Solarpunk: A Container for More Fertile Futures

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13 minutes

Originally published in the inaugural issue of Solarpunk Magazine in January/February 2022. This essay reflects on the creative movement now over a decade old. What began as a whisper has blossomed into a verdant canopy of imagination and action.

I write about my own involvement in solarpunk, spanning over 10 years, including (at the time) 8 years as an admin on solarpunks.net and the conclusions I have drawn about how Solarpunk operates as a narrative container, offering not just a single solution but a spectrum of possibilities for a sustainable future

A Container for More Fertile Futures

What is Solarpunk?

Since 2012, solarpunks.net has had the tagline, “At once a vision of the future, a thoughtful provocation, and an achievable lifestyle. In progress …” In 2016, solarpunkanarchists.com described solarpunk as “Practical Utopianism.”

Sometimes solarpunk is defined as imagining stories “en route to a better world.” My own go-to description is “a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, technology and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question: What does a sustainable civilization look like and how can we get there?”

There is no one fixed future, given the choice between ‘the only solution’ and ‘possible options,’ solarpunk will always choose the latter.

Many like terms well-labeled, put under glass and pinned to a board. But solarpunk is an idea that refuses to be pinned down. One of solarpunk’s early emergent principles was polyphony—a texture consisting of multiple simultaneous lines of independent melody. Another early and integral principle was and remains inclusivity.

Solarpunk has always welcomed new voices joining the chorus, every addition bringing a new layer of texture. Sometimes we are in chorus or in harmony, and occasionally dissonant with one another.

After nearly 8 years as an admin on the solarpunks.net Tumblr, I have come to some conclusions about what solarpunk is to me—although of course, one cannot speak for other solarpunks, only as a solarpunk.

A Narrative Container

Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson proposed in his 2011 essay Innovation Starvation, that fictional visions of the future act as hieroglyphs: simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Stephenson later teamed up with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to create Project Hieroglyph, an attempt to crowdsource creative ideas that might inspire towards realisation.

Early solarpunk voice and steward Adam Flynn contributed the essay “Solarpunk: Notes toward a Manifesto” to the project. ‘Notes Toward’, built on his earlier 2012 essay “On the Need for New Futures,” where he wrote, “We need these Big Futures in new directions, towards things beyond cool toys for rich people. We are trying to make Solarpunk a concept / an aesthetic / a design fiction movement / a setting for roleplaying games because we need banners to rally around, and there is power in forming subcultures around ideas.”

The first-ever solarpunk anthology was published in Brazilian Portuguese the same year and was translated into English in 2018 after a successful Kickstarter by World Weaver Press. For most of its early life, solarpunk was a concept that inspired.

Solarpunk became (and is still becoming) what it is today on social networks. First on Tumblr, then later spreading to Reddit, Mastodon, Discord, Secure Scuttlebutt, Facebook, and more. This online-first gestation has deeply embedded the logic of social media within solarpunk as an idea. Because of the nature of the feed, clicking the solarpunk hashtag returns not with a singular interpretation of solarpunk, but plural: a host of ideas and images, all in relation with one another. An image of a lean-to greenhouse / a post on appropriate technology for water harvesting / a rendering of a retrofitted suburbia / 3D-printed clay tiles designed to restore coral reefs / espaliered apple trees / solar panels in abundance.

This makes the solarpunk hashtag not just a mechanism to allow people to connect and/or coordinate across a network, but a container. And not just any old container but, inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, a container for anyone to place their ideas about the future inside of. The resulting solarpunk worlding process of conceptual bricolage creates a polyphonic future texture from which even newer ideas of the future can emerge.

Such bricolage and juxtaposition can be seen in @missolivialouise’s massively viral Tumblr post from 2014: “Natural colors! Art Nouveau! Handcrafted wares! Tailors and dressmakers! Streetcars! Airships! Stained glass window solar panels!!! Education in tech and food growing! Solar rooftops and roadways! Communal greenhouses! Renewable energy-powered Art Nouveau-styled tech life!”

