The Poor Man’s Energy: Low-Modernist Solar Technologies in India and the Global South, 1878–2016
- Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the CASI Fall Seminar Series. My name is Amrita Kurian. Sarath, Shikhar, and I are the new postdoctoral fellows at CASI.
Sarath and I co-organized this seminar series with our director, Tariq Thachil. These seminar series will not be possible whether it's publicizing the events or technical support, or coffee and kathi rolls without a lot of help from the CASI team. A shout out to them.
Before we commence our talk for today, a plugin for next week's event, a virtual event with Aditya Subramaniam who's a economic historian and will be talking to us about anti-corruption and the CBI. A word about logistics for today's event. The speaker will talk for 30, 35 minutes which will be followed by Q&A. Tariq and I will moderate that.
If you're attending virtually, please drop your questions in the chat. Sarath will convey them to the speaker. Last but not least, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our speaker for today's event, Dr. Elizabeth Chatterjee. Elizabeth Chatterjee is an assistant professor of environmental history in the college at University of Chicago. She's also a fellow of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her research has explored a wide range of topics such as the transformation of the Indian state and bureaucracy, energy history and the political economy of infrastructure from Gujarat development model to fossil fuels.
Her recent article in the Journal of Asian Studies critiques dominant histories of fossil capitalism in the Anthropocene with the history of fossil developmentalism in the Asian Anthropocene. She's currently writing an environmental history of electricity in India since independence. Today, she'll talk to us about the overlooked history of low-modernist solar research in and for the global cell, focusing on the case of India. Her talk is titled, the poor mans energy, low-modernist solar technologies in India and the Global South, 1878 to 2016.
Thank you, Liz for joining us here at CASI. Over to you. - Fabulous, well, thank you so much to Tariq, to Sarath and Amrita for the invitation and especially to Amrita for amazing logistics help.
So, I'm really excited to be sharing a standalone draft of what I think to be an article with you and look forward to hearing your feedback. Let's just check if they're technically working, yes. So, in 1953, The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO wrote to the Government of India with a really exciting proposal. Would the new nation be interested in holding the first major international conference on wind and solar energy? And for the next few months, Indian scientists and officials weighed in on the idea, mostly enthusiastically, including Nehru himself, a big solar booster who dined just a few months earlier on some cooked cabbage and vegetables prepared on an Indian made solar cooker.
The UNESCO Symposium, as you can see, was held in 1954 in New Delhi, an apt location said UNESCO, given India's remarkable pioneering work in the field of solar energy. The politician K.D. Malaviya, more famous as the father of Indian hydrocarbon exploration delivered the inaugural address to an international audience. As you see here, he said, not only should we derive energy from wind and sun, but we should aim at getting it cheaply.
And he told the gathered experts to keep two watch words in mind to guide their research, economy and simplicity. Economy and simplicity would be the fateful words that would guide another half century of solar energy research. I'm gonna suggest in India and in the Global South, more generally.
Solar energy often appears a energy source without a history, perennially novel and always oriented towards the future. And this has gone really, entirely unchallenged by historians who've basically shown no interest in renewable energy in most Global South and no interest in solar energy anywhere. As a result, the vacuums being filled by professionals who've come up with great kind of linear teleologies like, this one here. I mean, they're not usually quite so stark but you can see that this is typically narrated then as a linear story of progress here from a leap from ancient history through to Bell Labs and the first solar cell in 1954, first practical solar cell in 1954 on via satellites and to today.
So, there's a straight line of innovation. And it takes us here to the dominant imaginary of solar energy today. What we might call a high-modernist imaginary of big solar energy in the form of the solar park. This is Bhadla, India's largest solar park. It's about the size of Manhattan. This notion animating the big solar park, we might see as a revival of the high-modernist idea of progress.
It's founded on an optimism about the possibilities for science and technology to square the circle between economic growth and environmental sustainability, liberating wastelands like Rajasthan deserts, while liberating humanity from dirty fossil fuels. It promises basically, infinite power. Now the air of utopian futurism, that envelopes the idea of what I'm gonna call big solar, high-modernist big solar, obscures longer and much more complex, messy histories of solar energy. Today, I want to trace one such alternative history of solar research and deployment in, and for the Global South.
And it's a history that really does not fit that nice, neat tale of triumph from innovation to commercialization. Now, let's not forget. Dominant solar technologies are actually pretty old.
The Silicon solar cell would be old enough to draw a pension right now, and things like solar cookers, solar water heaters are older still. So, today I want to flip the usual research question we ask about solar energy and not ask why we see a meteoric takeoff in the 21st century, but to ask, why that takeoff stalled for so long earlier on? We'll see that India was a key arena for that kind of transition, failed transition. And in the history, I'm gonna recount for you. We see a revealing tale, I think of under investment, failed commercialization and technological cul-de-sacs. I'm gonna suggest that the reasons for that failed takeoff lie in the pigeonholing of solar energy, not as something utopian and oriented towards you know, a futuristic life of abundance, but a much drabber imagined userbase.
The notion that was dominant from, I would say the late 19th century, all the way through to at least the 1970s oil shocks, that it was a poor man's energy source in a literal phrase that occurs in the archive. We'll see that the user base that was imagined lay in the third world, it was rural, it was feminized, it was impoverished. And it was imagined not as a post-carbon substitute to wean people off fossil fuels, but as a substitute actually for firewood, for dung and for gathering work that was traditionally done by women. This was not simply, also an idea imposed by aid experts from the outside, but by many Indian experts as well, who came to agree that solar energy was best suited where the grid had not yet expanded, that true infrastructural modernization of the electric grid. And in this way then, I'm describing a pre-carbon rather than post-carbon history of solar energy.
