Poets should never be too much in tune with their times, not if they wish to be remembered.
The pylons marched on. But they have never covered the whole planet.
Large parts of the African continent are still without electricity.
30,000 heavily armed foreign soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan’s
sparsely populated Helmand Province, but they did not leave a single
pylon behind them. An Afghan poet could have sided with Spender’s Pylon
Poets and eighty years later the marching steel towers of progress would
still have been a dream, more impossible than the most poetic vision.
fifteen years of war and occupation, the derelict Gereshk Hydro Power
Plant in the commercial centre of Helmand, where Danish troops were
stationed, still has not received the new turbines that were ordered.
When I spoke to the managing director of the Helmand Electricity
Company, Eng Nasrullah-Qani, in a temperature of 45°C and under a sun
that mercilessly dried up local rivers and scorched the surrounding
stony desert, he admitted that he still had not been able to find a
company capable of erecting the pylons that, at some point in a vague
future, would supply the people with electricity.
In the meantime
the people have taken matters into their own hands. During my first
visit to Helmand, back in 2009, when I heard a Danish colonel announcing
that, thanks to a Danish initiative, solar panels were providing the
power for the street lighting in Gereshk, my first thought was that this
was just an empty gesture, showing a level of ignorance on a par with
giving a computer to an illiterate; a Utopian, misplaced act of
goodwill, totally divorced from Afghanistan’s tortured reality. Solar
panels had to be very low on the wish list of an undernourished
population ravaged by war, with an almost non-existent health service
and a shockingly low average life expectancy.
Seven years later,
in 2016, when I return to Helmand along with the Norwegian documentary
filmmaker Anders Hammer, I realize how wrong I have been. I had
underestimated the Afghans. True, the street lighting that the Danes had
so considerately installed is gone: high on the lampposts running along
dark streets, the frames that once held the solar panels gape vacantly.
But the people have taken control of the power supply by stealing the
panels. Now they are mounted on the roofs of the makeshift stalls lining
the ring road that cuts through the city. And that’s not all. These
efficient solar panels have created such a demand that they are now on
sale everywhere. In the great social and economic development vacuum
created by nigh on forty years of war, it is up to the Afghan people
themselves to take action, and the only trace left by the Danish troops,
after a costly and futile military operation in Helmand, is the
inspiration provided by those stolen solar panels.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Danish word solfanger – meaning, literally, a ‘sun catcher’. So much more evocative than the prosaic ‘solar thermal collector’.
I don’t know the difference between a solar thermal collector and a
solar cell, but a net search tells me that solar cells produce
electricity, while solar thermal collectors heat water. It seems to me
that the term ‘sun catcher’ ought to cover both of these. I think of it
as rather like a butterfly net, a delicate device designed for catching
one of nature’s wonders, a fluttering flower, the pattern on its wings
testifying to Mother Nature’s greatness as a designer. A butterfly net
is no mousetrap, breaking the neck of the creature it attracts. Where
nature is concerned, industrialism is the mousetrap. Solar power is the
butterfly net, allowing the butterfly to blithely flutter on.
called upon to define its position regarding the natural world, the
metaphors used by industrialism are all drawn from war. We describe
ourselves as the lords of nature: we have conquered nature, we have
subjected it to our will, or we exploit it. Nature is a vanquished foe
or a disenfranchised slave, able to take all manner of blows: the scars
left on the countryside by coal and copper mining, the invisible rape of
the Earth’s atmosphere by fossil fuels, the extermination of a growing
number of species.
Too late the threat of climate change has made
us see that science has provided only partial, and always slanted
insights, and that with our noisy, short-term thinking we have woken
slumbering monsters, laws of nature, the consequences of which we have
never understood. Our own innovations are turning on us. In delving ever
deeper underground we are digging our own graves. The solar thermal
collector is the absolute antithesis of this, although as a metaphor the
image of a sun catcher is not quite right either. Because the Danish
verb fange also means to capture and imprison, and we cannot
imprison the sun, nor do we wish to. We work with Nature. Like children
of winter, finally escaping from the darkness, we accept the gift of
Desert or no, the country around Ouarzazate is steeped
in history. Not far from this advanced high-tech complex peasants still
live in wattle-and-daub cottages, with straw sticking out of the dried
mud-bricks. Some villages are surrounded by ancient ruins, richly
decorated towers and buildings from a not too distant past when Jews
still lived here. Morocco is the product of a mix of cultures: Arab,
Berber, Jewish and European. Does it make sense to apply the term
culture to the huge solar thermal power station now shooting up over an
area of 3,000 hectares? A Moroccan enterprise, European money, Saudi
Arabian entrepreneurs, Chinese workers. Put it all together and what do
you get? A multi-cultural undertaking? Or something to be labelled with
that meaningless catch-all epithet globalization, a new hybrid
culture, one which is regarded as a derogatory term one minute, an
irresistible, world-changing force the next, and sometimes both at once?
we must put a cultural label on it, is a solar thermal power plant not,
rather, a culture that has cast off the restraints of time and place to
become instead a symbol of humankind’s inventive power? Is it not the
culture of innovation that determines the rhythm of history, its
setbacks and advances? One moment our ingenuity is leading to disasters.
