On the Need for New Futures

Abandoned power plant control room, Hungary. Photo by Martin ten Bouwhuijs.

Note from Adam: Sometime in the spring of 2012, I was discussing young adult fiction, dystopias, and the mayan apocalypse with novelist Jessea Perry. As we talked about other ways forward, she shouted the term “solarpunk,” and I had a concept I’ve been wrestling with for the last five years. The following post, from July 2012, was one of my first forays into defining the problem that solarpunks aim to solve. (You can find it in its original form here.) It’s gotten a wave of recent reblogs on Tumblr, so we’re putting it up here for a more general audience.

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One of the most curious facts about living as we do today is that our future does not, strictly speaking, exist. This fact has been well elaborated by Bruce Sterling over the past few years (“Atemporality for the Creative Artist” being especially good), and picked up on ably by Justin Pickard in the recent Gonzo Futurist manifesto. Our philosophy of history has more or less collapsed, we are confronted with dizzying arrays of signals strong and weak, fair and foul.

Setting aside all the wonderful, promised technologies beating down our door, let’s be real about the fact that at least some of the following Bad Things will probably happen in the next century: dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and its attendant catastrophes, crises in water supplies, rampant antibiotic resistance, global pandemics, overpopulation, and black swans birthed from unceasing societal acceleration.

We must recognize that we cannot hold the same life expectations as that of mid-20th century Americans (no matter what country we live in). This has manifested itself in a fascination with social collapse that has penetrated the popular consciousness (Mayan prophecies, zombie chic), extending out to projects of managed despair among certain intellectual circles (the Dark Mountain project, most notably). Yet rarely does this talk of “diminished expectations” manifest itself in a questioning of those expectations in the first place. Progress/development is not the same as growth, and an integral thesis of solarpunk should be about decoupling the first from the second. More is not better.

At the same time, we’re being promised any number of technological panacea, some of which we can research in the latest edition of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Eternal life, consciousness uploading, the development of artificial super-intelligences, neural interfaces with machines. Yet these promises of the future are highly problematic, as they have been since the 1960s at least. How many of them offer a vision of life significantly different from the old-fashioned dream of eternally pleasant individual life? The promises offered by most Singularity-boosters and Transhumanists are ultimately individualist, unsustainable, and selfish: How many of them are scoped for a world where energy is not cheap and plentiful? How many of them are possible in a world of limited rare earth elements? Eternal life, as well, is overrated: Besides the cautionary lessons from vampire-oriented television, any promise of eternal life necessarily privileges its first recipients above both past (killed by death) and future (crushed by accumulated inequality).

We are starved for visions of the future that will sustain us, and give us something to hope for, ideas of life beyond the rusted chrome of yestermorrow or nightmare realms of radiated men eating the flesh of other radiated men.

Solarpunk is in no small part about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us–i.e. extending human life as a whole species, as opposed to just individually. Our future is about repurposing and creating new things through what we already have (as opposed to 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” type modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it is not quasi-reactionary a la steampunk–it is about ingenuity, positive creation, independence, and community.

To be sure, futurity can be constraining, but a lack of possible futures to work toward are even moreso: Neal Stephenson has introduced the idea of the fictional vision acting as a “hieroglyph,” allowing large teams to collectively envision the Big Future they’re bringing into existence. 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.

Subcultures have a remarkable ability to develop and retain expertise in practices that would not survive in the mainstream: re-enactors, crafters, the 1632-niverse, resilient communities…but there’s an importance to making it a convivial project. Burning Man is a partial, directional example, but it sometimes veers towards wasteful dreck. (“Radical Self-Reliance” seems to be at odds with fund-raisers to bring several hundred pounds of ice cream out into the middle of a desert. As much a font of creativity as it may be, it has only ever been a dress rehearsal.)

The funny thing is, we’ve been building some of this future in disparate fields, with a good deal coming under the aegis of design by and for the developing world: One laptop per child, for instance, took into account local power generation, resiliency, and packability; why can’t we have things like that at home?

More questions:

  • What can we learn from developing societies past and present about survival and conviviality?
  • How can we get people excited about resilient, sustainable, and renewable technologies?
  • What would computing look like if it had to get its power from purely local and renewable sources? What is the potential of low-and-no-power computing and sensor networks?
  • What does this path look like 20 years from now? What about 500 years from now?
  • How might we re-use existing technology, infrastructure and computation in novel and inventive ways?
  • If Peak Computing is somthing that will happen, what might we calculate in advance and record in durable forms?
  • What’s the future of curing and fermentation? Could we see custom-created bacteria or genetically-modified plants doing work presently performed by the chemical industry?
  • What does entertainment look like in this world? Music halls and traveling shows? Radio theater? something else entirely?
  • What does “the good life” look like in a steady-state, no-growth, totally sustainable society?
  • What is the visual aesthetic of Solarpunk?
  • Who’s with us?