Unfortunately, this user base, as you can imagine, was imagined to offer very little expected return on investment, and scientific and commercial interest was corresponded like, limited then. Solar energy was not imagined as lying at the frontier of technological progress, a really exciting area to be getting involved at, if you would say an energy physicist, but as an area of second best fixes, not as something high-modernist, but what I'm calling low-modernist. That is an emphasis on pragmatic, low cost, simple, small scale devices that would meet only minimal energy demands, which was statically defined and would work with rather than aiming to master the arid climate.
I'll show though that rural energy users themselves really continued to reject that frugal, imaginary and the constraints it put on aspirations for increased energy use. So, very quick overview of what I'll be talking about. Quick, quick round.
Some colonial material through to Nehruvian India and on into the international development community. For most people, as we know in my benighted motherland Britain, the intense sunlight of the tropics was imagined as a civilizational curse. But for India's first ever solar booster, it was a blessing. William Adams was of all jobs, deputy registrar at the Bombay High Court.
When he read an article by the French inventor Augustin Mouchot about his solar experiments in French North Africa, Adams was smitten. His 1978 monograph, solar heat declared that tropical countries possess in their clear skies, a gratuitous and inexhaustible source of wealth equal to that, which Western nations have to dig with infinite labor and toil from the battles of the earth. He called upon the government to invest in this promising substitute for expensive imported coal and thereby to help slow deforestation. It was becoming a huge issue. In Bombay, Adams displayed his solar innovations before newspaper reporters and army chiefs.
Solar heat sketch plans to deploy solar energy, everything from desalinization through to pot engines and even Hindu crematoria. This was a really sweeping, I would say, high-modernist vision of wholesale, rapidly substituting solar energy for fossil fuels, especially for steam engines. Solar energy, Adams told the Times of India, was destined to make India the seat of the principal manufacturing industries of the world.
At the time, this was not an outlandish view. The time will come when Europe must stop home mills for want of coal, said the famous Swedish American inventor, John Erickson. There's a nice big fountain of him, might've spotted in, here in Philadelphia, near the art museum.
An industry would shift to the tropics where the excess of solar heat promised an unimaginable abundance of motor power. But despite all these grand visions, it was actually for something much more modest that Adams would be remembered and go down in solar history, his solar cooker, which concentrated the sun's rays in quite an innovative way on this central utensil that you can see here marked, B and C. One obliging corporal from the Colberg Garrison used a prototype to bake a Christmas cake. And Adams boasted that you could even cook on the march with cooker atop of coolie's head.
But generally, the reception was a lot less favorable. One Bombay official pointed out that this was ridiculous. You couldn't just give factory workers a holiday whenever the sun didn't shine. Another person told him he would have to use the sun to cultivate cucumbers, to use as as fuel during the monsoon.
And even a friend, as you can see complained, your cook or either sun goes to bed at six and civilized people dine at 7:30 or 8:00 PM. These kind of objections about intermittency, of course, are familiar now 150 years later. Now, Adams' solar cooker is little more, I think, than a historical footnote.
Nonetheless, it offers an alternative genealogy of solar energy that looks very different to the narratives that would coalesce a century later with the oil shocks of the 1970s in the rich world. We see here, solar energy imagined that something that especially fit colonial context. With Adams, with Mouchot's experiments in French North Africa, there was in the tropics that really solar's potential lay. And the most striking example of this is a great son of the city of Philadelphia, Frank Schuman, who would build solar powered irrigation engines to draw the waters of the Nile to irrigate cotton in Egypt under the watchful eye of Lord Kitchener. I think it's telling too that it was the idea of the cook stove, the device of the cook stove, which will seem recur during the store that resonated where these grand inventions of Adams' were rejected. As his critical friend made clear, the solar cook stove was fit only for uncivilized people.
You see correspondence in the Times of India, for example, saying, oh, this would be perfect for relief camps. Not for real people like us. So, this would presage a huge long series of kind of, tinkering for frugal innovations for the tropics in the name of, to quote, the American solar booster, Charles Henry Pope who saw solar energy as a way to conquer the American west, to make the tropics grow opulent, when the utilization of solar heat is carried to the point of simplicity and economy. He added, what a motive to the truly humane inventor and capitalist.
Now, this is a pretty rural set of imaginaries. As you can see here in Shuman's irrigation engines for cotton, and that rural slant would start to intensify from a very different and much more conceptual direction. To understand this, we need to understand how solar energy was conceived of actually all the way up to the 1980s, which is not in the narrow sense of directly and through photo voltaics, harnessing the sun's energy, often turning it into electricity, like we think of it now, but as something much more synonymous with the broad umbrella term of renewable energy.
So, solar energy then stood in for everything from tidal energy to the wind, with the idea that it's ultimately the sun that dictates these infinite flows in contrast to the fixed capital, and it's often the word capital that's used, the exhaustible capital of fossil fuels. In this imaginary, the single greatest machine if you like for harnessing the solar energy was the leaves of plants, their photo synthetic capability. And in this way through, for example, the writings of the urban planner, Patrick Geddes, who was advising on many Indian cities, his disciple, the sociologist, Radhakamal Mukherjee, for example, reading solar energy as an infinite energy source through agriculture and food lent solar energy a much more explicitly agrarian cast in contrast to Adams' vision of industrialization through solar. Perhaps the most extensive articulation of this solar agrarianism could be found in the writings of Richard Bartlett Greg, some of whose papers are here at Penn. Though I don't think it's the most exciting part.
