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Summer Reading and Climate Change: A Tale of Two Novels

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Leaving Heathrow in mid-July, I picked up two novels for my summer vacation reading. One, Ian McEwan's Solar, was an obvious choice. What could be better than seeing one of my favorite authors, anointed by many as the reigning champion of English-language fiction, take on the topic of renewable energy? The other book, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway's In Office Hours -- her latest take on businesspeople behaving badly -- was ostensibly a light read, with little link to sustainability.

With my vacation now (sadly) in the past, I can say that both books are worth reading. Sustainability is at the center of McEwan's book, and is but a supporting actor in Kellaway's. His book focuses on clean tech, and hers is about how a major oil company deals with sustainability. McEwan's lead character, an academic who stumbles into a role promoting solar energy, is a largely unsympathetic man, who occasionally does the right thing -- though usually for the wrong reasons. Kellaway's two protagonists are essentially decent women who succumb to temptation and poor judgment.

Surprisingly, Kellaway's book, with the folly of workplace affairs at its center, actually provides more insight about how the transition to low-carbon energy is likely to play out.

Her fictional oil company, Atlantic Energy, has an ambivalent relationship with sustainability. Her lead character, a member of the company's board, shows flashes of genuine interest in sustainability, and strains to make the financial case for new investments in a volatile economy. The CFO dreads having to sit down with environmental campaigners. The company is aggressively looking at whether a major investment in renewables can be profitable, while remaining culturally and financially tied to oil, to the point of putting on old barrel in its lobby, despite the apparent violation of its own health and safety rules (real energy company execs will find this implausible).

Meanwhile, McEwan too often plays his title character, Solar, for laughs. It's not news that advocates of renewable energy are fully human, with the same foibles that afflict everyone. Worse, many of the laughs are obvious, such as the misadventures of Michael Beard, the scientist at the center of the book, who exposes himself to the frigid temperatures in embarrassing ways on his obligatory trip to the Arctic.

Kellaway, on the other hand, who uses human comedy as the foundation of her book, shows how hard it is for new paradigms to break through the politics and economics of sustainability amid the daily drumbeat of stock analysts who can drive down a company's share price for the smallest misstep of unconventional statement.

It's likely that McEwan's book will be remembered much longer than Kellaway's, though hers says more about how hard it is to make change happen. Hers is also funnier, and more sympathetic.

But both books reinforce the crucial point, often forgotten by all of us in the sustainability world, that, all too often, human and organizational behaviors affect outcomes as much as climate summits, technological innovation, or grand pronouncements by political leaders. Fiction, it turns out, has much to teach us about sustainability.

These two books are good reads for anyone lucky enough to still be looking forward to their summer vacations. And they sure beat taking a CSR report to the beach.