Recent books have aimed at resolving the global climate crisis, but too many fall at one extreme or another. Some offer overly narrow, and thus ineffectual, policy approaches (say, improved plastic recycling); others, conversely, try to offer solutions for every interlinked issue, sweeping so broadly across so many domains to make one’s head spin. Robert Stayton’s SOLAR DIVIDENDS provides an admirable effort to thread the needle, balancing truly radical vision with specific, stepwise policy implementation.
Early on, Stayton invites readers to imagine a future that has escaped worst-case climate change scenarios. In it, cutting-edge solar technology displaces fossil fuels and—even better—provides universal basic incomes to all of humanity through “solar dividends.” (More precisely, separate pilot projects built on this model gradually expand into a global system of solar energy co-ops.) But some of Stayton’s overly positive assumptions can be difficult to ignore. For instance, he appears to believe extant fossil fuel industry leaders would be either passive or, at minimum, unwilling to go all-out in opposing policy reforms and the spread of decentralized solar energy. It’s difficult to square this assumption with a history of energy-sector lobbying and direct litigation against even the most modest regulations. Perhaps massive hypothetical energy crises in our near-future could compel that shift, but that is at best uncertain.
Broadly, SOLAR DIVIDENDS omits specificity on some steps in its proposed solutions. The solar arrays and concomitant dividends are sold to readers partly on the basis of their non-governmental nature, nodding toward conservative or libertarian critiques of regulation. Yet, wherever questions of feasibility or (likely high) costs arise, government “regulation” (e.g., setting price floors for all energy, implementing widespread carbon taxes) and intervention (e.g., guaranteeing solar farms against losses, loaning startup costs) appear throughout the text. These are not marginal involvements, and their scope would be nearly impossible to estimate ex ante.
A similar concern arises with higher energy costs – much higher costs, as required in Stayton’s framework. To reach a sufficient monetary value for solar energy to produce enough income (dividends) for all, energy must cost roughly 10 times more than current rates. Even if universal dividends offset rate increases and they take decades to phase in, it’s hard to see this system as a compelling, singular solution. If energy costs rise by a factor of 10—costs necessarily added to most modern consumer products—a $1,000-per-month dividend would largely be swallowed by simultaneously rising prices.
Finally, there’s the timeline itself. The gradualism built into SOLAR DIVIDENDS belies the pace of ongoing, observable climate change. Each recent UN report has overtaken the worst projections of the last, including September 2019’s disturbing special report on rapidly transforming oceans and freshwater habitats. As bold as Stayton’s plan is, it’s unclear if it would arrive in time.
Do those concerns sink SOLAR DIVIDENDS, though? Not really. Stayton’s proposals aren’t pitched as all-encompassing solutions, but as one choice to be pursued with others simultaneously. It also acknowledges a few of the conceptual gaps above, inviting solutions and gap-filling as needed. Stayton, avoiding the too-narrow or overbroad tendencies of much climate-focused writing, keeps that clear.
With sharp writing and a bold, detailed and ambitious vision of possible reforms to combat the climate crisis, Robert Stayton’s SOLAR DIVIDENDS enters a flourishing genre with a precise focus–a single policy framework to turn ubiquitous solar power into power and income for all.
~Andy Carr for IndieReader