Barret Baumgart: Navigating Climate Change with a Map of Dead Ends

By Landon Bates

I first met Barret Baumgart in 2007, when we were both undergraduates at U.C. Berkeley. Years later, when I was entering the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Barret had just graduated from it. He was waist-deep in the writing of this book. I’d sometimes see him around Iowa City in the evenings, after he’d spent 12 or 14 hours at his computer, having eaten little more than rice covered in barbeque sauce. He’d seem both rundown and wired, high from some discovery he’d made during the day’s research. The product of this labor is China Lake: A Journey Into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe.

While China Lake centers on climate change and geoengineering, it is made up of a constellation of subjects: the history of cloud seeding and the use of weather modification techniques by the U.S. military; the appropriation of Native American cultures by bourgeois New Ageists; chemtrail conspiracy theorists; the meanings of petroglyphs; and an Emmanuel Leutze painting — among many others. The book is a many-headed beast, a longform essay that fuses investigative journalism, cultural criticism, and memoir. One of my favorite recurring strains —which speaks to just how unusual a work of “environmental” writing this — involves death metal: as he ponders the punishing landscape of the Mojave, Baumgart describes the music he favors as “a bludgeon so far pursued that it subverts its own dissonance.” This is also an apt description of what it feels like to read China Lake. While its dispiriting information threatens to push the reader to despair, Baumgart’s ecstatic prose achieves a kind of transcendence.

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LANDON BATES: How did you find your way into this maze of a book? There are so many strands — which came first?

BARRET BAUMGART: I was at my computer reading about the floods sweeping Colorado in September 2013 when I clicked across this conspiracy site that tried to blame cloud seeding. I thought, “What the hell’s cloud seeding?” So I started reading about the history and this led me to China Lake. China Lake had been on my radar from backpacking in the Sierras and working for the Forest Service. I’d also written a little about the Coso Range petroglyphs in an essay I submitted to John D’Agata’s workshop in Iowa. There was a paragraph about the irony of Native American rock art being preserved on a government weapons test facility, which made it into the book. [“…who are we today who protect the traces of past man while, in the same breath, in the same cratered desert, we perfect the art of erasing him from the present?”] Most people read that and were unimpressed. [Laughs.] They said, “Go further.” But there was a seed there.

The book started as your thesis at Iowa. What other advice did you receive there that was useful?

To make the personal thread stronger. My mom was in the book, but the earlier draft started more information-based. I needed a sharper personal hook at the outset.

I was surprised at how earnest that personal thread is. We see moments of your dark humor in scenes with your mom: you’re binge-watching chemtrail conspiracy videos and when your mother asks what you’re watching you respond “Porn”; or the two of you are at a restaurant and you write: “The waiter gave us menus and we both ordered alcohol.” But you write a lot about your upbringing, your father’s absence, your mom’s subscription to what you see as crackpot New Age ideas, her self-medicating, your own teetering toward alcoholism as you dig further into depressing climate change research. The best example of this vulnerability is a picture you include of yourself as a very small boy, sitting cross-legged on a blanket, looking neat and well groomed in tiny sandals, hugging a floppy-eared dog. Was this uncomfortable to include?

The photo felt risky. It’s borderline maudlin for me. I included it because I felt like I needed to show the reader I wasn’t making up all these personal details.

Like the father being a curtain salesman, which you connect to Solar Radiation Management [a geoengineering strategy that would involve spraying chemicals into the stratosphere to create a sort of curtain to block the sun’s rays]?

Exactly. In the picture there’s a dog, whose name, coincidentally, was Sunny. This was a way of trying to show the reader, “I’m not making this shit up. There’s the dog. That’s Sunny.” My mom used to call her Summer Sunshine.

It also has the effect of showing the younger you as innocent, not yet bruised by knowledge and experience, in stark contrast with the narrator, who is super insightful but frequently hungover, kind of jaded, cynical, depressed. I found the photo oddly heartbreaking.

I wasn’t aware of that, but you’re right. It provides a useful counterpoint. It’s like wow, what has he become! I’m glad it worked for you. The entire thing was a balancing act. I didn’t want to write to any particular group or audience. It’s not for liberals, it’s not for conservatives. It’s not straight journalism or memoir. It was about keeping the reader intellectually engaged while still piling on the surprises and shifting modes, and if the reader at times feels disoriented, it’s all still intelligible, I hope. You’re never lost. I wanted an entertaining and informative book, but also one that would make readers uncomfortable and challenge their assumptions on every front.

Did you ever worry that you were adding too much to the stew?

Not really, though I know for some readers it doesn’t work. It depends on what your expectations are going into the book. Some may find the book flawed, unorganized, they can’t tell what it’s about, it’s overly complex. I called it a “journey” in the subtitle, because that’s what it is. It’s not a book exclusively about climate change — climate, and more specifically the China Lake base, serves as a prism that unlocks all these tangled and previously hidden threads. It’s a journey into all these contradictions and into despair and yet hopefully for the reader it’s also a positive immersive experience.

