books climate change

Book review: Solar Politics, by Oxana Timofeeva

In his book The Switch, Chris Goodall argues that solar technologies will eventually power the world. It’s harder to imagine in Britain than in other places, but if it did, what would the implications be? We know what a fossil fuelled economy looks like, and the politics of fossil fuels. How would solar be different?

These are the kinds of questions that Solar Politics tentatively raises, and it does so through the lens of philosophy, reaching back into ancient ways of thinking about the sun, from Socrates onwards. The sun is the source of all life on earth, and has been a focus of worship in multiple cultures. Many traditions see two sides to the sun – one of life-giving energy, and the other of scorching violence. The book looks at both aspects, with rather more on theories of violence than I expected.

Timofeeva, a philosophy professor at the European University in St Petersburg, is particularly interested in the writing of George Bataille. He was somewhat eccentric even by the standards of French philosophers, and amongst a huge range of interests and ideas, he published a treatise in 1949 that imagined a solar economy. As he saw it, human economies have been dominated by accumulation and growth. The sun, on the other hand, demonstrates what Bataille called a “luxurious squandering of energy”, an abundance that expects nothing in return.

Because the sun offers such an excess of free energy, an economy that was by nature solar would be one of gift, of instinctive altruism and solidarity. At its core would be an energy source that cannot be enclosed or privatised, and that cannot be used up. Timofeeva contrasts this with “the capitalist economy, which can only treat nature as a resource”, and is thus “incompatible with a politics of generosity.”

There’s a possibility here for a “Copernican transformation” in how we see the economy. If that sounds like hyperbole, bear in mind that the most basic definition of economics is “the study of how society uses its scarce resources.” If its most important resource isn’t scarce after all, that shakes the foundations of the whole discipline.

Solar politics is the antidote to extractivism, suggests Timofeeva. The possibility of something completely different, beyond any existing political categories. But if you’re hoping for some pointers about what that society might look like or how it could be created, you’re out of luck. Bataille himself was grasping at a rather abstract idea, and offered no practical policies for instituting a solar economy. Neither does Timofeeva.

Instead, Solar Politics deals with some highly esoteric ideas, from cosmic violence to the self-consciousness of animals. It looks at resurrection and phoenix legends, colonising the sun with a Dyson Sphere, whether or not wombats make ethical choices. It quotes a whole host of obscure philosophical theories on the sun, and its 121 pages open up a host of questions that it doesn’t answer. It doesn’t intend to. The book’s purpose is to shine a light on a very original, very radical idea from a somewhat marginal French philosopher, pull it into our 21st century context and see what happens.

It’s clearly not going to be a book for everyone, and my experience of reading Solar Politics was like catching a fleeting glimpse of something through the trees – something potentially very powerful, and that needs a lot more thought and exploration yet.

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