Ideas inspire when they are held in relation, not appropriated or confiscated. Solarpunk’s bricolage approach is a result of (and a strategy for) the including and raising up of voices from outside the Western world, as well as of marginalized voices from within.

Dr. Rhys Williams, a scholar of science fiction and fantasy, also observed solarpunk as a container, calling it a “conceptual space” in an article for the Open Library of Humanities in 2019, writing that “[U]nusually, the conceptual space named ‘solarpunk’ emerged prior to the narratives that are now gradually giving it substance, and much of solarpunk happens outside the published stories. Solarpunk is a ‘world’ first and a set of narratives second.” From within this narrative container, solarpunk fiction has emerged, and its adoption of the short story as its preferred medium adds to its quiltwork.

All the anthologies (and now this magazine) contain multiple voices and visions of the future. Each story and point of view in juxtaposition with one another. Each story adding to the texture, each book in turn contributing towards the chorus. There is no one fixed future, given the choice between ‘the only solution’ and ‘possible options, solarpunk will always choose the latter.

As Flynn wrote in ‘Notes Toward a Manifesto’: “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”

The Broken Present

The late great cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote in Ghosts of My Life that “[It] doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century … The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.”

Fisher diagnosed this cancelled future in 2009 as capitalist realism, defining it as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and
economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent
alternative to it.”

Due to cultural fracking, there is a whole generation of people bereft of visions of the future to which they can lay claim. This is the de-futuring process in action: We have no futures which we can call our own.

The condition of capitalist realism results in our collectively shared cultural imagination being “de-futured.”

Consider the visions of the future that are currently dominating the western cultural sphere. Superhero movies based on children’s comic book characters from the 1950s. Dune is a book from 1965. The Foundation TV series began life in Astounding Magazine during the 1940s. The video game Cyberpunk 2077 is a vision of the future from the 1980s. More Star Wars, more Ghostbusters, more Highlander, more Resident Evil. The list is very long, and even ancient concepts like the gods of Norse and Egyptian mythology are remixed over and again in their present-day iterations.

According to Filmstories, there were 108 reboots, remakes and sequels in various phases of production in 2021. The “owners” of our cultural heritage treat narrative, myth and our shared social imagination as a commodity. The deflation of our expectations that Fisher described is partly due to copyright.

Under the logic of media produced by narrative monopolies, it is costly to risk money on a new idea. Instead it’s safer to simply mine the past for new material. I call this “cultural fracking,” a phenomenon described by my friend and fellow solarpunk author Andrew Dana Hudson as: “the capitalist process of endlessly extracting new value out of the sedimentary layers of meaning that comprise mass culture from the past.” The business model of fracked culture requires it to meet the shared existing expectations of the audience. New material must continually reference something from a time when mass culture was more broadly shared. Nothing new can be added, only remixed. The process adds nothing new to the cultural imaginary.

Due to cultural fracking, there is a whole generation of people bereft of visions of the future to which they can lay claim. This is the de-futuring process in action: We have no futures which we can call our own.

The Speculative Present

The writer and academic Saidiya Hartman once said “[s]o much of the work of oppression is about policing the imagination.”

Whether you think the de-futuring effects of cultural fracking and capitalist realism are purposefully oppressive or accidentally so, solarpunk is -punk because it stands in opposition to the increasingly mainstream position that we live in a world with no future.

There is apparently an unwritten rule that says no conversation about solarpunk can take place without referencing cyberpunk. The 1980s present that cyberpunk was defamiliarising was defined by urban decay, globalization, the rise of zero-tolerance policing, anxieties around health care and the psychological toll of the Cold War, not to mention the rise of corporate power and the emergent condition of ubiquitous computation.

Cyberpunk was -punk because it was oppositional, taking a critical and cynical view of the future—alongside a call for resistance. However, as the genre and its aesthetic trappings gained momentum, its politics were scrubbed away, leaving us an aesthetic shell now wrapped around a buggy video game.

So what then is solarpunk about?

The function of much Western fiction has been to defamiliarise our everyday environment by contrasting it with an alternative portrayal. As a long tradition of writers and thinkers from the Russian Formalists to JG Ballard and Fredric Jameson have recognised, the role of science fiction is not to imagine the future but to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways.”