If you had to distill the book’s subject for a random person on the street, though, what would you say?

I’d say, “It’s very broadly about climate change, and more specifically about solar geoengineering.” On average only about one in 10 people I’ve talked to have even heard of geoengineering. Unfortunately, this is going to change. Some have said China Lake is a tableaux, and that that’s okay because we don’t expect literary writing to make an argument — but the book absolutely does make an argument. The argument is that solar geoengineering is likely inevitable. Geoengineering is already quietly built into the Paris Agreement. Not many people seem to be aware of this. Solar geoengineering is not some sci-fi fantasy but a frightening and potentially powerful tool in a portfolio of climate cooling strategies. The research is moving ahead and Harvard is taking the lead.

Were you at all tempted to approach this in a more conventional way, i.e. as a work of topical nonfiction? The subject matter at the heart of the book is obviously timely and urgent. Did you ever worry that your experimental approach would alienate certain readers and mute the book’s potential to inform a wider audience?

On the one hand, it would be amazing if everyone read China Lake. But, on the other, there are already a dozen books about geoengineering, countless books about climate change. That’s been done. And what have they accomplished? Books rarely change the world. Obviously I wanted there to be a wide audience and I’d like to improve our situation but I don’t see many examples of this working out. Al Gore made a movie and won a Nobel Peace Prize. DiCaprio and National Geographic screened their film for free. And yet here we are, with Trump, Pruitt, climate denial, failure. Is it more responsible to do straight informative journalism, is that a more effective approach? I’m not so sure.

I can say though that the only way I could stay intellectually engaged in this subject was if I did it my own way. If I’m going to stick with something, I want to burrow deep down into it. It’s got to have depth. Once inside it’s about listening for resonances, feeling for what’s right there in front of you, but which somehow remained hidden, unseen. You dig these things out and assemble them carefully through art. It’s also the goal of philosophy — to reinterpret, make what is there unfamiliar, fresh or strange in some way. A world with less certainty is paradoxically a more humane and livable world.

You juxtapose the petroglyphs of bighorn sheep at China Lake [which archaeologists say were likely intended to produce rain] with the Navy’s rainmaking efforts there in the form of cloud-seeding experiments. It’s a remarkable coincidence, and there’s an incredible density of connections like this throughout.

Yeah, there’s not a lot of narrative drama related to plot in the book. You’re only with me and my mom for a day in China Lake, and then for a few hours in the Pentagon and at the climate change march. But there’s a feeling of immensity. It’s a little like W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn in that way. With Sebald it’s a walk. You traverse galaxies in a few pages, then he steps out of the research, back into scene, and you find that you’re just on the other side of this bush. You’ve only gone a few steps. The narrative scenes are simply a clothesline on which you hang all your threads, your research. If you stripped it down to the plot alone, there would be no book.

The drama is in the information, in the factual reveals and reversals — in setting up readers’ expectations, then undercutting or re-tuning them. I feel at times it’s a movement akin to long poetry. While the book is obviously not a poem, it kind of has the logic of one. There’s a poetic logic running throughout the book that ties the disparate threads, all the imagery, the research, and memoir into an ever-expanding web of meaning.

Did your publisher have any issue with the structure?

Not really. Since the book won the Iowa Prize, the press wanted what Richard Preston selected. There were little things. They wanted to change the pronoun I used early somewhere when talking about humankind to make it more inclusive. But referring to humankind as “man” was intentional and it gets undercut — man, rational “man,” with all “his” scientific genius and innovation is shown as a vain self-destructive child who must now confront the great Mother Goddesses of prehistory, Gaia and Kali, Mother Earth herself, whom he supposed he had escaped. These Goddesses are not just creators but destroyers. And they’re coming for us. The book attempts to demolish the cliché Marija Gimbutas-esque picture of “The Goddess,” of Nature, as something feminine and benign, a convenient New Age trope that is completely wrong. If we are to grow up as a species, to evolve and survive, humankind will need to learn to treat Nature as more than a resource to master or a mother we ought to love.

You also preserve great chunks of quotations, which gives the book a collage or curatorial quality. It seems partly to belong to the found-text tradition that’s become prominent in the work of writers like David Shields or Kenneth Goldsmith and that dates back at least as far as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project — the heavy use of unfiltered source material.

I often encountered source material that perfectly echoed images or quotes built into the text. I’d think, “Why rewrite this? Let Marty Hoffert speak for himself.” It helped create a density, a plurality, a feeling of world, a world alive in conversation.