If Greg is remembered at all today, it says the author of the incredibly influential Gandhian classic from 1934, the power of nonviolence, which bolstered forward by MLK junior. But in his earliest effort lacked intellectual translation, when he was embedded in Gandhi's ashram. He wrote what sometimes called the first work of Gandhi in economic philosophy that aimed to translate Gandhianism into energetic terms.
He calculated that the sun falling on India annually was equivalent to all the coal mined in the world, in 1927. And he pointed out or argued that the country's massive underemployed laborers were enormously efficient machines via eating rice for converting this solar energy into work. Centering energy in this way, he wrote excitedly in his almost entirely allegeable notebooks would profoundly alter gradations of social status. Then, the Indian woman who picks up droppings in the streets for fuel would be seen to be very wise, equal to the physician on one side and to the fuel engineer or coal miner, or forest conservator on the other. In this vision, farming was the most important branch of solar technology and Gandhi, he literally called a great industrial engineer. More than this, Gregg argued that solar energy aligned with an oriental popularity for the decentralized and the small scaled.
Indians could not think or work easily or efficiently in western rapid, large scale ways, he wrote. Now, all of this was cited approvingly by Gandhi himself. Of course, the Gandhian rejection of industrialization would not survive.
But I think that this notion of solar energy as linked to practical research serve a rural India of limited wants in a Gandhian mode really does survive into the post-colonial. So, like many Congress leaders, India's future president spent most of the second world war in prison, in Bihar and there in early 1945, Rajendra Prasad met the Bengali scientists and fellow Gandhian, N.K. Ghosh. Ghosh said that he'd come up with his first successful solar cooker as early as 1934. And Prasad arranged for him to hold solar cooking demonstrations for the fellow prisoners. And actually, after the war got some money from the tartars to continue these solar experiments. So, this is the historical lineage that you often see recounted in Indian documents.
Ghosh's wartime, hot box style cooker, hot box means something pretty different. (group laughs) Suddenly realizing as I said it. You know, it's a very simple box shaped device such as kind of, it's usually dark and warms up over time, as opposed to the concentrator design I just showed you. Yes, Rajendra Prasad that only was getting up to anything that while, but this hot box was passed on to India's post-colonial scientist as a kind of historic artifact of the birth of solar energy. And I think this is pretty interesting because when we think of Nehruvian India, we associate this with energy mega projects, you know, big dams, like the DVC, the huge secretive, incredibly expensive nuclear program.
But in parallel with these big spending, very dramatic, technologically sublime mega projects, we actually see a survival of what I would call a low-modernist emphasis. And I think it fits with the overall emphasis on compressing consumer spending and therefore setting India's scientists to look for much more frugal and austere solutions for the mass of rural consumers. In parallel, then with the big energy projects, we see a corresponding tendency as the historian Daniel Immerwahr's called it, to think small.
So, in 1951, the scientists at the pretty new National Physical Laboratory in New Delhi set to work in building, yep, there's that device again, a solar cooker for the masses. This became the, it's a nice young Punjabi scientist by the name of M.L. Ghai who's especially associated with this. This became like the poster child. When SS Bhatnagar was showing round foreign dignitaries, they would always be taken to have a look at the solar cooker.
As the exemplar of the post colonies, technological prowess, but in this very low-modernist, small scale, practical vein. And you can see the design kind of, loosely harks back to Adams. Here, we have the reflector rather than the hotbox at the center of it.
So, we have a kind of, populous emphasis on applied utility, but with this austerity and kind of approach to consumerism here. Now, India's leaders very quickly seized upon the solar cooker as you know, completely exemplary. So, it was featured in official documentaries like this one here from the films division of India, but also by the BBC. The Government of Egypt petitioned to have royalty free access to the design and Nehru himself weighed in to say, this would be fine.
Pushed the industry ministry to speed up commercialization. Engineers came from Burma, for example, to learn what energy science should look like in a post colony. And even the New York Times predicted imminent commercial success. And then, of course, the bubble broke. The cooker was invented without any market research at all into the Indian women, of course, who were the clearly intended audience. When women actually went to use it, it grew completely, socially unacceptable.
You had to sit outside in the hot sun for hours to use it. You had to shift this huge thing around as the sun moved in the sky. And worst of all, as the poly mathematician, DD Kosambi, who was otherwise a big solar fan said, the cooker when tried by ordinary mortals away from news reel cameras just refused to work. Rumor had it that the company that had been allowed to commercialize the design only made profits by selling them off for scrap. The solar cooker affair, as it became known, was enormously damaging.
Nehru faced hostile questions in the Indian parliament and thereafter, the NPL kind of, retreated away from applied research and turned itself much more towards basic science. But India, this is off radars like, you know, India's being pathological, it's very, very scientists and so on, are too distant from business. The striking thing is that it definitely would not be alone in making these mistakes. So, American scientists at this very moment, were casting around for a new sense of purpose.
For a moment during and after the war, there's a lot of solar energy research going on in the U.S. in the form of posh solar homes and solar heating for American middle classes. Along comes cheap oil and cheap electricity, and the interest quickly dies.
But one door closes another opens in the form of President Truman's famous Point Four Program for international development for the third world. And this galvanized a wave of philanthropic interest then, that would remake solar energy as a third world solution. Over at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver, the head of its natural science and agriculture division was intrigued. He conceived of the problem of the world's growing population in terms of what he called food energy. Until he was very quickly slotted this into the frame of seeing solar energy as part of a panoply of solutions that also included things like algae.
