A Scientific Basis for Solar Economics and its Materialism of Living Matter

Evan Jack
9 min readSep 24, 2021

05/13/2021

[NOTE: This was delivered as a lecture]

I. Introduction

The book What Is Life? by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan interests us for its fresh and unusual commentary on Georges Bataille in their eighth chapter “The Transmutation of Sunlight”.

Because this book directly cites Bataille, we obviously know it was influenced by his work. This is important because they are going to forward Bataille’s thesis using scientific reasoning which may make it more palatable for the masses, and especially those who have a disdain for Bataille’s rejection of science as trying to make the unknowable known which is a homogeneous operation.

II. Building a Scientific Basis for the Premises of Solar Economics

IIA. The Starting Point: The Sun and its Expenditure

Margulis and Sagan repeat Bataille by asserting that “[t]he ultimate source for all life’s energy, growth, and behavior is the [S]un”.[1] Margulis and Sagan’s assertion reflects Bataille’s assertion that “[t]he origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the [S]un… Solar radiation results in a superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe”.[2]

IIB. The Next Step: The Plant as a Being of Solar Excess

Bataille says that plants absorb the energy of the Sun’s light.[3] Margulis and Sagan repeat Bataille and say that “photosynthetic beings transmute sunlight into themselves” and then divide the primary category of photosynthetic beings into the two subcategories of protists which “are the main transmuters [of the Sun’s light] in the sea” and then “plants” which are the main transmuters of the Sun’s light on land.[4] Coincidentally, Bataille also makes the distinction between protists and plants in his essay The Economy Equal to the Universe.[5]

IIC. Evolution and the Food Chain: The Sun as the (Base) Origin of all Life

Margulis and Sagan see “[t]he entire unfolding of evolution” as nothing more than “a response to an unexportable excess, a growing surplus of sun-derived energy”.[6] The Sun is at the base of the food chain. Following the Sun are protists and plants. What follows protists and plants is non-human animals. Herbivorous and omnivorous animals consume these plants and some technically “carnivorous” animals consume protists, gathering photosynthetic energy. These animals subsequently spend “gathered photosynthetic energy through metabolic activities or anabolically (and temporarily) store it in their herbivorous or predatory tissues”.[7] These animals also therefore employ “sun- and plant-derived wealth” (and by wealth they mean energy as does Bataille when he says that “[e]ssentially wealth is energy”)[8] in the operation of sexual reproduction.[9] Carnivorous animals then consume these herbivorous and omnivorous animals (some omnivorous animals will eat the carnivorous animals) which still means the energy that they accumulate is ultimately from the Sun. Even when these animals die there are still “scavenger animals” that will eat them. Following the food chain we have set up so far, carnivorous and “scanvger” animals gain their energy from consuming herbivorous and omnivorous animals, and these animals gain their energy from consuming plants which gain their energy from the Sun.

IID. The High: The Human Being’s Place Within the Food Chain

Human beings are the final step within the chain, though not the final part of the process. Margulis and Sagan obviously hold that human beings consume plants and they note that human beings have “a special relationship with angiosperms”.[10] They, again, obviously hold that human beings consume all forms (herbivorous, omnivorous, carnivorous, and “scavenger”) of animals, but they note that this consumption (with the exception of most fish) is largely rooted in angiosperms in that the animals we consume eat angiosperms.[11] So, once again following the food chain we have set up thus far, humans consume animals and plants, and the animals we consume eat plants which gain their energy from sunlight.

IIE. The Sun as the Origin of all Things Human

If human beings are, as Bataille says, nothing more than an effect of the Sun, then all things that are effects and derivatives of human beings such as culture, industry, etc. etc. are therefore only effects of the Sun. Margulis and Sagan attest to this latter fact when they say that “Sun-produced food, fiber, coal, and oil — carbon- and energy-rich reserves — are the living foundation not only for bustling animal life but for industry, technology, and the wealth of nations”.[12] oes this not also mean that “nature” has created its own demise, if it is true that human beings (and therefore the Sun) are the cause of climate change? The answer is no because we have caused climate change (I’m supposing we have, but I will not take a position on this matter as of yet; I need to finish rereading Bataille’s Peak first) via discontinuous operations which are not “of the Sun”.

Even human culture comes from the Sun because “a culture is determined by how its members choose to spend or accumulate its excess” energy which came from the Sun.[13] “Rome makes its coliseum and basilicas, America its McDonald’s and Disneyland, Egypt its sphinx-guarded pyramids”.[14] IIF. The Scientific Substantiation of Excess

Thus, we have scientifically proved that there is excess. If you haven’t been following, let me explain. If the food chain that we have put forward and scientifically substantiated holds that the Sun is the source of plant life, which is “the source” of animal life, which is one of “the sources” of human life (the other being plants) and then we recognize that plants have no almost no limits (they can grow higher than the clouds, or deeper than the Mariana Trench), then at the base there is excess as the Sun is in excess. The implication of the Sun (the base) being in excess is that plants are therefore also in excess, which means that herbivorous and omnivorous animals have essentially an infinite food supply, which means that carnivorous and “scavenger” animals have an essentially unlimited food supply as the former animals (herbivorous and omnivorous animals) are in excess. The implication of this latter fact is that human life has only excess at its disposal as everything which surrounds it is in excess.

III. On the Materialism that Accompanies Solar Economics

IIIA. What is Living Matter?

