Comic Relief for Climate Change
Melting glaciers and sea-level rise are no laughing matter, but author Ian McEwan finds plenty of humor in the global effort to tackle climate change. Host Jeff Young speaks with McEwan about his new novel "Solar", in which human nature is the biggest obstacle to saving the planet.
YOUNG: If Ian McEwan’s new novel, “Solar”, is any indication we can add one more item to the list of scary things about climate change. And that’s the characters we’re counting on to save the planet. Mr. McEwan’s main character, Michael Beard, is an over-the-hill, Nobel-winning physicist who has stronger convictions about wine and women than he does about global warming.
But a darkly funny incident sends Beard tumbling on a comic path to save the world with solar power. It might be the first comic novel about climate change. Ian McEwan, welcome to the program.
MCEWAN: Thank you.
YOUNG: Well, let’s start by talking about your hero here, Michael Beard.
MCEWAN: Yes, well, as you say, he’s a—his best work is behind him, he won the Nobel prize for physics back in the mid-80s for modification of Einstein’s photovoltaics, and the—it’s really a story of a man into whom I’ve poured nearly all the human weaknesses I could think of, and his attempts to work on photosynthesis—artificial photosynthesis in the New Mexican desert and bring us free energy in the form of water split into its constituent gases.
YOUNG: Which is a great idea, but not, it turns out, necessarily his idea…he’s a pretty flawed character. He’s—
MCEWAN: He is, yeah. I’m mean those of us who watched closely the COP-15, the Copenhagen conference at the end of last year, I thought it was depressing, but I also thought there was a vein of farce there. And that’s why at the very end of the novel, Michael Beard is going to, if he can, head off to address the meeting of foreign ministers at Copenhagen because he very much represents the spirit of that meeting.
YOUNG: And that’s not a compliment, that’s not compliment!
MCEWAN: No, that is certainly not a compliment. He embodies certain aspects of human nature that I think were very much alive at that conference. On the one hand, extraordinary cleverness - so science, rationality - had summed 192 nations, and then another aspect of human nature - self-interest, national self-interest, tribalism, cabals - won out.
And for that reason, everyone came home with their tails between their legs, and we have to await another round. If I can just say what this novel really is about, I guess it’s about flawed human nature trying to deal with a unique problem.
YOUNG: Now, Beard goes on this expedition to Arctic, it has artists and writers and scientists coming together to view the effects of climate change firsthand, and come up with some way to try to save the world. I understand that stems from your own personal experience—you did something very much like that?
MCEWAN: Yes, back in 2005 I went with a group of artists and scientists and we were living for a week just about on 80th parallel in the Norwegian Arctic. We had many passionate discussions in the evenings about climate change and what to do. What I noticed was the kit room, what we called the boot room, where we had to take off all our gear every time we came onto the ship so we didn’t bring ice and water into the living quarters—that boot room throughout the week was becoming more and more chaotic.
I thought there’s a huge discrepancy between the size of the boot room and the size of the earth, and the earth we want to organize when we can’t even keep this boot room straight! So that moment of the shadow falling between our aspirations and the boot room was one of the first indications I had that I thought it was at last a way into the issue of climate change.
YOUNG: Your protagonist, Mr. Beard, he’s in a fairly convoluted place, trying to make a business happen, and trying to be a sort of do-gooder. His business partner is kind of getting cold feet about the whole thing, right when they’re near the launch point for their new solar power. I’d like for you to read for us, a little excerpt from that point there where his partner, I guess, has heard from some of these climate change deniers and is starting to wonder if the whole thing is really going to work out.
MCEWAN: Toby Hammer is Michael Beard’s American partner and they’re crossing the New Mexican desert together. Toby’s a little depressed, as you say, so Michael Beard says, “ ‘Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change.
Even as we speak, Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazon rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost. There’s a meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet no one really wants to talk about. Amateur yachtsman have been sailing the northwest passage. And two years ago we lost 40 percent of the Arctic summer ice and now the eastern Antarctic is going. The future has arrived, Toby!’
‘Yeah,’ Hammer said. ‘I guess.’
‘What’s wrong with you? Trouble at home?’
‘Nothing like that,’ Hammer said. ‘Just that I put in all this work then guys in white coats come on TV to say the planet’s not heating. I get spooked.’
