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  • Writer's pictureTuur Verheyde

Ian McEwan's Solar: Satire & Climate Action

Spoilers ahead for Ian McEwan’s Solar:

While Solar could be said to be a humorous and enjoyable novel, when one regards its satire more closely as a wider reflection of our world and the way in which we deal with climate change the outlook is much more grim and pessimistic. On the most obvious level, one could say that the somewhat farcical way in which Michael Beard stumbles and slowly destroys his own career and his love lives through greed and short sightedness reflects humanity’s inherent failings and inadequacies. However, beyond the focalisation of the protagonist there are many more illustrations of the way in which climate action faces a myriad of obstacles.

The first problems are shown to arise at the level of the scientists who develop or should be developing solutions for climate change and ideas for renewable energy. Michael Beard is ultimately responsible for tanking his own project and therefore considerately slowing down progress. Moreover, given the amount of travelling by car and airline Beard does, it could be said that he does more harm than good for the climate in the greater scheme of things. Especially since his deceit and plagiarism may forever taint the method of artificial photosynthesis that could have been the solution to climate change.

The message is clear: the scientific solutions may be out there, but they are in the hands of (potentially) exceptionally flawed individuals whose flaws might prove detrimental to any chances of their findings helping to change the course of history for the better. Michael Beard could be said to be a microcosm of this, but the novel goes even further in implicating the flaws of the scientific community. Throughout the novel, although less central than Beard’s own personal flaws, we are shown how academic communities are divided along the lines of ideology, speciality and even university, how instead of environmental urgency research is overwhelmingly motivated by personal ambition, one-upmanship and the constant scholarly game for recognition and credit. It is also indicated how different branches of academia ignore and berate each other. The most damning example of this is Carbon Trading, i.e. dumping thousands of tons of iron fillings into the oceans to influence the plankton populations, whilst happily ignoring marine biologists who warn for the dangers of changing the food chain in such a manner.

However, the scientific community is not the only broken link in the chain. On the level of politics and government, we are shown how bureaucratic inefficiency, electoral pandering, and general incompetence slow down and mar climate change research at every turn. Personal ambitions, of course, prove to be a liability on this level as well, as is illustrated by the way in which most of the Centre’s resources are squandered on an ineffective windmill project with to goal of upholding the reputation of the Centre and the people in charge. There are also illustrations of how solutions to climate change can become a partisan issue and how this affects media coverage. When Beard is working in the UK, mocking climate change initiatives and showing their ineffectiveness is a way of mocking the Blair government. When Beard is in the US, we see hints of what is sometimes called ‘false equivalency’, i.e. the American media’s habit to often present two sides of an argument as equally valid, regardless of context, which in our case means providing a platform for climate change deniers.

In my opinion, the most damning and frustrating obstacle to climate change solutions is illustrated when Beard gives his speech at the Savoy in 2005. The financial world is presented as entirely driven by greed and self-interest. Only by promoting its potential profitability is it possible to even attempt to appeal to capital to invest in renewable energy. And even then, Beard’s efforts are shown to be in vain due to an oil and coal industry analyst telling the room that there will be oil reserves for another 50 years (even though it is widely known that using up these reserves would damage the environment to the point of making the planet mostly or entirely uninhabitable).

Through this and other instances the most depressing and frustrating fact of climate action is made clear: Every mainstream solution to climate change, be it scientific, technological, social or political is trapped within the jaws of capitalism. Trying to promote environmental action in a system that is focussed entirely on short-term profitability and unsustainable perpetual growth, where powerful fossil fuel lobbies hold politicians and media in their grasp, might prove to be an uphill battle that cannot be won, at least not before it is too late.

Solar as a satire provides us with a damning view of our society and the way in which it is or is not dealing with climate change. It paints the picture of a world where almost everyone with the political or financial power to turn the tide in the fight against climate change is held back by their own greed and narrow-mindedness, whilst those who do care about the environment: artists, philosophers, activists, scientists, writers and poets seem to be trapped in a feedback loop of ineffective discussion and expression and thus remain frustratingly powerless.

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