In the '50s, everyone thought we would all be eating algae by now. So, sadly people already risked on that. And so, he set up a non-conventional agriculture program to tap this idea in an exploratory way in parallel with the Rockefeller Foundation's much more famous effort to develop what would become known as the Green Revolution. And he found, here's some algae, you can see there's lots of interest in the Japanese and with the leaders, everybody was intrigued by. But this was framed, as you can see, as solar energy to cultivate chlorella, which is, its only future has been as spirally narrow in health food shots. We've found then a good fit for the program in the form of an old friend of his, the chemical physicist, Farrington Daniels, who was then working at Weaver's alma mater beloved to South Asianists everywhere.
The University of Wisconsin, Madison. Now, Daniels is super interesting. During the war, he had been the head of the metallurgical lab of the Manhattan project in Chicago. After the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, he was pushed out of the nuclear program and almost like atonement became the biggest international booster, the most famous international booster for solar energy.
In 1953 then, it would be Daniels who headed the America's first major solar energy symposium in Madison, and then none other than M.L. Ghai, formerly of the NPL, relocated to New Jersey, like lots of Indians, presented the Indian solar cooker. The frugal innovation in the cooker really aligned with Daniels' own interests. And so, he went to Weavers, you can see here, Speaking of his goal of developing a poor man's solar energy of an efficiency so low that American engineers will have nothing to do with it, but which nevertheless could help to raise standards of living in sunny underdeveloped countries. And said he looked forward to hearing more when he went to the UNESCO Symposium where we started.
As he'd tell audiences for years afterwards, his visit to India in 1954 was a revelation. He even had his wife paint the bullock assisted irrigation he saw, and he hung the painting above his desk at Madison to show what they were trying to stop. He envisaged solar energy as saving, especially the labor of women in gathering wood and dung. And he was really emphatic that this was the need of the day, that it was actually only gonna be relevant in rich countries, he said, in a thousand years time to have solar energy.
But it was really, really super important for poor countries. Now this came as a bit of a shock, for example, to the Soviet delegate in Delhi who described his own country's plan for these like, massive mega plans to create OACs in Central Asia. But it was widely agreed by people like Malaviya in Delhi itself that actually economy and simplicity was the need of the day.
Daniels eventually received a decade of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to research, as he said, this poor man's solar energy. And you know, it's a bit on the nose, but actually poor man's is underlined in the proposal he sent to the Rockefeller. And this really reflected the prevailing view.
Other American NG commentators wrote, underdeveloped nations do not need, and probably do not wish to try to duplicate our western industrial structure and gadgets. And others said, they needed machines operating at lower temperatures and slower speeds. So, there's a curious dualism, I think here both in India and in international development imaginaries. You know, at the same time, the Eisenhower administration's pushing atoms for peace, nuclear electricity for the third world. India is also devoting huge amounts of resources to nuclear energy. And yet we have this low-modernist solar in parallel and indeed international experts often discuss this in terms of an energetic division of labor.
Taking advantage, as one Stanford researcher said, of the most fortuitous complementarity between solar energy and nuclear energy. Farrington Daniels, you know, himself is a veteran of the Manhattan project, maintained that nuclear energy was for the cities. And because solar energy is dispersed, you need a lot of land for it. It was best fitted for the dispersed populations in rural energies. And again, it's a bit on the nose, but in an analogy that he would repeatedly return to, Daniels called the sun, the poor man's atomic reactor. It was a view that was really, very widely shared in the solar community at the time.
And this solar community is tiny. We're talking a few hundred people and they gather together in lovely gatherings like this one that they're all returning from here in Arizona that formed the association for applied solar energy for the world. So, it's a tiny group that kind of, all were thinking alike.
It's the same Indians that go to the conferences that, you know, welcome visiting delegations that publish in the association's journals, and so on as. As a result, Daniels was very well aware that as he said, the Indians had got rather badly burnt by the solar cooker affair. But he said he was much moved by letters from Mexico and Guatemala about the time that women wasted looking for firewood. And so, solar cooker, the solar cooker was the need of the day. It was pretty easy then to rationalize the earlier failure in India by blaming users. Yeah, I just love those photos.
So, here it is again, that's Daniels of course, looking keenly at the cooker and blame Indian housewives in particular. So, American researchers started getting involved in doing market research. They actually realized the issues were sociological.
So, from 1958 onwards, there would be anthropologists embedded with the Madison team, and embedded in their research sites. But they said the issue was one of the inertia of women that they said it's been a flop because nobody she knows cooks on a solar stove, least of all her mother. You know, the idea is it's very hard to break out of these patterns. Nonetheless, they were really keen that actually cooking was the easiest application. And so, still like a bad penny, the solar cooker continues on and on as the goal. And the Madison team develops these nice cookers and sends them off for field testing in a very telling series of places.
First, on an American Indian reservation in Arizona, then with a Mexican restaurant owner and his wife in Denver, Colorado, and then finally to the employees of the Rockefeller agricultural station itself in Mexico. And they're all feeling really good. Of course, the result was a carbon copy of what had happened in India, a decade earlier. So, Daniels' colleague Jack Duffy recalled in an oral history interview, the hardware worked like a dream in the laboratory and it seemed so good at first. They go around, everybody seemed to be using it well.
On closer inspection though, they found, and there's just reams of these questionnaires and so on that they started doing, that actually the locals ripped out the cooker whenever the researchers came by, they were like, we are cooking away and then put it away. They were like, why are these cookers all so shiny? It seems unlikely. And actually they listed the same complaint over and over again, many of which were familiar from Indians before. The stove was too expensive. The women disliked cooking for hours in the hot sun. It was both flimsy and too bulky to easily shift around, track the sun.
The reflector, the glare hurt everybody's eyes. You could only cook one thing at once, very slowly. It was bad at making both chapatis and it turned out, also tortillas. It didn't work when it was cloudy or windy, or if you wanted to cook an evening meal at night. So, the only thing it was good for was as a supplement for an oil stove.