And obviously we’re inundated with information nowadays. We’ve got 40 tabs open on our browser. Our phone on the desk next to our laptop while an album streams. The profusion of voices was an intentional formal part of the project. The vast majority of my research came from the internet. The book is printed on paper, but the internet’s own virtual web feels central to the project. This is what was available to me. I wanted to show how one could chisel out something meaningful from thousands of ostensibly garbage hours spent clicking and drifting online. It mirrors the shaman’s journey described in the book — instead of traveling through the rock wall, I traveled through the screen, and the book, unlike a petroglyph, does not certify my contact with supernatural power, but it does record some kind of attempt. The internet is intense. The absence of section breaks in the text relates as well. It’s an attempt to erect a wall. You either hazard the journey and pass through or you don’t.

You posted something on Twitter from Cormac McCarthy that says, “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” What kind of psychic toll did writing the book take on you?

When you’re reading all this horrible shit, you don’t really feel like taking care of yourself. But really the toll was more physical than psychic. I have a herniated disc as a result of sitting too long. Which is ironic since my mom has the back issue in the book. Sadly, that came back to haunt me. Faulkner said that if you want to write, you’ll do whatever it takes. You’ll steal from your mother if need be.

I want to know how your mom reacted to her characterization, which is loving and complex, but not without a lot of blemishes.

She kept needling me to send her the book. “When are you going to send it? I’m in the book, I’m entitled to read it.” I’d tell her, “I will, I will.” Finally, I had a conversation with her about certain liberties essayists sometimes take, what is permissible in the genre. [Laughs.] I mentioned that there’s a minor character in the book who’s a composite. She latched onto this idea and convinced herself when reading it that she, too, was a composite. There’s an endnote in which I say that “my mom would like me to tell you that she is a composite character,” but “I find this assessment incorrect. We will argue about this later.”

Like the one you’re mentioning, the endnotes are sometimes surprisingly funny. There’s a lengthy one in which you describe in detail the awkwardness of ordering a burrito on the computer of an eminent geoengineering expert whom you’d gone to Stanford to interview. You describe subsequently sending him reimbursement for the burrito along with a “vintage NOTS China Lake sticker with a rabbit riding an ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ missile through the middle of a question mark.”

Yeah, the endnotes are more than just references. There were things I couldn’t fit into the text but still wanted to tell. Some of them are fun, some are disturbing. It’s worth thumbing through the back to find them, and doing so, you also get a sense of the research wormhole lurking behind the text.

What are you most immediately worried about in terms of climate change?

Well the Paris thing is a fucking disaster. But Paris wasn’t going to achieve its goals anyway. I guess I’m worried that the US exit could unravel the whole thing. It’s so frustrating to hear Trump say the exact same thing that Bush was saying almost 20 years ago, that the agreement is bad for our economy, unfair, threatens jobs in coal, etc. Um, cool. Like there’s a reason we don’t use pagers anymore, or whale oil to light our living rooms. It’s idiotic and the entire argument is point-by-point false. It’s also disturbing to hear him talk about negotiating a new deal.

Even though you think some form of geoengineering will be necessary to avoid catastrophic warming, is cutting greenhouse gas emissions still meaningful? What do you see as the most viable options along those lines?

Well, Hillary Clinton’s proposal, which she’d gotten from Bernie Sanders, to make the US the green energy superpower of the 21st century — this was optimistic, necessary, and achievable. Her campaign website, where her plan is detailed, is still online. It should be on one of those shows, “America’s most disturbing abandoned places” or something. For a moment, I was feeling hopeful after we signed Paris and it seemed Hillary would win.

Be honest, though, were you secretly pleased by Trump’s election and his withdrawal from Paris? I mean, this keeps your book extremely relevant.

Definitely not pleased. Maybe the worse things get, the better it is for the book. When I was in the middle of writing it, the California drought hit an all-time high. Then Trump gets elected and Florida votes itself out of existence. Soon Mar-a-Lago will be underwater, he’ll have alligators swimming through the master bedroom, and the book will start flying off the shelves!

I think we have a perverse desire to see the end of times. Everyone pictures it, all religions are praying for it. As I say in the book, “Every epoch has its apocalypse.” I do wish climate change was just another false alarm but I doubt it is.

In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from Paris though, it is exciting to see states like California and New York making bold commitments and taking the lead. This could actually have an impact. California is the 5th largest economy in the world.

It’s a little relieving to hear you say that you have at least a sliver of hope. The book partly functions as a sort of a map of dead-ends. I found myself especially overwhelmed when reading the section that toggles back and forth between a tour you went on through the Pentagon and an ineffectual climate change protest you attended in D.C. You fold a ton of information into this section, part of which debunks the viability of options like switching to biofuels. I decided I probably won’t be having kids while reading it.

[Laughs.] A ringing endorsement! That should be a blurb. “I decided I probably won’t be having kids.”

 

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