Solarpunk is a narrative strategy for creating this feeling of a speculative present—a present in which we speculatively prospect for better possibilities at whatever scale—in the minds of people who encounter it.

In Notes Toward a Manifesto Flynn wrote that “[t]here’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk, but it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance,” paralleling Chokwe Lumumba’s assertion that “[d]ealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination.”

The solar in solarpunk is not just a reference to the sun, but power. In the decade that solarpunk emerged, the average price of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules dropped from $2.04 per watt in 2010 to $0.20 a watt in 2020. Just as cyberpunk began at the dawn of the computation revolution, solarpunk is situated at the beginning of an energy revolution.

Solarpunk’s aesthetic trappings emerge as a direct consequence of its concerns. Solarpunk worlds depict curated landscapes: hillside agroforestry in keyline rows, rain gardens and revitalised suburbs undergoing sprawl repair. These aren’t products of far-fetched technological leaps. Instead, they are a collection of ideas pulled laterally from the world as it exists today (or that were historically overlooked) and projected forward, everywhere. Its aesthetic emerges from real world praxis, from recovered agency.

For better or worse, sci-fi has always inspired the real, from tablets in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Star Trek communicator, or the automatic doors of HG Wells. Cyberpunk, for those without nuance, acted as a product roadmap, bringing us mass surveillance, digital money and soon a corporate-controlled metaverse. Recognising that sci-fi influences reality, solarpunk attempts to do this gesturally. Introducing people to real, practicable ideas has a dislocative effect, and the everyday becomes a site for both real and imagined narrative possibility, where the dead grass next to the parking lot at the mall becomes a prime location for rewilding. Or a piece of scrubland at the end of the cul-de-sac is seen as a space ripe for a community food forest. Rooftops yearn for solar panels. Statues demand to hold up wind turbines.

Solarpunk is a narrative strategy for creating this feeling of a speculative present—a present in which we plumb the depths of the imagination for better possibilities at whatever scale—in the minds of people who encounter it.

A Memetic Engine

The reason it is so difficult to answer the question “What is solarpunk?” is because solarpunk is defined by the ideas it produces, not the container itself.

In a time of urgent collective action needed on climate change, biosphere collapse, and other global scale challenges, consider the kinds of popular narratives we are being sold. They are stories of individual superheroes (or saviours) above or beyond humanity coming to save the day. In the real world, of course, no one is coming to save us.

If the present condition of capitalist realism can be said to be defuturing, then solarpunk is a tool for refuturing the imagination. “Futuring” in academic parlance is to “shape the possibility space for action.”

To “refuture,” then, is to encourage and cultivate the qualities of futuring in the minds of people who encounter solarpunk.

The creation of speculative presents (bringing speculation and speculative elements into our day-to-day lives) allows us to resist the defuturing processes of steady state capitalist realism by the generation of new plausible worlds. Solarpunk is an engine for the generation of these plausible worlds: it is not just as an aesthetic, setting or inspiration for artists and writers and to create and play in, but it also functions generatively in the minds of its readers. Solarpunk has become an engine for producing ideas about the future in everyone who encounters it.

It is my belief that we can feel our way out of the mess of the early 21st century via the creation of generous memetic engines proliferating cultural ideas that bring more possibility into the world than they close down.

The reason it is so difficult to answer the question “What is solarpunk?” is because solarpunk is defined by the ideas it produces, not by the container itself.

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Rhys Williams writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, describing solarpunk as “better characterized as a kaleidoscopic manifesto, an argument in story and image, the song of a community both inchoate and coalescing, simultaneously committed and finding its feet. There’s no guarantee this will lead anywhere… But the Solarpunk community and its stance make up a positive force in the current struggle… Here’s to the light.”

Speaking in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, Arundhati Roy was asked what lies ahead.

“Reimagining the world,” she said.

“Only that.”


More on Solarpunk

Read more about Solarpunk on my blog here

Or check out my long-read essay SOLARPUNK – Life in the Future Beyond the Rusted Chrome of Yestermorrow below.

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