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Is Sustainable Development a Modern Myth?

A Critical Look at Solar Energy

Popular commentary and traditional academic discourse has widely viewed solar energy as a distinct materialisation of wide-scale environmental revolution, while simultaneously crediting it with being more compatible than centralised technologies with social equity, freedom and cultural pluralism (Hayes, 1977). However, through a postmodernist lens, it is clear that although it certainly brings notions of social justice and environmental action to the fore, many of modernism’s ideological biases are retained (Walker, 2013).

Dispute over the perceived revolutionary nature of solar energy (and new energy more generally) can be seen to have emerged due to the profound nature of how the machines, systems and structures of energy production over recent centuries have embodied very specific forms of power and authority, for example; centralised or decentralised, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating (Winner, 1980). As highlighted by Chandler (1977), the production and distribution of electricity demanded (born out of practical necessity) the building of modernist human associations with power and authority— centralised administrative hierarchies— that solar energy appears to depart from. In modernist systems, energy production became highly centralised and hierarchical, and prices kept artificially low, with social and environmental costs often outsourced to the taxpayer or unwilling communities. In comparing against these systems, it is perhaps clear that solar energy provides a route that challenges these deeply entrenched technological environments, our rigid relationships with the organisation of power, authority and technocratic rationality. However, solar energy can also be seen to follow a distinctly rational path to sustainability, wherein greater technological progress is viewed as both the ‘fix’ to our problems, and the most appropriate means to combating climate change— substituting one track to increased efficiency with another and perpetuating modern heritage: eco-logical modernisation (Davison, 2001). 

In the context of use, our consumption of electricity has become profoundly disburdening— we only need to switch a button and our house gets warm, or flick a switch and we can light a room— “but this disburdening character also creates a loss of engagement with technological products” (Verbeek, 2006, p.374), discourages longevity and represses any deeper bond. Furthermore, in its expungement of spirituality (Walker, 2013), the modernist approach has removed all personal meaning from the production and consumption of the energy that we use. In this view, solar energy, rather than rejecting the projects of modernity, inverts modernist logics of subordinating technology to ecology (Davison, 2013), perpetuating (or indeed doubling down on) modernist heritage and simply sustaining (rather than repudiating) the established and arguably unsustainable order of the present. In this regard, the figurative technological deck is not shuffled, but continues to be stacked to favour certain social interests (Winner, 1980). And as an opaque and unintelligible technological entity (Borgmann, 2001), solar energy systems do little to promise a more intimate contact with our present, unsustainable order, instead offering us false hope over candid exposition (Davison, 2013) and practices that work in harmony with our shared cognitive dissonance. 

Even so, despite sharing much of the ideological biases of modernity, it is apt to note that new forms of energy production and consumption have largely emerged within a more synergistic relationship with nature, that is less controlling and dominating than was the case within modernity— encompassed in a worldview of social meaning in coalescence with practical (Walker, 2013). Yet the faith placed into renewable energy in the vein of sustainable development remains imbued with broadly unrecognised paradox, irony, delusion, and possibly danger; as the manufacture and supply of solar units and their components remains heavily embedded within modernist systems and networks. For example, it becomes troublesome to maintain the populist and inherently democratic view of solar energy while it requires high technical knowledge, skill and resources to manufacture and maintain, is being shipped across the planet in cargo ships that are burning hydrocarbon fuels, and is subject to multi-level legislation and regulation.

On a metaphysical level, as Verbeek (2006) states, “when technologies coshape human actions, they give material answers to the ethical question of how to act” (p.361): it is perhaps therefore pertinent to ask how the ethical frameworks and philosophies that undergird solar energy have been formed, and indeed question how novel they may be. In this respect, from the pseudo-religiosity bestowed upon renewable energy technologies in their proclamation of salvation from destruction, the reconquering of collective autonomy, and ensuring of stewardship over the sacred Earth, it is possible to perceive that many of the concerns that were traditionally addressed by religion remain acutely present in our overburdeningly secular public discourse (Walker, 2006). 

As Walker (2006) argues, ‘sustainable development’ contains the essential elements of a mythic story; a way forward that promises— through right effort and right judgement— that we can “regain a lost idyll” (p.18). Solar energy systems therefore, and their associated practices and experiences, can be seen to provide a new form of mediation with our natural world, in the practical, personal, social and spiritual sense. However, with the logics of modernity being maintained through the modern vernacular of ‘sustainable development’, and ‘renewable energy’, there is an enduring need for widespread spiritual renewal— beyond the instrumental and functional view of technology— if we are to change from our current, environmentally destructive course (Walker, 2014). In this sense, there is also a distinct need for an enlightened approach towards our collective acts of world-building (Davison, 2013) in the ambivalent and uncertain construction of this new order.

Just as the founding of civilisations and religious institutions have done for millennia, a true sustainable revolution will encompass forms of social, political, and economic transformation and upheaval; likes of which the solar panel is yet and is unlikely to provide in our current material culture. Therefore what is perhaps lacking is a coherent narrative of sustainability that can generate a powerful mass movement to “protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system” (Klein, 2014, p.7). Therefore, rather than the sustaining of our modern order, Davison (2013) argues that design “is best directed to interventions that promise more intimate contact with this order, and particularly with the strangeness that lies beneath its familiar surfaces” (p.16)— forwarding fundamental and taxing inquiry of the status quo. In the ilk of Marx and Engels, it will be through exposition beyond the surface of capitalism, modernity, and technocratic culture that the tools for criticism, challenge, condemnation and new futures will emerge: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Marx and Engels, 2012, p.77).

In conclusion, through review of solar technologies I have adopted an approach that does not focus upon aspects of interaction with or aesthetics of a distinct artefact, but instead upon the broader themes of social, cultural and technological revolution that dominate popular and academic discourse. It is my view that despite the apparent embodiment of disruptive, egalitarian and decentralised political casts, the solar panel does little to up-end the rigid relationships and underlying logics of modernism that root our unsustainable order. Therefore, it is through breaking from the tracks of eco-modernism that we may see solar energy becoming part of a broader and more indelible sustainable revolution.

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Borgmann, A. (2001) ‘Opaque and Articulate Design’, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 11, pp.5-11.

Chandler, A.D. (1977) The visible hand: The managerial revolution in American business. 15th edn. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Davison, A. (2001) Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability, State University of New York Press: Albany, NY. 

Davison, A. (2013) ‘Making Sustainability Up: Design Beyond Possibility’, in Walker, S. and Giard, J. eds. (2013) The Handbook of Design for Sustainability, Bloomsbury, London, Chapter 3, pp.43-56. 

Hayes, D. (1977) Rays of hope: The transition to a post-petroleum world. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Klein, N. (2014) This changes everything: Capitalism vs. The climate. London, England: Penguin Books.

Marx, K., Engels, F. (2012) The Communist Manifesto (Isaac J., Ed.). Yale University Press. Online. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/stable/j.ctt5vm1x2 (Accessed: 06/02/17)

Verbeek, P. P. (2006) ‘Materializing Morality: Design Ethics and Technological Mediation’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 31(3), pp.361-380.

Walker, S. (2006) Sustainable by Design: Explorations in Theory and Practice, Earthscan,  James and James Science Publishers, London.

Walker, S. (2013) ‘Design and spirituality: creating material culture for a wisdom economy’, Design Issues, 29(3), pp. 89-107

Walker, S. (2014) Designing sustainability: making radical changes in a material world, London: Routledge.

Winner, L. (1980) ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’, Daedalus, 109(1), pp. 121–136.