The stories we tell at the end of the world

New works by Paul Schrader, William T. Vollman, and Richard Powers grapple with meaningful living under environmental collapse.

The stories we tell at the end of the world

New works by Paul Schrader, William T. Vollman, and Richard Powers grapple with meaningful living under environmental collapse.

It’s hard to pin down a starting point for art made under the Anthropocene — our current geological age, in which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the climate. The novels of Charles Dickens are nothing if not a story of man struggling against his own ingenuity; the horror in Heart of Darkness comes from the thresher of capitalism processing land and people alike. But no matter where it began, in just the last few decades we’ve come to face a different kind of intellectual and emotional challenge than previous generations, one that artists are increasingly steering into: the certainty that we are destroying our environment, and what might be the ultimate cost of that effort.

Over the last few months, three of our most feted artists — two National Book Award winners, Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann, and one Hollywood legend, Paul Schrader — have taken on the subject, and considering their work as a whole, it’s hard not to feel that we’re entering another stage in the evolution of environmental narratives. Once, climate change was a thing to be reckoned with in the future, a coming dystopian storm — science fiction, a term that we often wrap around ourselves like a blanket to protect us from the most horrifying possibilities.

(A quick note: all three of the artists considered in this piece are white men, which is mostly because their relevant works were published at roughly the same time. There is a long and essential tradition of art about the environment from women and people of color, including much of the work of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, Edan Lepucki’s California, Berit Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer and Okja, and many, many more. )

But in the first volume, No Immediate Danger, of Vollmann’s two-part non-fiction investigation Carbon Ideologies; Powers’ new novel, The Overstory; and Schrader’s film First Reformed, global warming, environmental collapse, and the grim reaper of climate change are not coming attractions. They’re here, now, and if they aren’t reckoned with, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves — or, more hauntingly, our children will have no one to blame but us. If you like to sleep well at night, I can’t possibly recommend consuming these three narratives at once. But what’s losing a little sleep versus waking up from the last dream you’ll ever have?

If any one thing characterizes Vollmann’s body of work, which ranges from on-the-ground reporting to seven-volume compendiums of fictional violence, it would have to be his sheer tirelessness. Since he started publishing in 1987, he hasn’t slowed down, launching from one unbelievably long and exhaustive book to the next. This industriousness is a quality that serves him well when it comes to successfully rendering the labyrinth that is greenhouse-gas production. If Jorge Luis Borges was the mapmaker of a previously uncharted intellectual and philosophical existence, Vollmann might occupy a similar role for our unseen, unknown, and misunderstood technological present.

Carbon Ideologies, which was published in April by Viking, takes the form of a letter, written to “the inhabitants of a hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet than the one on which I lived,” who “may wonder what you and I were thinking, or whether we thought at all.” Those words of Vollmann’s provide a pretty fitting summary of the tone he takes in the book, which is one part caustic sarcasm, one part elegy, and one part scientific inquiry.

In his “Primer” on global warming, which composes the first half of No Immediate Danger, Vollmann paints, with shocking acuity and perpetual self-recrimination, the dizzying array of behaviors, products, and services that contribute to global warming. (The second half is an investigation into nuclear power, and the second volume is an investigation into coal, natural gas, and oil.) At the same time, and with a singular blend of empathy and diagnosis, he strives to understand how we got to be both standing on and pushing ourselves off of the brink.

“What was the work for?” he asks throughout the text. The answer to that question is… not good. The work — work like transporting food across long distances; training emerging economies to use electricity and automobiles in large numbers; and building air-conditioning units and refrigerators that pump greenhouse gases into the air — is done to grow, and to make our lives easier, and who can really blame us? That idea of growth and ease triumphing over foresight and responsibility becomes Vollmann’s constant refrain, even though he does blame us and, most of all, blames himself, exhaustively cataloguing the carbon footprint of his lifestyle, from flying across the world while reporting the book to producing books at all. In a capitalist society that must constantly grow, we’ve locked ourselves into an efficient and sturdy cycle of self-obliteration.

Calling the book “depressing” doesn’t do it justice.

Vollmann did not formulate the notion that global warming is an inevitable and terminal feature of capitalism �� nor does he neglect to point out the same truth about Soviet and Mao-style communism — but I’m not sure anyone’s ever gone to such lengths to prove it. It isn’t the fault of the coal miners, who are just trying to feed their families, and it isn’t the fault of the farmers, who are just trying to feed everyone (Vollmann interviews both): the fault lies with the insatiable demands of the engine, and the figures who sit at the controls of it, carrying themselves forward.

By constantly invoking — as a kind of omnipresent rhetorical device — the residents of a hotter, darker future to whom the book is addressed, Vollmann sets the parameters of his project. As exemplified by a brief and frustrated chapter on solar power, there’s little attempt to solve or ameliorate the problem; after all, the conceit of the book suggests that whatever these attempts might’ve been, they failed. (“Carbon Ideologies largely neglects solar power, that being associated with decentralization and environmental benignity,” Vollmann writes. “Indeed, solar is an ideology of hope—not my department.” ) Instead, he leans heavily into chronicling what has been and is currently being done to ruin the Earth. The complete and total integrity of his belief that we are, like the frog in the water, going to cook ourselves alive without realizing it, slowly takes on the air of a very well-researched prophecy, with every page and every figure.

Calling the book “depressing” doesn’t do it justice. It crosses the border of the state of depressing and passes all the way through it, out into a strange land filled with the type of gallows humor and moral defiance that often characterizes fiction written under totalitarian regimes. To a certain extent, it’s just nice to be so certain about something, even if it is our own coming doom, or the mechanism of our own coming doom. From that certainty, you begin to feel a faith in the Greek meaning of apocalypse: an uncovering of knowledge. The prophets prepared the way for the coming of God; Vollmann, one might hope, with his total honesty and uncompromising presentation of how just how bad things have gotten, could prepare the way for the coming of change.

