Accepted paper:

'Doing well by doing good': economic utopias and the making of solar markets in rural India


Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

The creation of markets for energy technologies that meet the needs of the world's un-electrified poor holds out the utopian promise that it is possible to do well by doing good. This paper explores the practical work involved in attempting to realise this promise in rural India.

Paper long abstract:

Alleviating the poverty of un-electrified others by making clean, affordable solar powered energy available to them at low cost whilst guaranteeing a return on investment has come to constitute an economic utopia for a generation of green and humanitarian capitalists. Nowhere, perhaps, is the promise of 'doing well by doing well' more apparent than in the visions of success projected by solar energy entrepreneurs onto rural markets for their products in contemporary India. The off grid solar lighting industry simultaneously presents India's poor un-electrified villages as spaces in which people languish in pre-modern darkness and as spaces that anticipate a post-carbon future, in which renewable energy technology will make it possible for all of us to live without the need for grid based infrastructures. Yet markets for solar energy in contexts of global poverty do not just emerge: they must be made. If utopian projects aimed at improving human welfare have often been seen as inherently impractical today's solar entrepreneurs appear resolutely focused on the practicalities of realising their vision, from the design of material technologies, to the production of knowledge about the poor through market research, to the logistics of rural distribution systems that harness and reconstitute village based social networks. Their understandings of causation, temporality and possibility are tightly connected to an idea of the Market with a capital M yet, as I explore in this paper, it is in the practical work of making markets that the realisation of their utopias are constantly deferred.

panel P04
Architects of utopia