on solar energy, and power.

Georgia Kareola

(fig. 1) Here you see the image of a solar powered future, envisioned by Tesla in its outward-facing communication. An image is painted of an aspirational domestic, raising questions of abundance and availability. A mood is captured of an easeful existence, enhanced by new technology, powered by clean energy.

(fig. 2) Tesla creates a mode of seeing here, and with that a mode of unseeing. We see the multimillion dollar house, the solar roof, and the immaculately pruned garden. We unsee the extraction needed to create these panels and batteries, and 99% of people who cannot afford this lifestyle. Tesla justifies its premium product approach with the mechanism of trickle-down economics. But is this right, and justified? What can we learn from these images?

Tesla’s aspirational domestic is, in Lauren Berlant’s terms, an object of desire, painted within a contemporary version of “the good life” the moral-economic fantasy that generates a cruel optimism.1 What is needed to attain the object of desire is a price too high to pay for most. For the few with the means, it is “too possible, and toxic”, because it is paid not only in money, but through complicity in economic and political mechanisms of extraction and exploitation which drive wealth inequality and climate catastrophe.

The irony here is, that the object of desire is presented as a solution to fossil fuel pollution and an unfolding climate crisis involving exacerbating class and racial divides. This makes one wonder about the ethicality of this proposition. It may be true that Musk, a billionaire, is a proponent of making solar energy available to as many people, as soon as possible; the aspirational domestic rather breathes submission to Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism.2  It is definitely easier to think ‘green solutions’ within capitalism, than to think an end to capitalism. In Tesla’s case, these green solutions bring scenes of the sci-fi movie Elysium to mind. (fig. 3) In Elysium, the rich have escaped to a lush, abundant space station, while the poor are living in the high-rises and slums of a down-trodden, Downtown LA (fig. 4).

In 1900, Nikola Tesla (fig. 5) first writes about solar energy.3 He sees it as a means to increase the human population, as well as the production of things needed in the unfolding industrial age (like household appliances and lightbulbs). Tesla also applauds Christianity in this text, calling it “profoundly wise and scientific.” Nikola Tesla was a man of the Industrial Revolution, embedded in a Christian context, and a contemporary of Darwin.

This likely made him see the world in terms of human accumulation, scientific progress, evolution, and classification. Following Walter Mignolo, this combination of Christian theology and the rationality of Science, was at the cradle of Western modernity.4 

A modernity with a darker side. The colonial discussion would take us beyond the scope today, but there is certainly a darker side to Tesla’s ideas and the aspirational domestic. One example: during the rise of modernity, the meaning of “nature” changed to mean “natural resources.” Nature became the food for machines of the Industrial, and later the Technological Revolution. Mignolo points out that “Environmental Catastrophe” started at this moment. The sun also became a natural resource, providing energy for the progress and accumulation of mankind. This understanding we find in Nikola Tesla, and in Elon Musk’s aspirational domestic. (fig. 6)

I would argue, with Mignolo, that it is vital to address the narratives that underlie the ideas associated with progress, in order to develop more inclusive, and sustainable ways of world-building.

1 Berlant, Ch.2, p. 9. Berlant talks about how ‘the good life’ is for so many a bad life that wears out the subjects who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their possibilities within it.

2 Fisher, 2009

3 Tesla,1900

4 Mignolo, 2011

References:

  • Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.
  • Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Tesla, Nikola. The Problem of Increasing Human Energy, with special references to theharnessing of sun energy, 1900