend of personal anecdotes and confounding mathematics. A humble Vollmann slogs through a torrent of scientific material in an attempt to give readers a general understanding of the elements of his investigation. He quickly discovers that numbers alone hardly mean anything resonant and generates countless charts that weigh things like energy consumption and radiation levels against an arbitrary baseline: we learn that methane gas has 259 times as much calorific efficiency as “blast furnace gas at 60 degrees F and 30 inches mercuric pressure,” and that some Reactor 1 crewmen clocked radiation levels 2.5 million times more than the scant levels the author frisked in his studio darkroom. While fascinating, he does self-deprecatingly suggest that some readers might want to skip this 250-page intro entirely and jump straight to the Nuclear section. (In an interview late in the book, when a plant worker misremembers if a radiation reading was millisieverts or microsieverts, it becomes apparent that Vollmann fully understands how confusing this science is, and that he has been priming his readers not just to grasp the numbers but to feel empathetic towards a very human state of befuddlement.)
It’s in Japan that No Immediate Danger hits its stride: Vollmann interviews protesters and complacent students in the cities and evacuated families and farmers from the red zone villages around Fukushima. Dosimeter in hand, he suits up in layers of flimsy radiation gear and journeys with his translator through the fallout of the TepCo plants. Inside these evacuation areas, he finds a surprising amount of people still grasping for connections to their former homes, including older locals who have returned to their houses thinking that they’d likely die sooner from old age than the radiation they can’t see.
“Like the ‘global warming deniers,’ or any patient with a diagnosis of ‘terminal,’ I preferred to put off the bad days,” Vollmann writes. Carbon Ideologies confronts those bad days head on: it is a sobering, depressing wake-up call aimed to raise awareness of something we’ve all be tuning out in the name of comfort for far too long. “As we contaminated our homes,” he warns in a particularly portentous passage, “warmed our atmosphere and acidified our seas, whatever would happen next stayed comfortably unthinkable, or at least potentially acceptable, back in the days when I was alive.”