Beard laid a hand on his friend’s arm. A sure sign that he was getting drunk. ‘Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe, relax.’ ”
YOUNG: It’s a catastrophe, relax! Is that the point that we’ve reached though? Where business people are seeing the great opportunity in the catastrophe?
MCEWAN: There are some very dodgy outfits out there, I mean, especially in Europe where the subsidy business for renewable energies has been up and running for a while, so various scams are coming to light. The European Union is centralized in Brussels, handing out money to people down in Spain and Italy who are claiming they’ve got wind farms that don’t exist! So we have to be very careful.
YOUNG: I felt that one of the challenges underneath what I was reading in your book was, we can’t depend on being virtuous or being moral to address this problem. That we have to deal with people like Michael Beard.
MCEWAN: I think what we’re looking at and what we need is basically an industrial revolution. It was brilliant to—and clever of us to—think of ways of replacing human labor by burning these fossil fuels. They’ve now caused us a new problem and we’re going to have to use our ingenuity to get out of this.
And any great industrial change is going to bring all kinds of people. It’s going to be like the Wild West—frontier towns are going to be brimming with unsavory types packing six-shooters. It doesn’t matter as long as there’s a general, overall regulatory framework for safety and much else. I think we can expect that ambition, invention, greed will all pile in there. And I think it’s great that people use the bottle bank and recycle their waste and get a smaller car, and so on. But as Michael Beard says in one of his lectures at the Savoy hotel in London. That will slow our use of fossil fuels, but actually we’ve got to replace them—have a revolution in the way we power our lives.
YOUNG: Yeah, he’s speaking to some I guess potential investors, and he says, “ ‘Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, society as a whole, civilization it’s a weak force. For humanity, greed trumps virtue.’ ” Now, is that just Beard speaking there, or is that you?
MCEWAN: No, I’m—I can hide behind Beard at this point. I get him to say all kinds of unsavory things that I’d would sort of quarter believe in and not really want to defend. This is what I do believe: that actually nations do not often act virtuously. Individuals do.
YOUNG: Beard was not an easy guy to stick with through the book. I mean, I laughed a lot, but he’s such a foul person, I kept waiting for the moment where he’s going to see the light in this book named “Solar” and he’s going to change, and that’s going to be the lesson at the end. And I got to the end of the book and he didn’t change. Is that what you believe that people don’t really change that much?
MCEWAN: No, I don’t think people really change. I mean, I think most of us much like we are at the age of two, we get to know more, but I don’t think people really change. I know it’s deep in the American creed that you can remake yourself, but I come from the Old World and I think that people are what they are. Michael Beard is a sort of chaotic figure and I have to say that it gave me no pleasure, but I felt vindicated in what I’d made of him by the end of the Copenhagen conference.
YOUNG: At some point during I guess when you were just finishing up this book the whole so-called Climategate episode burst into public—
YOUNG: These hacked emails from the University of East Anglia. Is that where you went to school? Is that right?
MCEWAN: Yes, I was there as a graduate student in 1970. The so-called Climategate matter just seems to me an extraordinary example of how the denialist lobby can fix on a couple of emails and turn it into an issue that has caused public trust in climate science to plummet. But also science is messy and human, and climate science and the biosphere are both young objects of study and fantastically complex.
Maybe what lies behind this fuss was a rather naïve assumption in the public’s mind that science was a sort of lordly, clinical, passionless enterprise, and for that reason emails like this become shocking. But anyone who’s sat in a senior common room or listened to scientists gossip about each other knows that it’s just as flawed as everything else. The project of science, itself is always bigger than the individuals who are doing it.
YOUNG: You know, we don’t get many novels about climate change. We get a lot of books about climate change, but to my knowledge, this is the first novel and certainly the first comic novel that I’ve read on this topic. Would you do it again? What did you think of this area as a setting for a novel?
MCEWAN: Well, I think so. I mean the problem is too extensive and I think the human ramifications are so extensive. This is one of those literally global issues that penetrates private lives. So I mean either it will come from me or it’ll come from—there are plenty of us novelists around. But one way or another it will force its way into the novel. This subject will not go away, it will shape human destinies and novels are bound to reflect that.
YOUNG: Ian McEwan, the novel is “Solar”. Thank you very much.
MCEWAN: My pleasure.
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