The notion of bleak and bright solarities invites us to think through the multiple affects and imaginaries associated with brightness. Orienting ourselves toward “bright spots” in the world: practices, ideas, people, institutions that might be borrowed; hacked; fostered; built upon; brought into communities, solidarities, networks. We can be receptors of these bright spots, cultivating seeds of possibility wherever they are to be found. This orientation recalls both Walter Benjamin’s solar simile in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”—“As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun rising in the sky of history”1—and J. K. Gibson-Graham’s call to attend to actually-existing alternatives to capitalism extant in the present.2
Yet “brightness” is not an uncomplicated good. For example, Ousmane Sembene’s 1971 film Emitaȉ features powerful scenes of old men, women, and children in French colonial West Africa who resist the demands of occupying soldiers during World War II to turn over baskets of rice or young men for conscripted labor. They are forced to sit in the sun without recourse to shade: quite literally punished by the sun. Similarly, in Ghassan Kanafani’s 1962 novella Men in the Sun, “illegal” Palestinian migrants suffocate from extreme heat within the bowels of the water tank in which they are smuggled as they seek to travel from Iraq to labor in the Kuwaiti oil fields. Their tragedy is reinforced by the very presence of petro-infrastructures installed as the predominant energy regime amid the powerful—yet damned, hellish, and deathly—heat of a sun-“rich” region. Such an infernal scenario intensifying is powerfully rendered in Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative novel The Ministry for the Future (2020), in which the citizens of South Asia have to exist in a near-future world under brutal and yet commonly excessive wet bulb temperatures. These are powerful reminders that the sun is not only a precondition for earthly life but can also be oppressive, overwhelming, and hostile to life. In some planetary contexts, where the sun’s reach is strongest, brightness and bleakness are intertwined. Excessive heat is not merely unsupportive to life (particularly human and mammalian life) but actively kills. In the context of our ever-warming planet, large swathes of Earth are becoming uninhabitable for most humans and nonhumans, especially in the tropical belt that is home to a large part of the human population and much of the biodiversity of Earth.
A few statistics are instructive in illustrating the scale of the problem: approximately 3.3 billion people, or 40 percent of the human population, live in the tropical zone. This includes 85 percent of the world’s poorest people, who are also among those most susceptible to the effects of climate change while contributing least to its causes. Although human bodies are efficient at regulating internal temperatures, this becomes harder as temperatures and humidity rise. From the perspective of human health, something called the “wet bulb temperature” is critical. Wet bulb refers to the temperature a thermometer covered in a wet cloth would measure. It matters because it reflects the maximum amount of cooling that can be achieved by evaporation. It is critical because wet bulb temperatures of higher than thirty-five degrees Celsius are life threatening to humans: unable to cool down, our bodies would succumb to heat stress. This is not merely a speculative account of an uninhabitable distant future; since the 1980s, there has been a fiftyfold increase in the number of places experiencing extreme heat. In tropical zones, where temperatures and humidity are both high, the number of people experiencing heat stress has been growing every year, especially among those workers who are involved in outdoor labor, such as in construction and agriculture.
In these cases, the inequalities wrought by neoliberalism are exacerbated manifold by global warming. For instance, agricultural workers in the United States, the majority of whom are migrant workers from Mexico and other South American nations, are forced to work in conditions of extreme heat.3 In 2020, at least twenty-one days were too hot for safe outdoor work. It is estimated that by 2050, farmworkers will meet unsafe daytime summer temperatures on at least thirty-nine days of the harvest season. This is the case around the world, where extreme heat and other weather conditions caused directly or indirectly by rising temperatures result in extreme floods and extreme droughts, both of which are further linked to different health conditions. For instance, Alex Nading writes about the epidemic of chronic kidney disease among sugarcane workers in northwest Nicaragua and other Central American nations.4 While work in the sugarcane plantations has always been deadly, Nading writes, chronic kidney disease is a recent phenomenon. Studies suggest a strong correlation between the disease and heat exposure, indicating a kind of “thermal tipping point” that cane workers are now experiencing. While cane (and other colonial) plantations have always been suffused with heat as well as violence, the rise in chronic kidney disease indicates an intensification of these combined violences, in which increased heat alongside extractive work conditions (which include fewer breaks for shade, water, and rest) results in an embodied experience of slow violence.
The experience of oppressive solar heat is not limited to construction laborers and farmworkers. Jason de Léon writes, in unsparing detail, of the ways in which the U.S. government has weaponized the extreme heat of the Sonora Desert as a “natural” defense and deterrent against migration.5 The Border Patrol officers deliberately close off the safer points of access to the United States, directing people seeking a safer life toward the harsh, burning landscape of the desert. This policy of so-called prevention through deterrence is in fact a necropolitical strategy of weaponized solarity. As de Léon writes, the heat in the desert not only kills the undocumented migrants seeking a better life in the United States but also destroys evidence of their lives, bleaching, wearing away, and breaking apart their bodies and possessions. De Léon exhorts readers to look at the “cruel, brutal affair” of desert border crossing that dehumanizes and murders migrants, to witness and acknowledge the slow and painful violence of hyperthermia, dehydration, heatstroke, and other ailments that they are forced to endure. This is a reality of solarity that we, too, cannot shy away from. While we often celebrate the sun’s generosity and abundance, these stories are important reminders of the deep inequalities in receiving this abundance, especially in cases where there is no respite. Abundance is not always an untroubled good.
There’s something important and appealing about the nuance and structuring ambivalence that a stance at once toward yet away from the sun demands. One needs gray spots, clouds, shade, relief from the sun, as much as “bright spots.” “Blue-skying” offers an apt metaphor for dreaming big, grasping after the possible without constraint or limit, but it also represents the possibility of a nightmare: a sun without limit. Here there is something powerfully suggestive in considering the technics of how solar panels actually work. Sunlight excites electrons, setting them in motion, bouncing around. Yet some 80 percent of that movement is nonproductive; only around 20 percent gets channeled into usable electricity. Rather than prompting dismay at such “inefficiency,” this might be a powerful gesture toward something like degrowth, against demands for power and efficiency, against the demand that we be productive all the time. Production is not the same as creativity. Some people need less sun, not more. Could it be that protection from excess and contentment with untapped potential energy point the way toward an anti-manifesto of solarity? Perhaps, in embracing “intermittency,” we can find solace, rest, regeneration, creativity, a conscious turning away from the exposed regime of excessive heat and its forbearances.