Throughout his work The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume I: Consumption, Bataille continues to speak of ‘living matter’, but what does he mean by this? To Margulis and Sagan, living matter is “the transmutation of sunlight”.[15] For example, the Sun’s energy transmutates into a plant which transmutates into coal which we can use to fuel our industry. This also stays in line with Bataille’s want to keep matter undefined in that because energy and matter are essentially the same thing just transmuting from its solid state (matter) to its plasmic state (energy). “Life transmutes solar fire into all the material and energetic cycles of the biosphere”.[16]

IIIB. The Critique of Putting Forward Living Matter That Doesn’t Relate to the Sun

Firstly, I want to thank Abtin Mahdavi and Sante Cooper for their helping make sense of all the photochemistry, photophysics, and thermodynamics that are involved in this.

Secondly, I can already hear people say “but what about this living thing that doesn’t need the Sun? How do you take that into account?”. Life as we have seen so far has the Sun as its origin. I’m in fact claiming that all life has its origin in the Sun, and what this means is that the first piece of matter to become living matter had the Sun as its origin.

I’m going to forward the thesis that the first life on Earth depended on the Sun’s expenditure.

The scientific theory which is analogous to my thesis is the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life. The thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life sees the origin of life as “a thermodynamic imperative”.[17] It responds to the other prevalent theories about the origins of life by saying that they all “recognize the necessity of a free energy source for the metabolism of self-perpetuation, such as that derived from the chemical potential or thermal gradients of a hydrothermal vent… [but] they fail to acknowledge a greater thermodynamic function of life beyond self-perpetuation” [emphasis mine].[18] Rather, this theory holds that life has its origins in a solar photon flux.

What this thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life also means, operating off our definition of living matter, is that because the first living organism was a derivative of the Sun then all living organisms which follow it are also derivatives of the Sun in that through its reproduction, its death, its evolution, etc. all of these events are just a transmutation of the same original sunlight.

IV. Solar Economics as Scientific Critique of Economics Proper

Margulis and Sagan explain that Bataille “argues that classical economics” are mistaken in that “the general economy is not human but solar” because the Sun and its derivatives are the “living foundation for… industry, technology, and the wealth of nations”.[19] he economy doesn’t start from some principle of scarcity that puts man into action as many economic schools hold, rather “the economy comes from photosynthetic life and the [S]un. Photosynthesizers use solar radiation to produce the cold hard cash of the biosphere. Heat is dissipated, degraded energy lost to space as primordial wealth accumulates. Colorful photosynthetic bacteria, protoctists, and plants the world over produce and ‘save.’ Eating them, consumers may ‘spend’ gathered photosynthetic energy through metabolic activities or anabolically (and temporarily) store it in their herbivorous or predatory tissues. Primordial wealth may also end up in long-term storage (or be lost outright) when consumers die and are buried without decay”.[20] Even greed manifests itself within the general economy as “[g]reed comes easily within a biosphere whose constituency triumphs as a function of the ability to amass the wealth of photosynthesis”.[21]

Many see the economic problems of today as “United States politicians” grappling “with tax collection, deficit and debt reduction, and public spending. The government prints money that banks lend without having or touching.”[22]

“Stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, precious metals, and other instruments of finance are owned by investors. But what does it mean ‘to own’?”[23] Ownership doesn’t exist because humanity doesn’t “own what it spends” and ultimately, “ownership rests with the biosphere”.[24] If we spend (lose) ourselves in inner experience and expenditure like we eventually will, as we follow the law of the general economy which is that you will eventually expend, then is the theory of self-ownership not debunked?

Then in relation to the monetary parts of the economy, the general economy says that “[t]he monetary economy attempts to arrest the solar flux of Earth’s economy. Money symbolizes the conversion of photosynthesis, life’s energy, into something else — something that can be controlled, manipulated, and hoarded by humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the United States money is green”.[25]

V. A Final Note on What Is Life?

Margulis and Sagan interpret Bataille’s concept of ‘the accursed share’ as “that persistent photosynthetically derived excess”.[26]

Bibliography

Bataille, Georges, and Stuart Kendall. “The Economy Equal to the Universe.” Essay. In Scapegoat 05: Excess, 34–37. Toronto, Canada: Scapegoat Publications, 2013.

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume I: Consumption. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991.

Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. What Is Life? 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Michaelian, Karo. “The Dissipative Photochemical Origin of Life: UVC Abiogenesis of Adenine.” MDPI. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, February 10, 2021. https://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/23/2/217.

— — — . “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory for the Origin of Life.” Earth System Dynamics. ] Earth Syst. Dynam., March 11, 2011. https://esd.copernicus.org/articles/2/37/2011/#:~:text=Abstract.&text=A%20mechanism%20is%20proposed%20for,of%20the%20Archean%20sea%2Dsurface.

References

[1]: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 194.

[2]:Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume I: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991), 28–29.

[3]: Ibid., 32.

[4]: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 194.

[5]: Georges Bataille, “The Economy Equal to the Universe,” in Scapegoat 05: Excess (Toronto, Canada: Scapegoat Publications, 2013), pp. 34–37, 34.

[6–7]: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 199.

[8]: Georges Bataille, “The Economy Equal to the Universe,” in Scapegoat 05: Excess (Toronto, Canada: Scapegoat Publications, 2013), pp. 34–37, 34.

[9]: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 199.

[10–11]: Ibid., 208.

[12]: Ibid., 199.

[13–14]: Ibid., 200.

[15]: Ibid., 211.

[16]: Ibid., 212.

[17–18]: Karo Michaelian, “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory for the Origin of Life,” Earth System Dynamics (Earth Syst. Dynam., March 11, 2011), https://esd.copernicus.org/articles/2/37/2011/#:~:text=Abstract.&text=A%20mechanism%20is%20proposed%20for,of%20the%20Archean%20sea%2Dsurface, 46.

[19–20]: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 199.

[21–25]: Ibid., 200.

[26]: Ibid., 202.

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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille