"Turn on the Sunshine": A History of the Solar Future
Johnson, Christopher E.
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This dissertation examines the history of solar energy technology alongside broad changes in the politics and geography of energy since the nineteenth century. I argue that solar technologies evolved as expressions of the anxieties of the fossil fuel age which, while never widely adopted, informed a persistent cultural interest in alternative energy futures that shaped larger developments in energy politics. I link the evolution of common types of solar technologies and ideas about their potential to four additional contexts: late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial expansion, the advent of the Cold War, the convergence of environmentalism and the energy crisis in the 1970s, and the more recent emergence of sustainability as a framework for global energy and environmental politics. In each of these contexts, solar technologies developed as instruments of politics as well as forms of politics in their own right, reflecting and contributing to new conceptions of the limitations of fossil fuel dependence and the promise of alternatives. I also address the geographic dimensions of solar politics in each of these periods. My focus on California primarily, but also Arizona, North Africa, and - in the chapter on photovoltaic cells - outer space, reflects the importance of these places as nexuses in the development and global travel of solar technologies. Linked as peripheries of an expansionist fossil fuel society, they became sites of experimentation in new ways of deriving energy from nature and organizing society around energy. Overall, this study reveals a higher incidence of geographic variance, contestation, and uncertainty in energy technology politics during the fossil fuel age than historians typically acknowledge. It also complicates common assumptions about the origins and potentialities of existing solar technologies, drawing attention to their early associations with the politics of empire and the Cold War prior to their reformulation in the 1970s as tools promoting countercultural and environmentalist visions of the future. By situating solar technology development in time and place, this study seeks to historicize meanings commonly attached to solar and, in doing so, provide a historical basis for evaluating present debates over energy alternatives.
- History