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"The First Great Global-Warming Novel"
in the news: Ian McEwan's book Solar landed in bookstores about the same time a group of physicists announced a breakthrough in understanding a key photosynthetic mechanism in terms of quantum coherence. What do McEwan's book and the report in the February 5 2010 issue of Nature have in common? They both are about someday using artificial photosynthesis to harness solar energy. The key difference between them? The science fiction account ends with this technology poised to save the world from global warming; the physicists' very theoretical paper underscores how far we are from its practical application. In the months to follow, first The Economist ("Mr. Sunshine"), then Time reviewed Solar. The title of this commentary is from the latter article by Bryan Walsh.
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, founder and manager, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): Solar is the story of fictional Michael Beard, an aging physicist who won a Nobel Prize as a young man. Despite its characterization by some as a comedy, understanding its message requires analysis on two different levels. First we can focus on the main character and, in the words of the book's cover jacket, the "story of one man's greed and self deception." In this regard I present an analysis of Michael Beard's worldview, constructed using Project Worldview's "Top Cards and Discards" program.
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Though a brilliant scientist, most people would say that Beard is not someone to emulate, nor is he worthy of our respect. Halfway through the book, cynical, self-centered Michael Beard opportunistically and unethically transforms into someone supposedly seeking to "save the world from environmental disaster" (as the book jacket puts it).
The second level at which to consider the message in Solar is the planetary one. As young physicist Tom Aldous tells Beard early in the book, "I just want to do what's right by the planet." Many people with that goal are guided by ethical considerations and concern for future generations. They recognize the need for everyone to exercise appropriate self restraint, avoid contracting ecological debts by adopting an environmentally sustainable "pay as you go" approach and foster a "belonging to nature" feeling. Many are idealistic enough (some would say naive) to prefer attitudinal to technological fixes. Those who put their hope in people's ability to change their behavior in response to a perceived planetary crisis--turning away from self interest, sacrificing and doing what the common good requires--perhaps have a higher (and more simplistic?) opinion of human nature than those who opt for technological fixes.
Ian McEwan has no such illusions about human nature. His characters are imperfect, psychologically complex creatures, with Michael Beard heading a long list of memorable creations. In Solar, McEwan "deftly contrasts the high ideals of [those] who call for a greener way of life with their own selfishness" as Walsh puts it. Casting Beard in the role of the hero who will save the Earth by pointing us in the right direction is outrageous, given his greed, lack of self restraint, and demonstrated inability to manage his own life. I love the book's climax: the day before the planet saving technological fix is to be unveiled, the "bad karma" Beard's misdeeds have created finally catches up with him in apocalyptic fashion.
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