The next we’re rescuing ourselves from those same disasters. And with
every rescue, even though in the grand scheme of things we are no bigger
than ants, we become a greater and greater burden on the planet. Our
breath becomes the planet’s breath. We have turned the Earth’s
atmosphere into an enclosed space in which carbon dioxide takes up more
and more room and oxygen less and less. We have always denied our
kinship with every living thing. But it has now become clear that we all
share the same fate. From now on their lives and deaths are in our
hands. If, as a species, we unwittingly commit suicide, we will take the
other species with us. Go out into the countryside on a summer day and
just listen. The humming of the insects is gone. What was once a chorus
of birdsong is now reduced to a last couple of solo voices. The death of
species is already going on right before our eyes and ears.
seemingly dead desert was never dead. In the passageways under the
burning sand it teemed with life. Teemed too, out there among the dunes,
with something else. The desert has always been a source of inspiration
to visionaries and fanatics. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty
days and forty nights and was tempted by Satan. Saint Simeon the Stylite
stood on his pillar in the middle of the North Syrian desert. The
shimmeringly hot air gives rise to mirages, not only on the rippling
horizon, but also inside the heads of those who expose themselves,
unprotected, to the hammer blows of the sun. Concussion is our word for
what happens when a fragile skull is dealt too hard a knock. But are
visions not also a sort of concussion? Historically, most desert-induced
cases of concussion have been of a religious nature. It was here, in
the middle of the barren, heat-hazed desert that the dream of Eden’s
lush garden was born.
Can the desert also induce cases of
practical concussion, visions dreamt up by fantasists of a technical
bent and an image, not of Paradise but of a map showing how to get
I don’t mean to idealize things. King Mohammed VI, who has
ruled Morocco since 1999, is no democrat. By dint of skillful political
pressure he managed to avoid the disastrous consequences of the spring
storm that erupted in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle
East under the optimistic epithet of the Arab Spring. There was no
disaster in Morocco. Mohammed VI is not lacking in foresight, however.
His plan is for 52% of his country’s electricity consumption to come
from sustainable energy sources by 2030. That is why Noor is rising in
The Saudi Arabian development company ACWA Power
which, along with the partially state-owned Moroccan company Masen, is
responsible for the building of solar thermal power stations, is here
only for the money and the profit. The company’s spokesman, Deon Du
Toit, a big, burly South African, makes no bones about it. “Money,” he
says. “Investments. Financial benefits!” “I used to work in the the oil
industry,” says engineer Tarik Bourquouquou, who shows me round the
site. “But the oil industry’s a sinking ship. Now I’m here.”
3,000 Chinese contract workers who are building the power station,
working an exhausting three-shift rota, don’t look like they care much
about sustainable energy. Lean and gaunt they shamble reluctantly from
the buses that bring them from their dormitories to the site. Deprived
of all private life, with families thousands of miles away waiting for
their meagre wages, these are the modern world’s casual labourers, a
disenfranchised, unsung proletariat, carrying globalization on its
drooping shoulders. Large signs show how many millions of man-hours have
been worked, others indicate how many working hours have been lost due
to accidents. At Noor 2, which has been under construction for 493 days,
4,464,794 hours have been worked. Noor 3 has been under construction
for 637 days, a total of 4,920,475 hours. Fierce banners in Mao-red bark
out commands in Chinese on avoiding accidents on site – not to save
lives, but because accidents lower productivity. “Safety at work boosts
productivity!” No, people do not come first on this site.
technology is, for the most part, beyond me, but I take notes out of
respect for the inventiveness to which I am witness. The energy created
when the sun strikes the mirrors is absorbed by a synthetic oil known as
Heat Transfer Fluid, which is heated to a temperature of almost 400°C.
The heated oil is pumped into huge tanks containing molten salt, where
the temperature is as high, if not higher. I’m given to understand that
these salt tanks are the great technological advance. Now the solar
energy can be stored and continue to supply electricity after nightfall,
when the city lights are switched on.
The most impressive thing
about the serried ranks of mirrors at Noor 1 and 2 is not their height.
And yet, mounted there on their steel racks they seem gigantic, even
when compared to the enormous trucks driving around them on the
churned-up gravel of the vast building site. The scale is staggering.
But not as staggering as the thought that these glass panels, weighing
tens of thousands of tons in all, are light-sensitive, their movements
dictated by the slightest change in something as insubstantial as the
angle of the sun’s rays.