Seen a solar panel on a thatched roof?

solar panels - thatched roof

I had the rare fortune of conversing extensively about the politics of international economics and environmental ethics on the weekend. It is worth noting a platitude. All ideas are full of politics, and, there are many different ways in which one thinks of politics. Just in terms of international economics, there are so many ways. The politics of economic power, politics of private interests, politics of expert reason, politics of public goods, politics of the ideology of disciplines…just to name a few, all came into play in my weekend conversations. Environmental ethics, also decidedly full of politics.

The conversations were fun, but not many things were clarified. Perhaps it did become clear, since there were so many politics, that there appeared to be a problem with how ‘experts’ and their communities deliberate on policy choices. Much of the weekend debates concerned finding principles, rules and processes, which regulated the manner in which an ethical commitment may be ‘properly’ set aside by a practical consideration. (The assumption being, that otherwise, we keep to our ethical commitment) Another thing was that “ethical commitments”, “practical considerations” “principles, rules and processes” were not always thought about and emphasized in the same way. 

Sometimes, the importance of experts were emphasized and perhaps over-estimated. At other moments, the importance of principles. Whatever the case, it appears that not many political parties (and thus political masters) make the environment a primary policy or ethical concern. Meaning, people do not find it important enough, to make environment “the issue” for politics. This troubled us.

We were unanimously on the side of a future energy market that was completely based on renewable energy. The debates concerned whether this should involve immediate divestment of fossil fuel interests, when renewable energy was ready to do the deed of global supply, should governments prevent increased usage of fossil fuels when crude oil prices drop, and so forth. So, even though there was a wholesale agreement of the fundamental superiority of renewable energy over fossil fuels, there was an uncomfortable space in which the “way forward” was subject to various differences of opinion.

One of the things that popped up in the conversations was: “have you seen a thatched roof with a solar panel on it?” Interestingly, I did not associate all the different thatched roofs I had seen in my life – such as coconut palm thatched roofs in Southeast Asia. Rather, our immediate association was with the thatched roofs we often see on country homes in the UK. Perhaps the association was unsurprising, as the conversation’s subtext involved the occasionally violent disputes between “NIMBYs” and windfarm advocates.

What was rather surprising was that none of us personally knew of many homes with thatched roofs. Most of the images we had in our minds were “from the road side as we passed by”. So, in a way, I am sure there are are many buildings with solar panels on their thatched roofs. Though, I am relatively convinced that it is rare. I am rather persuaded, albeit with limited evidence, that solar panels would not bring personal benefit to the person who owns and lives in a house with a thatched roof. 1) Would there be another location on the property for solar panels that might exclude the need to have it on the roof? 2) would the resale value of the property be affected adversely or positively? 3) does the need for re-thatching make solar panels a cost liability? 4) Are there aesthetic reasons, and are aesthetic reasons adequate?

There is, we seemed to agree, the need to have a much more public minded approach to the environment. People should not be in a situation where they would only care for the environment, and act in the environment’s interests, when it meets their personal interests. There is a need to show a public commitment to protecting the environment regardless of whether it brings personal benefit. 

In a sense, there seemed to be a case that the current market economy does not automatically do this. There seemed a strong case for rethinking the intersection between culture and market regulations. In such a way, to prevent or limit market-defined detriment if one follows a sound environmental strategy. This seemed necessary to give communities and cultures the right kind of impetus, to claim/feel a positive agency towards the environment. Of course, what seemed rather contradictory, was that, even though such a position was not criticised on principled terms, it seemed altogether naive to think it was possible.

The “solar panel on the thatched roof” thus became a sort of “thought experiment” meets “metaphor” for the complexities involved with thinking about environmentalism. On other occasions in the past, I have disagreed with the view that double glazed windows could impair the victorian frontage of houses. Surely one could find double glazing that did fit with the aesthetic. I am rather sold on the idea that we do use too much energy. Learning to limit our usage is overwhelmingly important, more so than aesthetic and comfort reasons. Yes comfort. There is a difference between sustainable comfort, and comfort one could afford. We in the developed world prefer not to view our comforts as really a kind of unsustainable luxury.

Questions of aesthetics, culture, sentiment, and choice, however, are difficult to answer. These dimensions have the potential to bring benefit and detriment to environmental causes. ‘Culture’ is fluid, and could be used to describe both environmentally recalcitrant communities and environmental advocates.  A NIMBY argument might be used against a renewable energy windfarm, and so too could be used against erecting fracking wells. 

There are many disagreements with regards to how the world needs to be revolutionised. What environmental culture, does our current civilisation represent? Some of these demands for change, might be in essence, requiring immense cultural change. This is a challenge for any person’s sense of identity and interests. It is somewhat easier to speculate how much others and “the world” might need to change, than, to ask how much I should change to make the world better. Probably, a lot more.

Stephen Samuel