And as they kept saying, like, what poor people want to pay for two stoves? This was incidentally something that the Wisconsin team found with several other innovations. For example, they'd come up with an intermittent solar refrigerator. I mean, intermittent refrigeration, also bit problematic. It worked brilliantly in the laboratory, but it was basically impossible for laymen to use. So, Duffy at Madison said later, it was fully to make housewives into engineers. Already by 1957 then, what Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation was recording a mixed verdict.
This project is, in part, very satisfying and stimulating and in part, somewhat disappointing. Don't worry, I'm wrapping up imminently. Now, you might have thought that Indians would be saying, we could've told you this, but actually, there was very, very little pushback from Indian experts against this direction of travel.
So, the next major UN alternative energy conference held in Rome, in 1961, the Indian delegate, J.C. Kapur, as you can see here, basically said, oh, the Indian population's underemployed anyway. Why are we going for this round the clock power? Are people gonna just sporadically work? Why was must we apply the concept and economies of the advanced societies in entirely unwarranted situations? After all, again, very on the nose, it is neither possible nor advisable to bridge a technological gap of centuries in a few years. So, the same old devices carried on being trotted out by NPL engineers at the conference with only lukewarm public enthusiasm. But the problem was, it was not at all clear that users agreed with this very complacent definition of what they should aspire to in terms of energy. In an autopsy for the Wisconsin program, a year before his death, Farrington Daniels admitted that when anthropologists asked users about the ovens, the first question was, do the women of the United States use these solar cookers? The answer no destroyed the prestige.
Interviewed by the political scientist, Ethan Kapstein, his colleague Jack Duffy was Eden Francart. Mexicans and Indians were aware that the whites who brought them the cooker were not using them at home. This constituted a double standard.
And it was one the people did not wish to accept. The hope was to progress new ovens, not to solar energy. So, locals were really clear eyed. Solar devices couldn't paper over their exclusion from the modern energy economy.
And I could go on because there's a long legacy that we can see, for example, in the appropriate technology or intermediate technology movement and the '70s, that sounds extraordinarily resonant with these '50s and '60s tales. But let me conclude here. So, what can this history tell us? Well, think for energy historians, it reminds us that demand matters not just innovations on the supply side, but more than this is what the imagination of that demand is, the future projections of who the user base must be. And for much of its history, his solar did not signify something high tech and lucrative, and so on.
It was seen as diffused, intermittent, suboptimal power fit only for poor third world, rural, feminist, impoverished users in a way that I think helped to limit industrial and commercial interest. It also for as a South Asianist, I think, should make us rethink Nehruvian India a bit. I was pretty surprised in doing this research, how much this fits into a thesis of urban bias, that there really is a dual track energy economy that is being constructed at this time. Big dams, big thermal, big nuclear for the cities and this low-modernist parallel track for the rural areas.
And overall, I think this history really troubles the solar utopianism that is ubiquitous today with its visions of futuristic abundance. Instead, this is a history much more of austerity and inequality as the hallmarks of solar energy, kinds of inequality that are obviously ramifying in new ways as solar parks displace huge numbers of people. And it also ought to remind us just how slow the takeoff of solar has been. How little of a way we have come in some sense since the 1950s.
Overall, we can conceive in the rich world of as moving off grid as a choice. Clearly, this is something that was not a choice. This is a pre-carbon track that is being deployed in India. A huge laboratory of India and the Global South more broadly. But it's an idea of inadequate energy that users repeatedly reject. And we can see this still clearly on the ground literalized today.
So, this is Darna in Bihar which was a dream piece, flagship solar village. But Nitish Kumar, the chief minister had a great shock when he came to inaugurate the solar microgrid in 2015, for testers greeted him chanting, we want real electricity, not fake electricity. And because the elections were looming, a week later in rolled the trucks, actually reconnected this, in this sub case, the village to the grid, which in Bihar is overwhelmingly powered by coal. It was a decisive rejection of off grid solar solutions. And you can see now this is the solar minigrid, as it looked a few months ago, being used to store cattle. So, thanks very much.
(group clapping) - Okay, now we'll take questions. Anyone have questions? Yeah, good. - So, thank you. That was great. It was really useful because it helps us to sort of, rethink discourses of temporality and progress, and scrambles a lot of ideas of the ways that progress was considered in terms of timelines in rural and urban. I think that, I mean, I don't think it's the main question I'd wanna ask, but I would be curious how this discussion of solar energy intersects with a Gandhian discourse of vernacular architecture, sun break bricks, this kind of thing. But what I was really interested in, especially since you used an image of it at the very end of your talk was sort of, what you think something like Sultana's Dream has to say, just because the image you used of course, is a very contemporary artist drawing a lino type or little cut of a kind of, utopian image of women cooking and using solar power in order to make food.
But the actual story, its discourse of solar power actually draws largely from a kind of H.G. Wellsian idea of the death ray, which is all over that text. And the solar power in Sultana's Dream is not really low tech at all. It's actually, you know, it's used to light armies on fire and eventually I think to power, some kind of, you know, grid of teleportation devices, and all these other like very, very high futuristic devices. And I'm kind of curious whether you see in this discussion of a rejection of solar power as being a kind of, luckily digitally or something like that? If you see sort of, similar discussions of solar power and its ability to kind of short circuit, the colonial logic of power and energy as you do in something like, Sultana's Dream and other sort of, texts from the time that featured death rays used as sort of, anticolonial devices of warfare.
