Solar: Self Interest in Alternative Energy?


If an alien arrived on earth and saw all this sunlight, he’d be amazed to hear that we think we’ve got an energy problem. (30)

Solar by Ian McEwan takes an interesting approach to the energy debate: self-interest. His main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could not care less about climate change, and would rather spend his time and money on cheating on his wife, eating and drinking:

Beard was not wholly skeptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that made up the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it, and expected governments to meet and take action. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about. And he was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in peril, that humankind was drifting toward calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail, and hundreds of millions of refugees surge from one country, one continent, to another, driven by drought, floods, famine, tempests, unceasing wars for diminishing resources. (17-18)

Beard is the head of the research center in Britain, although he has not published any new reports since his award winning “Beard-Einstein Conflation” on photoelectricty. When Beard’s latest wife, Patrice, caught him cheating on her she saw fit to have affairs of her own, first with gardener, Tarpin and then with Beard’s newest colleague, Tom Aldous. When Beard finds Aldous in his house in compromising attire, his already touchy opinion of Aldous goes from bad to worse. Beard confronts Aldous and then in a scene that should have been in a Final Destination movie Aldous accidentally kills himself. Beard is able to frame Tarpin for the murder as revenge for Tarpin’s affair with Patrice. Beard is also able to steal Aldous’s research on artificial photosynthesis and claim it as his own. Aldous’s theory uses Beard’s conflation theory so it is the perfect crime, or so he thinks.

Beard quickly becomes a “climate change convert” and one of the biggest names in solar energy. Beard travels around the UK to give conferences to businessmen in the energy industry to try to convince them to back alternative energy research. He tries to sway them with the idea that alternative energy research will one day make them a fortune, a thought that I had not considered until I read this book. The primary argument against taking steps to combat global warming is not that that it doesn’t exist, but rather that the economy is in too poor of shape to focus on it at this time:

“The planet,” he said, surprising himself, “is sick.”…

“Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive— perhaps as much as two percent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced, and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it, is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums. What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilization, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence. Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact— we barely understand how successful we have been. So of course we should salute our own inventiveness. We are very clever monkeys. But the engine of our industrial revolution has been cheap, accessible energy. We would have got nowhere without it. Look how fantastic it is. A kilogram of gasoline contains roughly thirteen thousand watt-hours of energy. Hard to beat. But we want to replace it. So what’s next? The best electrical batteries we have store about three hundred watt-hours of energy per kilogram. And that’s the scale of our problem, thirteen thousand against three hundred. No contest! But unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We have to replace that gasoline quickly for three compelling reasons. First, and simplest, the oil must run out. No one knows exactly when, but there’s a consensus that we’ll be at peak production at some point in the next five to fifteen years. After that, production will decline, while the demand for energy will go on rising as the world’s population expands and people strive for a better standard of living. Second, many oil-producing areas are politically unstable, and we can no longer risk our levels of dependence. Third, and most crucially, burning fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. But the basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit. Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money. And the answer to that burning question is of course exactly where that money, your money, has to flow— to affordable clean energy…You, the market, either rise to this and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest. We are on this rock together, you have nowhere else to go …” (170-173).

Of course Beard is not able to convince most of the businessmen. However, I still the think argument might have some merit. As always, readers with thoughts on this, please comment.

Many years later, Beard has developed his own solar power plant in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Beard receives a visit from a lawyer on the eve of his opening ceremony. The lawyer claims that Beard stole his research from the late Tom Aldous. The lawyer warns him not to continue with the press event and Beard brushes him off:

“Well, on behalf of Sir Jock Braby and the National Center for Renewable Energy, I want to put it to you one last time. If you agree to call off tomorrow’s media event and agree to revisit the patents situation, you’ll find us sympathetic collaborators who will certainly find a role for you in the development of a technology which rightly belongs to the Center. If not, then our first move will be to go to court to freeze all exploitation until this matter is resolved” (316).

Unfortunately, this is where self-interest fails. The National Center for Renewable Energy, where Beard used to work, wants to patent for Aldous’s research so that they can have the money and the recognition. What Beard did was illegal of course, but right when progress in alternative energy is finally being made, it is snatched away. To make things worse, Tarpin, who has finally been released from jail, smashes to solar panels in Beard’s plant:

“Someone’s taken a sledgehammer to the panels. They’ve gone down the rows and taken them all out. Shattered. We’ve lost all the catalysts. Electronics. Everything.”

There was no taking this in properly. Beard pushed his plate away. Builder’s work. What would Barnard have needed to pay Tarpin? Two hundred dollars? Less?

“What else?”

“We won’t be meeting again. I don’t think I could bear the sight of you, Michael. But you might as well know, I’m talking to a lawyer in Oregon. I’ll be taking action to protect myself against what are rightfully your debts. We, you, already owe three and a half million. Tomorrow’s going to cost another half million. You can go down there yourself and explain to all the good people. Also, Braby is going to take you for everything you have and ever will have. And in the U.K. that dead boy’s father has persuaded the authorities to move against you on criminal charges, basically theft and fraud. I hate you, Michael. You lied to me and you’re a thief. But I don’t want to see you in prison. So stay out of England. Go somewhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty.”

“Anything else?”

“Only this. You deserve almost everything that’s coming to you. So go fuck yourself.” The line went dead. (322-323)

The point of this novel in terms of the energy narrative is that there is corruption whenever energy is involved. People are ultimately more concerned with themselves than they are with the environment, so even something as characteristically pure as sunlight can really be just as dark and dank as oil. However, I am going to make a great emotional and sentimental plea and say that it doesn’t have to be that way if we can find that our self-interest aligns with preserving the environment that gives us life.


Energy narratives found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.