Can the new Tumblr-grown aesthetic break through the smog to change the Twenty-First Century conversation?
I. Something Stirs
It is the nature of our era to stymie the exploration of political alternatives. We live in a fog that obscures our possibilities. We are moving very fast, but tumbling without sense of direction or progress. Our political imagination is limited to diagnosing our problems, which we can do endlessly. But talk of real solutions is lost amidst the clamor of global crisis, the drone of social media, and the hushing hiss of neoliberal domination over our institutions of discourse. This disorientation won’t last forever, but for now we live in a rotten moment for manifestos.
And yet, the sun does cut through the smog. Something new, bright and promising stirs on Tumblr, a colorful fungus growing away from the gaze of the media or the big web stacks. I struggle to put my finger on just why solarpunk is so compelling, but it is. Perhaps it is the canny optimism, so out of place in a world of crisis. Perhaps because it is because solarpunk is a creature wholly of this decade — native to global network society. I know I’m not the only one to think this: something about solarpunk strikes a chord that stands out amidst the pandemonium.
What is solarpunk? I hesitate to define it, and therefore limit it, for the thousands now exploring its possibilities. Let’s tentatively call it a speculative movement: a collaborative effort to imagine and design a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability and beauty, achievable with what we have from where we are. Only in the twenty-teens could a series of social media sketches spark such an ambitious activist agenda — not to mention a literary genre that has rabid fans but has yet to produce any literature.
Whatever solarpunk is, it is deeply political. Politics is the practice of determining the arrangements through which we distribute resources and otherwise relate to each other. In other words, who makes the stuff, who gets the stuff, and how we are expected to treat both people and stuff.
Nearly every piece of solarpunk content I’ve seen or read suggests that the solarpunk future is a result of nuanced choices about such arrangements, not wild technological advancements. The very name “solarpunk” implies that scientific breakthroughs alone won’t fix our environmental, social and economic problems. After all, it posits a world of solar-energy abundance and then argues that we will still have need of punks. No magical tech fixes for us. We’ll have to do it the hard way: with politics.
There has been some writing on this already, but, as I craft ideology instead of cosplay, I believe I can best contribute to solarpunk by expanding on some of these notions. In this essay I will explore what I believe to be the political dimensions of solarpunk: the world it finds itself in, the space it occupies, and the possibilities open to it.
Let me say from the outset: the world of solarpunk is this world. The here, the now and the very soon. Burdened with all that that’s been slung across our backs. While you might set your solarpunk stories in far off futures or fantasy universes (I won’t stop you), great speculative fiction always reflects the fears and aspirations of the time and place it was written. This is what I’m interested in: what solarpunk can tell us about the civilization we have right now, where it’s going and what we’ll be living through.
I’ll also offer up my own ideas about what exactly we should be doing with this strange bloom we’ve found. Solarpunk feels like a cathartic uncorking of a pent up imagination, and that energy can be channeled in different directions. A genre explores ideas through motifs, variations on a theme. A movement provokes change through iterations of strategy and deed. I love the former, but we need the latter.
My hope is that this essay will inspire a discussion that will help move solarpunk from simple speculation towards meaningful action. This doesn’t have to be solarpunk’s path. Maybe being a solarpunk will be like another flavor of bohemian. Maybe such a collection of aesthetics can correlate to an ideology, but need not inspire one. The only way to find out is by taking up the question of solarpunk politics.
II. The Rocks We Build On
First, some facts on the ground. Novelist Bruce Sterling, who helped create the original science fictional ‘-punk’ — cyberpunk — says that the future is about “old people in big cities afraid of the sky.” This is inexorable. Barring radical cataclysm, the reasonably inevitable trends of urbanization, an aging populace and climate change will set the stage for life in the coming five decades. If you are a human living in the middle of the 21st century, chances are you will be elderly — or surrounded by the elderly. Chances are you will live in a city. Chances are your community, country and supply chains will be plagued by some combination of extreme weather, rising sea levels and droughts.
These are the facts we must build on and around, whether we are making solarpunk fiction, solarpunk fashion, solarpunk infrastructure, or solarpunk political demands. If solarpunk is to back up its optimism with meaningful solutions, or even meaningful notions, we must consciously consider how to respond to each of these trends. Allow me to make some suggestions.
Old people. We only have to look at Japan to see the way an aging population can empty towns and leave both infrastructure and social structure untended. This is an extreme case, exacerbated by Japan’s immigration policies, but even in places where the world’s young are free move in to fill open jobs and depopulated communities, the elderly will often outnumber the youth. Caring for these elders will require a huge effort, particularly in the developed world. As will attending to their deaths.
