Friday, March 2, 2012


by Ian McEwan

Solar, Ian McEwan’s latest novel, reminded me of the time when I was caught in a rip current while snorkeling off the Yucatan Peninsula.  With no warning, I was carried away from a beautiful daydream by an invisible river which was rushing me out to sea.  Global warming – whatever the cause – is similar to a rip current in that  we are all being conveyed to another climate by a force that we can neither see nor fight.  Most of the time, we don’t even notice that things are changing because we can’t see what is happening.  Severe weather events and shrinking icebergs sometimes cause unwanted thoughts to penetrate our consciousness, but these are easily rationalized away by cheerful meteorologists flashing blindingly white teeth while chatting with reporters on the scene. 

Michael Beard, the anti-hero of Solar, is a short, paunchy, balding, gluttonous, womanizing, Nobel Laureate.  In the year 2000, he dismisses global warming as the latest crisis du jour and rolls his eyes when the young Ph. D.s in his office go on about “saving the planet”.  His status as a Nobel prize winner gives the scientific research center where he works credibility and in exchange, he can pretend to be doing important work, even though he has nothing more to contribute to science.  Meanwhile, Michael’s fifth marriage unravels because his wife, Patrice, gets revenge for his numerous affairs by having affairs of her own, right under his nose.  when one of his wife’s lovers gives him a brilliant theoretical paper explaining how solar energy can be harnessed and stored cleanly and cheaply by imitating plant photosynthesis (i.e., how plants convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen, by using chlorophyll to capture light energy), Michael experiences an instant conversion.  This collision of Michael’s work and personal lives sets him on a surprising trajectory to which he must surrender his fate.

British reviewers loved the book, calling it “savagely funny” and a “raucous comedy”, while many Americans, expecting typical British wit, found themselves disappointed.  The reason for this may be that Solar satirizes mankind’s most unappealing weaknesses (personified by Michael Beard) in a way that feels a little too familiar.  We all have our character flaws and blind spots when it comes to our own behavior;  Michael reminds us of this by holding up a brutally honest mirror.  In spite of what a loathsome and disingenuous person he is, I felt sorry for Michael, because he is profoundly lonely and incapable of experiencing love.  His insatiable appetites for food, wine, and women signal how empty he is inside.  His frequent indulgences give him no pleasure, leaving him sick and full of regret.
Solar takes place across the George W. Bush presidency and, in a way, Michael is America writ large.  Before 9/11 changed everything, the economy seemed unstoppable.  All we had to do was coast on our greatness and prosperity would follow.  After 9/11 and the two wars which followed, people began taking energy independence seriously.  Michael, in possession of the alchemy to turn water into energy, becomes energized and sees himself as the messiah who will save us from ourselves.  He forgets that he is being carried away by a rip current, set in motion by his own personal failings, which will force another life-altering collision when he achieves the success he has convinced himself that he deserves.

That the overall temperature of the earth is increasing is not in dispute – the scientific data do not lie.  However, the cause of this warming is where science, politics, and our collective denial collide.  We can watch glaciers melting in real time and lament the fate of drowning polar bears, and change the channel to the latest “reality” TV show.  The idea that we might be the instruments of our own destruction is something most of us choose not entertain;  it is easier to believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon and that we can continue to drive our gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks without guilt.   Most of us choose not to dwell on the warnings of scientists and environmentalists about global warming, but the fact is we are all in the same irresistible current of climate change, and failure to act is a collective surrender. 

One important message of the book is that behavioral change, whether on an individual or a global scale, is a bit like trying to swim out of a rip current.  Our lives have a rhythm and cadence, fueled by tradition and habit, which carry us through weeks, months, years, and decades.  To halt carbon dioxide emissions from human endeavors would require the equivalent of a meteor collision changing our solar orbit path.    During the period covered by Solar, hard science was trampled by politics in order to avoid the short-term pain of rendering the internal combustion engine obsolete.   By discrediting scientists – shooting the messengers – we lost precious years which could have been devoted to developing cleaner, more efficient energy technology.  Now that we have restored science to its place outside of politics, we are so deeply in debt from two expensive and un-funded wars that there is no money for research and development.  But that’s OK because China and India are picking up the slack.  Meanwhile, our elected legislators argue about the risks and benefits of blowing up the earth’s crust to force out tiny bits of trapped gas, possibly triggering earthquakes in the process. 

Solar is at once a good story and a deeply philosophical book.  It shows the extent to which our elected leaders, kowtowing to the god of politics, so often betray us.  That we permit this betrayal is a reflection of our collective apathy.  It is possible to escape a rip current, but this is not done quickly.  Fighting the current leads to exhaustion and death, whereas surrendering can leave you adrift in the endless ocean.  In order to escape, one must remain calm and negotiate with the current, while gently, slowly cutting a wide angle across the moving water, with the goal of eventually reaching the shore.  

If we assume that CO2 emissions are the culprit and do nothing, we are surrendering to the current.  If,on the other hand, we ignore or deny the scientific evidence, we are fighting the current.  If we accept the scientific evidence that our CO2 emissions are heating up the greenhouse that is planet earth and convert to cleaner energy sources, we just might escape the worst consequences of climate change.  

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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