On Solarpunk

by Eric Hunting

With roots in the niche ecological SF of the late 20th century, such as the book Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, and Post-Industrial futurist works like Hans Widmer’s Bolo’Bolo, Solarpunk has emerged as one of the latest literary/aesthetic movements to adopt the “–punk” suffix. Its essential premise is the envisioning of a positive, hopeful, environmentally sustainable future as a reaction to the dystopianism endemic to turn-of-the-century science fiction and the Cyberpunk movement in particular. It likewise stands in opposition to the dystopianism of ‘dark green’ environmentalism, with its endemic misanthropy, demonization of science and technology, and nihilistic resignation to environmental collapse and mass death. It asserts the sort of pragmatic optimism that is now a radical, subversive stance in a popular culture that has largely abandoned hope for the future. 

Though often aspiring to utopian ideals, Solarpunk is largely focused on the more near-term transition to a Post-Carbon, Post-Industrial, Post-Scarcity culture across the current century, illustrating a path through contemporary trials and struggles to suggest positive outcomes from the present environmental, economic, and political crisis. It is neither anti-technology nor naively pro-technology (as per techno-utopianism). It sees technology as neither an enemy nor a solution in itself. Rather, it sees the cultivation of an appropriate culture as key to a global transformation. Philosophically, it tends to align with contemporary anarchism, mutualism, and libertarian socialism as well as movements such as Peer-To-Peer, the Cooperative and Commons revivals, Maker, and Open Source/Knowledge.

Solarpunk Themes

The overarching narrative common to Solarpunk is one of transition from an old, decrepit, pathological Industrial Age to a new sustainable one, which can often incur struggle and conflict based on the passive resistance to change in an ignorant and heavily propagandized society and the active, often violent, resistance of the vested interests benefiting from old power structures and economic hegemonies. The most definitive narrative is one devised by futurists/writers Alex Steffan and Cory Doctorow dubbed The Outquisition, which suggests a cultural movement fostered in the ‘cloisters’ of today’s eco-villages, communes, maker/hacker spaces emerging as a nomadic activist community seeking to intervene in crises created by the progressive failure of Industrial Age infrastructures and economics in the face of climate change impacts, seeding technologies of local resilience and the paradigms of a new culture along with them. This is typically imagined in an urban setting as these are the most vulnerable to these failures and because the reinvention of the city as a positive, desirable, and more sustainable habitat is crucial to achieving balance between civilization and the natural environment. Other themes include the struggle to preserve or restore the natural environment in the face of capitalist exploitation and political malfeasance. Far future themes tend to concern the resurgent threats of Industrial Age legacy or unexpected effects of technology to already established, and perhaps somewhat complacent, utopian communities.

Solarpunk Aesthetics

The Solarpunk aesthetic can be summed up in the single word ‘organic’; as reflected in Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of the term for his ‘organic style’ of architecture – with its roots in Asian vernaculars and the Arts & Crafts movement – the ‘free-form organic’ design emerging in architecture of the 1970s, its rediscovery in contemporary ‘parametric design’ deriving from the underlying mathematics of natural forms, the primitivist patterns of ancient cultures and vernacular building techniques such as earth and rough timber, and the more fanciful visual identity of the Art Nouveau movement. Artists/designers such as Luc Schuiten and Friedensreich Hundertwasser offer ready examples. But aside from appearances, how and what things are made from are key aspects of the aesthetic. Solarpunk explores a culture and habitat aspiring to optimum circularity in resource use. Where unsustainable materials like plastic have been largely obsolesced along with the equally unsustainable and pathological practices of the market economy, such as disposability, planned obsolescence, sliding scales of economy, and speculative production. 

Again, we must emphasize that this is not about some return to the hand-made past, even if, in the near-term, we might expect a revival of many old techniques as part of the transition from Industrial Age paradigms. Automation is prominent, even ubiquitous, in the imagined Solarpunk future, but in forms very different from the Industrial Age retrofuturism of corporate techno-utopianism. It is local, non-speculative, demand-driven, highly generalized production enabled by robotization and emerging as a community/municipal utility. The paradigm of centralized mass production has been supplanted by a new paradigm enabled by new technology; cosmolocalization. Design global, make local. The key to freedom and resilience is in the communal and personal ownership of the means of production and the digital globalization of open industrial and design knowledge. Counterintuitively, Solarpunk is very much about anticipating the impacts of robotization and even more advanced nanotechnology.

Solarpunk (or more generally, Post-Industrial) design and artifacts may often have features we might associate with old Modernism, but now pragmatically adapted to the service of environment and social empowerment. Minimalism for the purpose of enabling adaptive reuse and easier recycling. Modularity to allow immediate reuse and empower the end-user to undertake their own design, customization, and repair.

Solarpunk Habitat

The definitive Solarpunk setting is a verdant city or village, often set against an adjacent restored natural landscape, where a new cultural respect for the environment is expressed in the increased use of greenery and symbolic biomimicry throughout the urban habitat – in the practical role of urban farming as well as for aesthetics. There is much visible use of solar and wind power systems with some architecture specifically designed around them. A clear boundary is drawn between the territory of humans and nature. Suburbia has been rendered obsolescent and the future built habitat no longer sprawls cancerously across the landscape. The architecture is humble yet eclectic in nature. Visible cues of class distinction are absent. This is a more egalitarian society that has conquered poverty once and for all.