Still, longevity is an incredible resource for a society that prizes long-term planning. I believe solarpunk can be an ideology of profound compassion for dealing with the elderly. Its aesthetics speak of a gentleness, and a recognition that color and beauty can bring joy and give life meaning even in the most painful of circumstances. I’m all for solarpunk symphony halls, libraries and city centers, but of all the spaces that have been made drab, brutal and soul-sucking by modern consumer architecture and decor, surely hospitals and nursing homes must top the list. Solarpunk is partly about building infrastructure that can be sustainable into the long term — and that can sustain many generations. What better way to begin than by creating assisted living facilities as stone-sturdy as cathedrals, with sun-streamed stained-glass and ivy-roofed walkways? Places where we ourselves would want to live out our own infirm years, decades later. To borrow a phrase, let us approach geriatrics as if people mattered.
Before we get too sappy, let’s remember that living in a society with an aging population also means living under the political power of an elderly majority. The youth have the energy to mobilize, but in the developed world today (and tomorrow) they just don’t have the numbers to stage revolutions, win electoral battles or pass radical reforms. Societies of the old are societies of political stagnation. Their politics produce de facto dynasties (Bush vs. Clinton) and decadent paranoiacs (Berlusconi, Putin, et al). The economic agenda of the old is about preserving costly entitlements, hording jobs and wages for workers with seniority, and fighting inflation. The old tend to live off capital assets that decline in value as the economy inflates, while the young today must work to pay off debts that shrink as inflation rises.
As a “punk” ideology, solarpunk must be opposed to the political domination of the old. But we may also have to live with it. We just aren’t likely to win the numbers game. Solarpunk’s strategy should be to create pockets of progress and imagination within a larger political landscape of decay, deadlock and long emergency. (More on this later.)
In cities. It is a dark truth of environmentalism that wind farms, solar arrays, hydroelectric dams and other triumphs of sustainability require completely engineered landscapes. Building them means ripping up the ground and installing massive amounts of metal and concrete.
Cities are the same. Urban density means transportation efficiency, shared infrastructure, more pooled resources to throw at common problems, and at times a greater sense of community than rural isolation or exurban sprawl. Solarpunk obviously applauds these advantages and puts them to use. But cities are built on great devastation of the natural world. They are structures that consume huge amounts of energy and materials and produce tremendous amounts of waste — even if the suburban alternative is worse per capita. When cities die they leave unwieldy ruins that take yet more resources to break down. Cities are a scar upon the earth.
More to the point, cities don’t die. Cities happen where people gather, and people gather in cities. Because of this the cities we have today are largely going to be the cities we have for hundreds of years. They will grow and sprawl where they can. They will retreat from the rising seas where they must. We cannot start anew from scratch (see Naypyidaw below). We must reuse and refurbish the built environment. To paraphrase Sterling, the wreckage of the unsustainable is our frontier. What we build never goes away; often it must be lived in.
Cities also crystalize the social stressors modernity places on us. Solarpunk aesthetics look to loosen that vice with soothing visuals and textures that imply openness and pay homage to the living world. We can even build with materials that are themselves still living and growing with us. That is a beautiful vision, but one we must place in context. While it is useful to imagine comprehensively optimistic futures and fantasies, solar-punk can’t be the same as solar-utopia. Punks are an essentially anti-social (or at least counter-cultural) force, rejecting and attacking the norm. In this case that means understanding that the beautiful clothes and buildings solarpunk envisions are likely to be surrounded by something very different — the cracked concrete of decaying infrastructure, the smudged plastic of cheaply made gadgets, the intimidating glass and steel of finance fortresses.
Our canny @Threadbare pointed out to me that too often bright-green design is rooted in the tradition of modernist real-estate development, which sells a vision of places made wholly new. Past mistakes are cleansed. The clean hallways are haunted by render ghosts. It’s seductive, and easy to put in a magazine, but anyone who has sat through a planning board meeting knows how unrealistic it is. Solarpunk need not make this same mistake. We know what jugaad is. We know about water hacking, and guerilla gardening, and pressure-washer graffiti. Solarpunk can see the spots where trees have broken through the asphalt for what they are: great places to grow trees.
But on the other side, there is the false seduction of favela ingenuity as well, that charmingly rickety sweet spot where Swiss Family Robinson meets Nat Geo poverty porn. It should go without saying that we should not fetishize slums. Still, it’s true that such places use resources more efficiently, that they successfully house millions with a relatively low carbon footprint. But I have two objections. First, a jugaad is a hack by an individual, not a plan by a community. Second, places that don’t follow fire codes tend to burn down.
