Cover of the book, 'No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies' by William T. Vollmann. Graphic: Viking Press

By Meara Sharma
6 April 2018

(The Washington Post) – A decade ago, the environmental philosopher Timothy Morton invented a new word: hyperobject. It describes something so “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” that it eludes our understanding. The best example of a hyperobject is climate change. Its scale confounds our perception. It is everywhere—“viscous,” as Morton has it — and yet it is hard to see directly. Its implications are so great that they verge on unthinkable.

William T. Vollmann’s new book, No Immediate Danger, tussles with the comprehension-defying nature of climate change. It is a 600-page amalgam of scientific history, cultural criticism, mathematical experiments, risk-benefit analyses of energy production and consumption, and diaristic meanderings through radiation-festooned landscapes after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. The effect is bewildering.

The first of two volumes, jointly called The Carbon Ideologies, the whole book is written as a letter to the future. [The second book is No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies. –Des.] “Someday,” it begins, “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.” We know more today about the effects of climate change than ever before (although, as Vollmann and others have noted, we’ve really known for a half a century). We are experiencing heightened storms, record droughts, rising seas and temperatures, increased pollution. And yet we have done little to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, which are at record highs. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at a level not seen since the Pliocene era — more than 3 million years ago. Why so little action? Is it because many of us don’t care about some “ecosystem somewhere”? Because the science lacks certainty? Because of companies’ concerns about their profits? Because of data suppression? Because it is easier not to act? These questions course through the book. […]

I read much of No Immediate Danger in Delhi, where the air is heavy with the refuse of coal plants, construction and the steady thrum of 10 million cars (as Vollmann calculates, gross domestic product growth and the growth of emissions go hand in hand). Breathing in Delhi is equivalent to smoking about 40 cigarettes a day, and 1 in 3 children has impaired lungs. One hazy day, while sitting in snaking, mind-numbing traffic on a major flyover, I peered over the edge. Beside the sacred Yamuna river, putrid and parched, a large group of men were burning a pile of what looked like refrigerators and televisions. Thick black smoke billowed up toward the highway. Vollmann’s refrain — What Was the Work For? — rang through my ears like a drill. [more]

Why have we done so little to tackle climate change?

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