Nov 11, 2022

no matter what the global temperature

I re-read Wen Stephenson’s review of William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies every six months or so, so I’m re-upping it here. It’s the best example of a book review: equal parts erudite and funny, engaging with the text but also extending its reach in several directions at once.

Now, perhaps this is unfair, but it occurs to me that Vollmann’s imagined reader, sweating and hungry beside a dead, acidic ocean, may be entitled to ask why the author spent years of his comfortable (as he never tires of confessing) carbon-powered life writing a twelve-hundred-page book about energy and global warming without offering more than a dismissive hand-wave in the direction of “solutions” like solar, wind, geothermal, batteries, smart grids, etc. — at the very moment in history when such renewable energy technologies and their economics were beating all expectations. Well, it seems Mr. Vollmann simply doesn’t believe there’s anything we humans can do about a problem as big and complicated as climate change — after all, as a friendly pastor in West Virginia said to him, the Earth is so large! And even if there were, it would almost certainly require people like himself to engage politically and make some kind of sustained collective effort, which would be tedious and boring and difficult. And while it’s possible that the logically fallacious (see tu quoque) obsession with his own carbon complicity and supposed “hypocrisy” may offer him a convenient excuse for not lifting a finger, it may also be the case that he simply doesn’t want to look like the sentimental chump who falls for some hope-mongering twaddle about fighting for humanity and not giving up on each other, and all of that. Whatever the reason, he tells his misfortunate reader: “I am sorry.”

And, putting a fine point on it:

Yes, of course, we’re fucked. (Though it’s important to specify the “we” in this formulation, because the global poor, the disenfranchised, the young, and the yet-to-be-born are certifiably far more fucked than such affluent, white, middle-aged Americans as Vollmann and myself.) But here’s the thing: with climate change as with so much else, all fuckedness is relative. Climate catastrophe is not a binary win or lose, solution or no-solution, fucked or not-fucked situation. Just how fucked we/they will be—that is, what kind of civilization, or any sort of social justice, will be possible in the coming centuries or decades—depends on many things, including all sorts of historic, built-in systemic injustices we know all too well, and any number of contingencies we can’t foresee. But most of all it depends on what we do right now, in our lifetimes. And by that I mean: what we do politically, not only on climate but across the board, because large-scale political action—the kind that moves whole countries and economies in ways commensurate with the scale and urgency of the situation—has always been the only thing that matters here.

And then, the framing that has assisted me most of all in the last many years: the unity of the project of climate work.

But there’s plenty to be done, too, for those who can’t see themselves as climate activists — because the basic political struggles for democracy and human rights, in this country and around the world, are as central to our climate future as the fights to keep carbon in the ground. For those who must try to adapt and live through what’s coming — including Vollmann’s daughter and my own kids — there won’t be any climate justice, or any justice at all, no matter what the global temperature may be, if we lose our democracy.