Vollmann (The Dying Grass, 2015, etc.) apologizes to the future that we’ve ruined, charting how our choices of energy sources made the planet scarcely inhabitable.
“Back when I lived,” writes the author early on, “some of us believed that heavily polluting coal could somehow lift people out of poverty without impoverishing us in any more fundamental way. We believed that because it was convenient to believe it. So we kept the lights on.” The italics are his, but in any event, it’s a feint: we won’t get deeply into coal until the second volume of this Carbon Ideologies series. The first is heavy going enough. Famously loquacious, Vollmann writes, without apparent irony, that his “little book” is full of questions and not solutions, true enough save that the little book stretches out over more than 600 pages and embraces a couple of dissertations’ worth of data and research notes. In the main, the author’s focus is on nuclear power, for, as he also notes early on, “the future for which I write will most likely also be a more radioactive time,” not just because nuclear power may be the only way out of fossil fuel dependency—renewables make more sense, but they apparently don’t offer enough bang for the buck for the corporate mindset—but also because, given the likelihood of accidents, the world is likely to have plenty of loose isotopes rolling around. Vollmann chronicles his travels to the site of the Fukushima reactor disaster, asking questions that journalists have not: “What color was the tsunami?” “Is it safe here?” It will come as no comfort to know that Fukushima won’t, in fact, be safe for another 500 years—though, counsels one decontamination specialist, it may take only 300 years. That there are two or more answers to the question is emblematic, for every matter that the author raises leads onto many others, yielding a dense but—as always, with Vollmann—rewarding, impeccably researched narrative.
Vollmann promises a second volume to come—and perhaps more beyond that. Only the irradiated future will tell.