Cli-fi book review: Solar leadership

solar coverMost of my book reviews are non-fiction, but my favorite summer fiction – Solar by Ian McEwan – fits right in. It’s actually a perfect follow up to the earlier post on leadership for sustainable change. This review focuses on analysis of the leadership displayed in this “cli-fi” book. Don’t worry if you’re planning to read Solar, this blog does not spoil the great story-line of the novel.


Meet Michael Beard, the main character in the book. He’s a Nobel Laureate leading the UK government’s research center on renewable energy. Here’s how well he does against the five characteristics of successful leaders for positive sustainable change which I distilled from earlier interviews.


Personal commitment

commitmentEarly on, Beard is introduced as “not wholly skeptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrow, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action.” Not quite the personal commitment you’d expect for someone leading a renewable energy center. As the book progressed, I had hoped he would become personally interested and committed, but alas, his focus is on shorter term issues, like food and saving his many marriages.

Inspiring vision

When the team in the energy center sets to work, the minister calls for submissions from the public on clean energy. Underpaid post-docs screen hundreds of proposals that clutter the mailbox. Instead of sorting them on innovation and potential, they consider sorting them on what laws of physics the idea violates. The team gets started with a rooftop wind turbine project that seemed like it could be a quick win. But of course, there are no quick wins to be had. Instead of applying the post-docs’ genius to breakthroughs in renewable energy, it goes into answering crazy letters and fixing the wind turbine design.


Clear plan

As the leader of the renewable energy center, Michael Beard clearly does not have a plan. He leaves the daily management of the center to Jock Braby and tries to be involved as little as possible. Nor does he seem to have one with a longer term perspective for his own life, which is ruled by the short-term temptations of sex, alcohol and food.


Empowered collaboration

Collaboration-signEarly in the book, Tom Aldous, one of the post-docs suggests to kill the wind turbine project for more promising solar technology. “I think we’re wasting our time with this micro wind-power stuff. The technology’s already good enough. …. But solar – cutting edge artificial photosynthesis – there’s great basic research to do on the nanotechnology.” His ideas are dismissed. Instead, he’s forced to keep working on the rooftop wind project. Most other post-docs and center staff do not even have a name in the book. Let alone, the empowerment or encouragement to really make a difference in renewable energy. In the end, Tom Aldous’ ideas do make a vast difference; but not quite in a collaborative way.


Empathic communications

communicationMichael Beard is anything but empathic, but communicative in some instances. He only has his own short-term interests in mind, both in his personal and professional lives. Which of course gets in the way of any attempt at empathy. Yet, to stroke his ego and move his funding along, he delivers some striking speeches on climate change throughout the book. Greenwashing at its worst or best – depending how you look at it.


In sum, Michael Beard fails on all five characteristics of sustainable leadership. But he’s not the only one without a long-term perspective or personal commitment in the book. My favorite part of the book takes him to the North Pole to see climate change for himself. The lack of collaboration, empathy and long-term thinking is of the people in the group is both shocking and hilarious.


Cli-fi as a literary genre

The author Ian McEwan himself is quite passionate about climate change and the need for true leadership to avert it. In 2008, before Solar was published, he wrote a passionate plea to Barack Obama to start his first term by making the Copenhagen Climate summit a success. In my research for this blog post, I came across an interesting interview with Ian McEwan. He talks about climate change, his inspiration for Michael Beard and the role of novels and authors.


Ian McEwan is not the only author to put climate change central in a novel. As it turns out, there’s even a name for this new genre “cli-fi”. A 2013 New Yorker article on the genre suggests “chances are that the name won’t stick. It makes the genre sound marginal, when, in fact, climate change is moving to the center of human experience.” 


I don’t want this to be marginal, and the New Yorker article has certainly fueled my fiction reading list! Any cli-fi novels you’d like to suggest?


Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read interviews with interesting people, book reviews and other posts about leadership, change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.


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