- Fantastic questions. Just on Gandhian solar architecture, that there is in the '50s, at least an explicit discussion of this going on with the redesign of, for example, buildings in Allahabad along passive solar lines. So, there is that current, I don't think it produces more than a handful of buildings, and it's passive, right? Whereas the active solar conversations for solar houses in the U.S. are about intricate, big chemical storage devices to stalk solar power.
So, it's talking back to what are explicitly seem to be thousand-year-old designs. On Sultana's Dream, well, I just really like those Chitra Ganesh's series on it. So, I partly put it in for that, but yes, I mean, I'm not trying to argue that this is a timeless association. I think one of the fascinating things is in the late 19th century, solar energy really is seen this, you know, and Adams is a peripheral figure, but somebody like John Erickson say or Augustan Mouchot, much more serious inventors do produce things like solar-powered printing presses, big solar-powered steam engines and so on. This is really, genuinely seen as an industrial technology, potentially in the later 19th century.
And that, I think Sultana's Dream comes at the very end of that. So, I've not seen a huge, you know, but point me to if I'm wrong, but the idea of the death ray being picked up. In some ways like every solar history has to say, well, Archimedes burnt a fleet with solar energy.
This is the first ever use, which I think is the ur-use that then kind of, is picked up by Hussain. But I think Hussain is almost like an avatar of something that has started to drop out actually by 1905 when that story comes out, and is a kind of, pivot point because we have both, you know, we have both the death ray and we have a moment of pause where actually the solar cooker is demonstrated for the narrator to show how it works, right? So, this feminine's labor imaginary of it comes through very strongly there. You know, the men say that solar energy is a sentimental nightmare in the story. So, I think it captures that pivot.
- [Amrita] Indra and then, Kim. - Thank you so much Liz. This was super helpful to think about even development processes now. This low-modernist mode, even in villages or some sense, a parallel I can think of is toilets and the kind of toilets that I proposed, which are simple, frugal. And I'm wondering if waste is doing something important there, like, what is done with waste in a low-modernist versus a high-modernist that's extremely wasteful, but also extremely productive whereas the low-modernist for the waste has to be recycled? This seems to be something missing and then, also all of these products being generated over time that are kind of, wasted. - Yeah, I think that's really interesting.
I had not thought about the waste issue in this context, but I think that that could work really nicely. So, I'm borrowing this use of low-modernism from the development studies scholar, Tom Scott Smith, who applies it to humanitarian food, you know, the sort of, high calorie food stuffs like plumping apps that are distributed in disaster areas. And it captures something of that small scale, infinitely replicable and modular for him, very easily commercialized character. I do think here, you know, it's both the idea of sparing waste from the fossil economy, but more particularly the loss of dung is this deep preoccupation from the late colonial period on, and the loss then to the land. And of course, deforestation. So, I could have gone on here.
1981, Indira Gandhi gives the keynote address at yet another UN renewable energy conference in Kenya. And outside is Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement. All the women chanting about deforestation being the single biggest environmental threat to the third world.
So, I think that you're on to something there, but I'm glad that the low-modernist notion resonated. - Thanks so much for this fascinating talk. I was wondering being like, imaginaries of demand, where I altered the rural land feature, either as a consumer or like, a consumer of the food that was prepared or something else, and if so, like, how did that influence in life? - Yeah, that's another good question. So, gender is never explicitly really addressed here. The assumption is just a purely functional one. So, solar energy and a bunch of the other solar devices, like I mentioned, the solar refrigeration are explicitly designed to cater to the tasks that women have to do to maintain the household.
Other than that, it's very regionally specific. So, the man is never targeted, but you know, the man who dries jaggery say, is a key feature or the man who might, you know, speed up some sort of processing in that way, comes up. But overwhelmingly, it is like water heating, keeping food fresh, cooking and so on. These are the kinds of imaginaries that really dominate.
It's really interesting because also the question of who has decision making power to make this investment from the household also doesn't come up. In what, before, like feminist economics has come along to problematize this, and it is, you know pretty startling I think that this doesn't go to anyone. But, you know, the team in Madison is overwhelmingly male. The scientists themselves are male, all the NPL scientists that I've seen are male. It's only in say, the documentary footage that good looking, well dressed women pop into the frame.
- Shikhar and then, Sarath. - I guess one part of the, as you were, you know, going through the history, this is also a history of bureaucracy and almost like a stubborn, stuck some cost fallacy that like, you know, we're down this path that we had to keep going down the path. It reminds one of like the India's Defense Research Institute decided to build instead of a missile like, a new replacement joint that never worked, and they kept working at it, and they kept working at it. So, to what extent is this kind of, a pathology of bureaucracies or even science bureaucracies, or is there something specific about alternative energy, or solar source that distinguishes itself from like, you know, broader sense of how bureaucracies in India approach these kind innovations and questions? - Yeah, I think that's also a really interesting question. Certainly there is something to be said about the fact that NPL just kind of continues rehashing the same set of technologies for two decades until in 1966, they are chastised in parliament, and that this is completely disappointing. The interesting thing though, is that this extends well beyond the bounds of the state.
So, I mentioned the appropriate technology movement and, you know, E.F. Schumacher, of course, much influenced by Gandhi, first outlines his ideas to the Indian Planning Commission and so on. And there's a branch of the appropriate technology group based out of Lucknow.
And they are obsessed with solar cookers. You know, there's this very heartbreaking feature done in 1991 by the Times of India with a guy called Mansour Hooda, who's a former, I think, railway official who gets into this. And they say, you know, he recounts how all of these, the produces thrown away. Nobody uses them. They're all being wasted and his hair has gone white in the effort of putting it. So, there's something more broadly about, I think the totemic of most nature of the solar cooker, that this is a device that should work, that should be so appealing.