Somewhere between these two approaches solarpunks can pioneer into that ‘wreckage of the unsustainable’ to remake our cities greener and better. This is a messy task, and we will probably need to have some difficult discussions about just how solarpunk aspires to relate to “the natural world.” Can cities ever exist in harmony with nature? Does such a thing as “nature” even exist anymore? Do we need to fundamentally change the way we relate to the natural world? Or can we find sustainability through piecemeal reforms? I don’t know the answers, but I do believe that solarpunk shouldn’t shy from its urban destiny. Solarpunk is a continuation of the anthropocene.
“Afraid of the sky” should be an easy one, right? Solar power turns climate disaster on its head by making the sky the source of energy abundance, not just superstorms, frozen winters and rains that never come. This is the high concept that drew me to this cause: what more elegant image of our salvation than a solar panel, turning the light that heats our planet beyond comfort into energy, the very commodity for which we set the world on fire? It’s a powerful start to an ideology, and one we should rightly smile over. But the reckoning with the sky remains.
I suspect that at some point in the next decade or so, it will truly dawn on us that the increasingly inhospitable climate is of our own making, the result of policy decisions and political failures. That means the sky is no longer morally neutral. A storm on the horizon is not apart from us. A hurricane or tornado is not an act of God. We have no precedent for dealing with such a burden on a global scale. Our climate sins may grow to define us. If we aren’t careful, the response of most will be: it’s everyone else’s fault. And, because blame is always about power, this debate will either turn violent or exacerbate existing inequalities. (“Those who consume a lot are prepared to slash the consumption of those who already consume less.”) That is a recipe for an even more dangerous world.
We wrecked the planet. Some individuals and organizations more than others, of course, but I doubt we will ever bring anyone to justice. The atmosphere, and with it our collective soul, will not heal on its own for a very long time. All we can do is begin repairs, and through that careful labor perhaps find some measure of redemption.
As you can tell, I take these heavy matters very seriously. Solarpunk doesn’t need to get quite so dour — but keep it in mind. As you world-build, ponder the whys of wearing fashions of joy as a response to global sorrow. Remember that cathedral-time decisions are minute compared to climate-scale momentum. Understand that solarpunk’s “dirt behind the ears” needs to come from planting something that will reclaim a bit of that carbon we burned. Hold your optimism up to the muggy, yellow light and make sure we are willing to work for it. For solarpunk to lead us towards a better future, it must look our climate sins in the eyes, acknowledge their gravity, and start fixing that carbon. There is no going back. Only slowly, steadily clawing our way through, to something better.
Who knows? Climate disasters could provide the impetus to build the radical communities we envision. Droughts may cause strife, but people can also be extraordinarily good to each other when fires and storms hit. Solarpunk needs a foot in the door; let’s not be afraid to walk through it, if the wind blows that door open.
III. Rubble, Seed and Fog
Facts dispensed with, let me add a few suspicions and opinions.
I suspect that global capitalism is entering a contradictory period of both fierce domination and slow failure. When I say “capitalism,” I am referring here both to the idea that resources and economic activity should be controlled by those who exert ownership over the means of production and other wealth and to the collection of wealthy individuals and families who do most of this owning and controlling. The power of these capitalists will widen and invade nearly every aspect of human life, pushing out most other kinds of power. But at the same time, the ways this system creates prosperity will narrow to a trickle. The sensation will be one of bloated malnourishment.
How many of us already experience this? On the one hand sickened by the decadence of consumption, with an urge to check out of alienating jobs. But on the other wondering why we work harder and longer but seem to earn less and less, struggling to sustain ourselves, unable to buy our way out. I suspect this feeling will pervade the near future, and I don’t know how long it will stay that way.
I see solarpunk emerging as a reaction to this sensation of strangling decay. People want to feel the vibrancy of progress, not just the anxious giddiness of capitalist churn. We want to seek out and apply our true talents, not warp our lives around making money for other, richer people. We want our work to mean something more than survival.
In light of their power, overthrowing the mega-rich is a dicey project, and one perhaps left to a different kind of political aesthetic. Instead solarpunk can challenge the capitalist status quo by nurturing alternative economic arrangements at a community and network level. Encourage resiliency that insulates towns and neighborhoods from economic shocks. Forge mutal aid pacts that protect members from fiscal predation. If we can prove that we don’t need them or their money, the chokehold of the plutocracy will loosen.
I also suspect the institution of the nation-state is being hollowed out. In part a consequence of globalization and the drive to “free markets,” this isn’t exactly a collapse. Instead we see government at every level losing its ability to act with authority, maintain order, mobilize emergency resources, build lasting infrastructure, provide public services, and otherwise be effective in the lives of its citizens.
