The Texas disaster has all the elements of a Solarpunk story.
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Solarpunk, Stacktivism and Cold Texas
I’d like to offer my thoughts, prayers and solidarity to the people of Texas. Especially to anyone listening affected by the slow motion disaster occurring there.
Despite the disaster and my feeling about it in this moment. I’m looking forward to reading the pieces of in-depth analysis that are going to emerge over the next couple of years. After the fact breakdowns covering everything. From the infrastructural issues, to the local government response, maintenance debt and the unaddressed risks around winterisation. Issues that (as I understand it) have been known to grid operators since 2011.
I was speaking to someone this week an they pointed out that the cold snap in Texas transects two different areas of interest for me. Stacktivism and Solarpunk.
Stacktivism was a term I coined back in 2013 as a portmentu of two ideas. ‘The Stack’ and Activism.
I said at the time that “We cannot have a conversation about something whilst it remains unseen”
#stacktivism was a term that attempted to give form to a critical conversation & line of enquiry around infrastructure & the relationship we have to it.
Or put more simply: Who Controls The Means Of Not Dying?
The term now is perhaps more closely associated with the work of Ben Bratton following the publication of ‘The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty’ in 2015.
But I have always used ‘The Stack’ as a more general shorthand. To allude to the ensemble of discrete technologies, operating at different levels of abstraction, vertically integrated to produce one (generally, nominally seamless) user experience.
Or put more simply: ‘Infrastructure’.
The Stack is the enormously complex system of technologies that literally shapes our cities, culture and society. This system has embedded politics, assumptions and biases. For example. Assumptions made by the Victorians about how water infrastructure should best be managed made in the 1850s after the great stink in London still lean through time and affect us today.
To quote Paul Graham Raven:
Infrastructure’s a trap we sprung on ourselves long, long ago.Paul Graham Raven – someone else’s problem?
The danger of this trap is only ever revealed when it its sprung or stops. When a tap turns and the water doesn’t come. Or the brittle just in time fulfilment processes of major supermarkets resulting in empty shelves at the beginning of the pandemic. In the case of Texas. centralised utilities unable to deal with extreme cold resulting in malfunctions in natural gas operations.
Combined this with shallow thinking and shallower pipes above the frost line. Millions of people have found themselves without power watching their homes flood and freeze. Others have died.
The activism part of Stacktivism was there because of (to my mind) the misdirected energy of the Occupy movement. In response to the problem of systemic abstract finance, occupy failed to orient itself toward any serious interrogation of the material systems we are embedded within.
Solarpunk of course as I am keen to remind anyone who asks – sees Infrastructure as a potential site of resistance. Adam Flynn writing in 2013 quoted Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Mississippi’s now famous line.
“Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination”.Chokwe Lumumba
The events in Texas have revealed the fragility of the infrastructure around us. And by extension the fragility of modern civilisation.
I do not wish to diminish any other type of disaster. People suffering in the aftermath of floods, fires, hurricanes earthquakes etc . They are all terrible.
But to me. There is something about quote unquote modern humans reduced to ‘cold apes shivering in dark concrete caves’ that resonates with me deeply.
The climate of course is a central character in any Solarpunk narrative. The wild adversary.
The Texas disaster has all the elements of a Solarpunk story. Catastrophe caused by climate, greedy private corporations ignoring safety warnings. Crazy libertarian mayors saying stuff like “Only the strong will survive and the weak will perish” on Facebook. Right wing media blaming renewables and spinning the widespread failure of gas wells, pipelines, & power plants as an excuse to say “this proves we need more gas and coal plants!”.
Also you know its freezing cold in Texas.
I’m sure there are many stories of mutual aid, jugaad engineering, and people finding solidarity in adversary on the ground in texas amongst the snow.
But all of the above isn’t Speculative. They are ongoings in the world right now.
One of the things I’ve been writing about for a book recently is how Solarpunk has a dislocative quality. How Solarpunk’s conceptual bricolage or practice of juxtaposition of ideas on tumblr allows us to rethink the present.
Right now I am interested in the reinterpretation of the present. History does not belong to anyone, and nor does the future. Instead we live together in a common present made up of many pasts.
The speculative present then is about how life can be made more wonderful for us right now. To do so is also make it better for the generations that follow us.
Dougald Hine recently introduced me to the work of Keri Facer and the term ‘The Thick Present’.
Facer says that unlike the linear understanding of history we inherit from books.
“The human subjective experience of temporality is radically different: ideas of the future shape what is experienced in the present, the experience of the present shapes ideas about the past, the reading of the past informs ideas of future possibility”Keri Facer – Storytelling in troubled times: what is the role for educators in the deep crises of the 21st century?
Like the pandemic, cold Texas provides us with an opportunity to see the present as it is right now, it reveals risk. Just as the material conditions embedded in the stack lean though history. The way we choose to see the world right now will lean in turn in to other peoples futures.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.