And therefore, that kind of, reemerges in very explicitly kind of, counter state imaginaries like that of appropriate technology. So, I don't want to say it's just NPL because I think that, you know, you can see the Madison team say is extraordinarily wedded to this idea, and you can track the Rockefeller, keeps giving them more money and they keep testing it a bit more, and it never works. So, more broadly, I think it says something about the character of international development funding and the search for technological fixes. - I have two quick questions. One is thinking about the colonial time period, and, you know, things generally about colonial science, if one has to think about this as also some sort of, a scientific pursuit, we know that colonial science was really implicated in civilizational, racial notions of people, right? So, there's a kind of a colonial anthropology, also implicit in these sort of scientific intervals and I'm wondering like, is there a subject in their mind who can actually endure the sun or is there a kind of, in a certain biological features that they think about at all, which is a part of all kind of, colonial signs? So, I would just like, wondering, because when you're talking about people standing outside and, you know, cooking in the sun and so on.
The second question is really about perspective because I was thinking about all the people that you mentioned, we hear little about the people who actually used the cooker. You know, so, there's a slight tension between, you know, who's speaking and who's being spoken about in the sense that maybe that's because of the nature of the archive, or maybe that's because we don't have reliable information about the people who actually use the cookers, but I wonder do you see a tension because this is a story that comes from the people who were actually scientists and academics, and experts, right? Yeah. - Yeah, I mean, on the second point, that's completely a gap in the records that I've been able to find. I mean, I would love to say, for example, go through the Bhatnagar papers and see if there's anything preserved in there that captures this a little bit more, but otherwise it's, as we know, so much of this is ephemeral.
The closest thing is, you know, there is this copious documentation in the Rockefeller Foundation archives, at least of uses in Mexico. And there is some work done on the Indian reservation, which is a kind of ambivalent picture, but it is still intermediated through the surveyors and so on. And at some point, I think it becomes like, reading between the lines. They don't trust the surveyors anymore who are doing this work. So, I agree. It's a problem.
I'm probably one I need to own up more to. On colonial science and heat, there's a bunch of work that started coming out on temperature and endurance, and so on. And one of the interesting things is, you know, your former colleague, my colleague, Frederick Albert, and Youngson at Chicago, I think one of his next big projects is gonna be on the idea of wet bulb temperature, which now we hear about a lot with the idea of climate disasters in India, was developed for colonial mining to see when people would die.
But there it's humidity is coupled with heat. So, there is an imaginary that certain sorts of bodies are more able to endure heat. I think the interesting thing is how this colonial scientist passed directly through.
I mean, the UNESCO conference that happens is under the ambit of UNESCO's arid zone program. And it's India, who's the leading country that says aridity, you know, is an ecological reason for underdevelopment and pushes this climate determinism, basically, as an idea of underdevelopment in a really interesting way. So, a bunch of the research that goes on is always in the Rajasthan desert by the army. Very interestingly on solar cookers in India, you know, another strand that I'd love to excavate sometime.
So again, that colonial baggage doesn't kind of, die out. - [Amrita] Tariq, ready? - [Tariq] We'll now take the zoom questions. I saw Nikhil had a question also. - Should I have him ask that? - [Tariq] Yeah, go ahead, he's here. - Do you wanna ask the question, Nikhil Anand? (Nikhil speaking faintly) - [Tariq] We're just unmuting you, hold on.
You can unmute now. - Thanks Liz for this great talk. I really enjoyed it, especially to ask the question, why didn't solar energy take off? Can you hear me okay? - Yes. - Yes. - And so I'm very persuaded by, you know, the unattractiveness of frugal imaginaries of low-modernist design and you know, them not being aspirational modes of engagement with technology for the people that for whom they were imagined, particularly in rural India. The question I had, had also was thinking with promises or the entailments of frugal imaginaries, you know, one of the promises was also about decentralized power, village control, self-governance of energy in this case, right? And so, I was wondering how often it might have appeared in and among both the designers and the politicians, and the engineers whose work you've been looking at in the archives, and also among, perhaps to a lesser extent, among the subjects themselves, and might the promise of decentralization also be a reason that these cookers or, you know, solar energy or decentralized energy did not take off? - Thank you, Nikhil.
That's a really fun and interesting question. So, in the '50s and '60s, there's really not much talk about the democratic potential at all of this decentralized energy approach, which I find kind of, startling. So, there is no like, imaginary of energy democracy or something like this.
Where you start to see it is a bit later in the '70s, especially with yes, still solar, but gobar gas in particular from dung. And there, the notion is you'll have these household or village scale plants that then will become kind of, a locus of economic and participatory democracy, more generally. And then, you have a counter critic from people like Luke Lloyd Rudolph saying, you know, the people who have enough cows that you can do this are actually the rural elites. You're just gonna ratify these kind of rural divisions. So, it's certainly a little bit later I think, that, that notion that decentralization is positive creeps in. Interestingly in the '50s and '60s, it's electricity that is seen as decentralizing.
So, via Lewis Mumford, who is a great reader of Lewis Mumford? Charan Singh. Charan Singh puts him in his bibliography and says, you know, electricity, a very Mumfordian analysis, where steam power centralizes power and creates cartels both in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So, electricity disperses along with the truck, the diesel engine plywood, and I think aluminum.
So, actually the grid itself is not equated with centralized power in a way that I think if you just look at the famous quote from Gandhi being like, oh, this is diabolical central power. Then, you'd miss that whole dynamic about the extension to rural areas of the grid and how that is the vehicle of true economic democracy. And Charan Singh's, you know, far and away, the most articulate exponent of that argument.