The major differences in the works of Vollmann, Powers, and Schrader come from their choice of narrator. By addressing future inhabitants of a planet ruined by us, Vollmann makes his book into a confession: how we did it, and why. Powers and Schrader, on the other hand, both choose extra-human subjects — trees and God, respectively — to address in their investigations. In doing so, they recognize that the potential for salvation still exists.

For Powers, this becomes a conversion narrative, in which a group of people, operating individually and then together, become adherents to the religion of trees. Trees are the organizing principle, operating metaphor, and enlivening breath of The Overstory, which was released in April by Norton. Trees are its protagonists and its subjects, the answer to every question that its characters think to ask. These quotes from the book provide more information and context than any summary ever could:

  • “That’s when Adam realizes: Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”
  • “Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing.”
  • “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

This is the novel as polemic, an attempt by a supremely gifted artist to convince his reader that another way exists. As such, The Overstory often suffers from a lack of tension: you can see the characters moving toward their botanical destinies as surely as you can know the landing place of a falling apple, and Powers covers so much ground — chronologically, subjectively, narratively — that the effect can be disorienting. I rarely knew what year it was, what state we were in, or how much time had passed since the last time I’d heard from a given character. (Part of this has to do with the scope: The book spans a century, most of the Midwest and western United States, and at least nine points-of-view.)

But none of those details matter. Across The Overstory’s 500 pages, Powers makes the case that all human woe stems from alienation from nature — specifically trees, which — sorry, who — have preceded us and will succeed us. With the authority of a scientist, the conviction of a preacher, and the beauty of a poet, he makes the case that our only choice is whether we want to accept the ultimate supremacy of the natural world or die trying to eclipse it. It’s a similar conclusion to Vollmann’s, but Powers has a firm answer: if we cast our lot with the trees, we will be better than fine. We’ll grow.

Schrader, meanwhile, straddles the gap between the work of Vollmann and Powers. If Vollmann’s book is an apocalypse, and Powers’s a parable, then Schrader’s film is the most fundamental of all religious texts: the story of a searcher. The central question at the heart of First Reformed, which premiered in May, is posed by Michael, a despairing environmental activist whose depression worries his pregnant wife. He poses it to Toller, a reverend grappling with Satan in a desert of his own: “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

Few filmmakers are better on the subject of man and God than Schrader, whose oeuvre, spanning from Taxi Driver to Mishima, doggedly interrogates the notion of what it means to have faith. This faith is not always in God — it can be in vigilantism, or a nation, or drugs, violence, ecstasy — but inevitably, his characters must come face to face with the object of their faith, and decide to either keep their fealty or turn away. Such interests make him well suited to consider ecological collapse, a prospect that, like damnation and salvation, leaves no room for compromise or hedging: You either believe and behave accordingly, or you perish in the fire of your own ambivalence and hypocrisy.

Schrader made First Reformed in what he calls Transcendental Style, a filmmaking approach that minimizes typical cinematic contrivances like non-diegetic music, camera movement, and frequent cutting in order to leave room for the spiritual to intervene. Working in this métier, he accomplishes nothing less than an elevation of ecological activism — even, potentially, ecological terrorism — to the kind of martyrdom experienced by St. Sebastian, who was shot with dozens of arrows for refusing to renounce his faith. Where Vollmann renders nature a casualty of human greed, and Powers turns it into a protagonist, Schrader makes the case that nature, like every other facet of human experience, is a fundamental expression of the divine. Our failure to commune with nature is a failure to commune with God, and, even worse, each other.

When, at the end of First Reformed, Schrader performs a cinematic as well as a narrative miracle, he offers the type of optimism that you find in a crucifixion, the crucial truth that can only be sought in the spiritual: now is the only moment in which the future and the past do not exist. First Reformed is a deliberately ambiguous piece of art, one that refuses to draw easy conclusions about what is and isn’t right, who is and isn’t at fault, how we do or don’t approach the problem; Schrader meant for the ending to be open to interpretation, and all of his characters, from the pastor of the mega-church to the CEO who’s destroying the environment, speak from what feel like genuine perspectives, never collapsing into straw men. Despite his reputation for chaos and violence and controversy, the Schrader of First Reformed is a humanist above all. His characters and themes, which tend to be grounded in the type of deep theological education and knowledge that we rarely see in mainstream artists anymore, spin a web that refuses to let climate change exist in isolation. Schrader puts our most contemporary of dilemmas into the great tradition of man’s ignorance and blindness in the light of a silent God, and the beautiful, inexorable, fraught perseverance that has forever existed alongside it.

Taken together, these three works don’t offer much comfort to those of us agonizing over whether to bring children into the world (a dilemma Schrader lingers on) or how to stop deforestation (one of Powers’s main concerns). After reading Vollmann’s book, every daily task, from grinding coffee to washing your hands, feels like punching Mother Nature in the face. The time for comfort has come and gone, and the realization that we’ve arrived at this knowledge so late suffuses these three narratives.

What Vollmann, Powers, and Schrader all demonstrate in tandem is one of humanity’s most powerful gifts, and one that seems to hold the key to any potential salvation: the ability to reach outside itself. Vollmann extends his hand toward the future; Powers, toward the trees that surround us; Schrader, toward God. After all: We die no matter what, but we still choose to go on living through our children, through the art and objects that we create, and the ineffable hum of the divine with which we all must make our own individual peace. They hint at the essential function art can continue to serve as the situation grows dire. The message here is that if we stay connected, we might yet survive. But alone, in the vacuum of our loneliness and greed, there’s only one possible ending.

Kevin Lincoln has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York, Grantland, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.