Such communities may be based largely on the adaptive reuse of the urban buildings of the past, giving it a quirky, makeshift aspect hinting at a transitional era. Or this may be an entirely new city with architecture unique to its cultural sensibilities and novel technologies, often appropriating aspects of the more human-centric, walkable cities of the ancient past. It may show signs of the impacts of a world forever changed by global warming, such as the transformation of streets into canals. Some may be cities of conventional scale, others based on vast urban superstructures, and others small cloistered havens in unusual settings. Hidden forest or mountain refuges, artificial islands at sea. Automobiles have been largely eliminated and what remains are electrified, with much of the cityscape recovered for human use and the creation of social spaces. Human-powered vehicles like bikes and velocipedes are common, along with personal electric mobility devices. Quirky electric aircraft may be common for short-range use, but the airliner is a fading memory, replaced by sophisticated solar-hybrid airships (with the option to safely enter the urban habitat) and a variety of hybrid ocean-sailing vessels. But the primary form of transportation in this future civilization is rail, as the single-most energy-efficient form of transit possible, albeit in new electric forms that better integrate into the urban habitat, sometimes entirely internal or subterranean. Most commercial buildings have been repurposed or eliminated and art replaces the oppressive torrent of urban street advertizing. 

Solarpunk Economics and Society

Simply, if crudely, described the Solarpunk culture aspires to the ideal of the Star Trek Economy, but without the contrivance of magical technology. Rather, it is realized through a culture of fundamentally greater reason and responsibility. Solarpunk futurism anticipates and aspires to a sustainable (sometimes imagined as moneyless and stateless) post-scarcity culture on the premise that scarcity, given the technology of the present, is largely a deliberate construct of market economies intended to engineer dependencies and hegemonies concentrating wealth and power. It imagines these overcome largely through the cultivation of local resilience, with renewables in their many forms, independent production, and regional and global resource commons key tools to this end. And so there is an expectation of the realization of a kind of cosmo-local gift economy built on an essential cultural principle of open reciprocity empowered by the elimination of precarity, anonymity, institutional sociopathy, and their psycho-social effects. With the advance of industrial literacy in society comes an awareness of the great leverage of renewables and automation, the actual scarcity and value of goods, and a realization that a comfortable life is nowhere near as difficult to attain for all as it has long been thought. With a bit more social and environmental responsibility, a sustainable ‘middle-class’ standard of living is universally attainable in some balance with nature and we need nothing more to drive a digital economy than the record of what gets taken off store shelves and sent up the network. So then, why not let it all be free-within-reason? In such a culture it is imagined that crime has been greatly reduced as the products of precarity and anonymity and what remains can be managed and treated as the mental illness it ultimately represents. 

As a post-scarcity culture, the Post-Industrial ethos is imagined as driven chiefly by the true human motivations; purpose, mastery, autonomy, social appreciation or love, and simple pleasure. There are careers and professions, but no ‘jobs’. There are entrepreneurs, but no capitalists. There is capital, but no banks.

Solarpunk Archetypes

Much as Cyberpunk’s archetype was the ‘hacker-hero’ in conflict with corporate and government oppressors, the Solarpunk archetype is a ‘maker-hero’; an eco-tech MacGuyver on a mission of cultural evangelism whose seditious independent technical, industrial, and science knowledge are leveraged on the transformation of the urban/industrial detritus, saving people from the crisis of climate change impacts (represented as “global warming”) and the ravages of late-stage capitalism. Alternatively, their mission may be more focused on the defence of nature; endangered wilderness or species. The Solarpunk protagonist could have many origins and may well be transhuman, employing exotic technology in their own body to the purpose of withstanding the effects of a changing environment or to gain a deeper connection to nature beyond that of the typical human. The typical hacker-hero is often radicalized by revelation or betrayal. The maker-hero perhaps similarly radicalized by the living experience of environmental disaster, the inevitable atrocities of governments and corporations in response, and generational betrayal – the false and broken promise of the Industrial Age’s techno-utopianism resulting in later generations’ endemic cultural nihilism.

Solarpunk Media

At present the Solarpunk movement remains somewhat nascent, largely unknown to mainstream media and still little known to the field of Science Fiction media. Its premise in a pragmatic optimism perhaps difficult for previous generations of writers, building careers on the earlier waves of dark and dreary dystopianism, to grasp. There is, as yet, no event culture akin to that of the Steampunk movement. But in the past few years media in the genre has started to blossom, particularly among younger writers and with the benefit of the convergent Afrofuturism movement. Independent gaming and online culture have proven receptive. There is potential for a new definitive aesthetic for our time and transition to a Post-Industrial future.

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Bio:

Eric Hunting as a researcher of Post-Industrial Futurism, Peer-to-Peer/Commons advocate, Maker enthusiast, and former president of the First Millennial Foundation/Living Universe Foundation space advocacy organizations.

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