And as far as I know, he's not interested at all in solar energy. Although Morarji Desai is very interested in solar energy, but just in the kind of fruity, like, you know, divine weirdo way. (group laughing) No offense (indistinct) in line of that urine sipping. - [Tariq] So, thanks so much Liz for the talk and in fact, your summary, you kind of, hit on the two points that struck me. One is this kind of, general thinking of urban bias, where does this fit into kind of, urban-rural relations. And I was wondering this I suppose, relates a little bit to what comes next and what wasn't in your talk, but, you know, there's been some debate now about kind of the, you know, chronology of how biased was the urban bias.
Was there an urban bias and how quickly did that flip to something approximating a rural bias, even before Charan Singh, right? And early days of agrarian politics. And it would be interesting to think what, even through the lens of solar has to say about those shifts, about like a pronounced urban bias at the kind planning level, but in the execution quickly of flip, what he's asked one apparel accounting of very many changes like (indistinct) Even by the early '60s there's a kind of, flipping of that urban bias on the grounds in terms of actual policies and these rural majority beginning to assert itself, and then later in kind of, farmer-based parties. But it would be interesting to think like, where is solar in this? Is it tracking some of these political trends? Or is there a kind of, maybe counter intuitive continuity that doesn't, and that might be read differently in terms of what purchase it's giving us on of these kinds of larger kind of, debates about how we even characterize post colonial, Indian political economy that I think would be really interesting. And so just, I mean, that's just a kind of thought as I had this, 'cause you ended right where I was like, oh, I wonder is it going to track? And there was some sense of a kind of thesis in some ways in you're, at least, in the narrative, but maybe that isn't what you meant to apply. The second is on this question of demand.
I think you're totally right. Like, that was also very striking about the kind of under-theorizing of the consumer in a lot of the debates that you're looking at, but now we're in like, an almost the polar opposite of that, right? The world of behavior, economics and nudges, and thinking about, you know, everything is almost determined about thinking about who is the consumer and how reach affected their behavior. And yet, I am struck by like, I was just at two or three different presentations in India where everything around the solar cooker, once again is about rural, underprivileged women, and now it's the health benefits, right? We've gotta get them more chulhas. Nowhere is there a big call on, you know, (indistinct) a solar cooker. And so, there's this incredible state, I mean, even although we flipped completely, and I have hyper consumer research, that the figure that remains kind of, capture of our imagination, it's really similar.
So, I guess that's more of an observation, but I was just thinking about that and it really struck me in your work. That's kind of for me to, despite this flip flop, supply side and demand side. - Yeah, on your question about historicizing urban bias, this is something that I'll have to think through more. I think solar is not a useful way into it because it's so marginal that you can't really get an accurate sense of, you know, that this is actually the patch that's being given to rural India because clearly it's not. Clearly, it still is the wood economy and the dung economy that overwhelmingly dominate.
We know, as late as you know, the 1973 oil shock it's almost half of all primary energy use is still wood and dung. You know, the solar is not even scratching that. And as to when this turn occurs, I mean, it's very tempting to want to posit, obviously that occurred, the agrarian turn occurs at different points in different places in India. - Right. - And then, interestingly, you can look at rural electrification as a great metric of that, you know, as say Sinoa Carlay does.
It's tempting to think that some of these sunny desert areas with the sort of ones that Daniels went and had the painting done, which have very low rural electrification rates that maybe there is something of an imaginary or of a dynamic there that this is a patch, that really can work for rural villages there. But yes, I mean, I definitely would not want to make this sound like urban bias is just this fixed and permanent feature of the Indian polity as a whole. Clearly, it's changing the minds of politicians radically, but I don't think that, that's feeding through to the NPL, which has its own bureaucratic sets of incentives. And as for the imagined consumers today, I also think it's quite striking that saving women's lives up front of this. Of course, it's a fossil fuel solution that's far and away. - Right. - Done much more to change that.
Otherwise, I think the imagined consumer at the heart is quite different. Now with the idea bottom of the pyramid capitalism, - Right, right. - is the idea you've got a billion people just waiting to be unleashed if you give them just a wee bit of energy, like a solar lamp along the way.
That's actually, I think, not at all the imaginary earlier on. There's not really all that much interest in these people as economic agents or productive agents really. It's a more like, you know, subsistence energy solution or something like this. So, there is something that alters, I would say, you know, from the '90s on tying in the liberalization and we absolutely see the whole idea of solar energy change after Rio and, you know, be much more about entrepreneurialism, be much more explicitly about the environment in a climate sense than ever earlier.
So, there are some discontinuities as well as continuities along the way. - Thank you so much. This is fascinating.
I think your talk has really helped me understand the ways that this topic of solar cooking has come to resonate with so many different people, so many current political contexts over space and time. But I continue to be a little bit obsessed thinking about your talk of thinking about this link between technology, performance of competence and masculinity in the late colonial period. Because I wonder, and I don't know the literature about this particularly, but at what point do we start seeing the development of professional engineers aside from just hobbyists whose primary employment is through kind of, British colonial administration oppression, maybe unjustified from these archival materials and in the early periods, either side projects that are being done by colonial officials to demonstrate their competence, to show their local knowledge, to show how I mean, especially the example of looking at Christmas cake. I mean, it just shows exactly who the audience of that particular- - Rogues beef and potatoes. - Excellent, good Christmas dinner.
Yes, and so, I think so, my first question is, do we see this point, really, this idea of the professional engineer being consolidated? And could that be a way of approaching this clear sense that I was getting from your work that these circulations, the circulation of these texts is not about the people that are being discussed at all? It's about the competence of the men who are publishing those materials. And then my second, and even now just really side comment, even now, every engineer in undergrad that I know in the U.S. has cut their teeth