At the same time these governments become less democratic, more corrupt, more bureaucratic and more beholden to special interests. Public services and utilities get sold off to private corporations. Municipalities become highwaymen that exploit the poor and passersby to enrich a small few (Ferguson). Infrastructure crumbles. A nation’s states squabble among themselves. Cops become gangs as violence serves where authority fails, and gangs themselves take on new authority in their communities. Through all this, the nation-state doesn’t go away — it just fades from relevance, overshadowed by global network society and outcompeted (or captured) by criminals, corporations and other non-state powers.
While this hollowing out is a challenge for civilization, for solarpunk it’s an opportunity. Radical political upheaval is difficult and dangerous. “Revolution is not a tea party.” For a great many reasons (not least of which is the aging population), I don’t think we can count on mass movements taking to the streets to fix our problems. Instead we can build our solarpunk society in the places and moments that the state neglects — particularly in response to the climate disasters and black swan shocks that will punctuate the coming century. If we do this right, Solarpunk could be the philosophy of those who fill in the gaps, the aesthetic of the assemblies that coalesce where government fails to show up.
This isn’t exactly a strategy, but a way to think about how solarpunk might emerge. Imagine a tree, growing amidst rubble, rooting around rocks into open spaces, occasionally pushing cracks wider. The tree can’t remove the concrete, but the concrete is too poorly maintained to stop it. In the same way I think solarpunk should work to reinvent civilization from within. Through local free association and global networks, solarpunk can create connected pockets of vibrancy and resistance amidst a larger world of decline and oppression.
This is not a new idea. From the autonomous zones of anarchist theory, to the reincarnated American localism of the Resilient Communities and Strong Towns movements, to the mutual aid networks of Occupy Sandy, many have responded to the crises of recent decades by planning and practicing radical forms of organizing that require neither mass revolution nor democratic reform. Solarpunk can use these methods to rally people to build spaces and infrastructure out of place in a failing world. What I want to note here is that while we should think big and abstractly about what kind of ideal society we want to live in, I believe solarpunk will be most effective if it seizes the initiative where the state has dropped it.
You’ve heard of the hacker slogan “move fast and break things”? Solarpunk should move quietly and plant things. Don’t ask permission from a state beholden to oligarchs, and definitely don’t expect those oligarchs to do any of this for you. Guerilla gardening is the model, but look further. Guerilla solar panel installation. Guerilla water treatment facility restoration. Guerilla magnificent temple to the human spirit construction. Guerilla carbon sequestration megastructure creation.
Figure out what a community needs to be prosperous, peaceful and sustainable in as long a term as you can wrap your head around, and start building whatever piece is most in reach before the absent state notices. Doing so just might create pockets of more effective, horizontal politics. As the state wanes, these pockets can grow in size and influence, creating a better world even if some government claims the authority of law and holds a monopoly on violence.
Now, political choices got us into this mess, and political choices could get us out. I for one argue for a comprehensive set of reforms that were inspired by the discussions held around the world during Occupy: a global debt jubilee to free both countries and individuals from debts that impoverish and enslave them; a tax on extreme wealth to control inequality and rein in the power of oligarchs; a guaranteed basic income to provide for the poor, the infirm and those more useful as caregivers, artists and thinkers than employees of businesses; a dramatic reduction in the workweek to slow down unsustainable levels of economic expansion and to eliminate the countless “bullshit jobs” that serve no function but to bore those who hold them; the regulation or even abolition of usury (once considered as great a sin as slavery), so that investments in sustainable infrastructure that will pay off in cathedral time are not hampered by interest payments that will eventually exceed principal.
While these are rather radical prescriptions, all are workable, and with careful application could do much to eliminate the worst shocks, predations, and deprivations that define modern global capitalism for most people on the planet. I mention them here not because they need to be solarpunk’s solutions, but to give you an idea of what solutions to the failure of a global economic system might looks like. Any movement that means to stake a claim to humanity’s future needs to have something to say on this front.
The problem is that while the global economic system is obviously broken, it is still massively profitable to everyone with the direct power to change it. You may have heard the phrase “late-stage capitalism.” This is an ironic euphemism, since capitalism has considered itself “late-stage” for nearly all of its history. Any cursory study of tycoons and robber barons and industrialists from the late renaissance through to the mid-20th century shows that most of these individuals believed violent revolution or political reform was just around the corner to ruin their party. As anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out, it is only recently that capitalists and economists have started to think of capitalism as a system that might not have an end.
This free-market fantasy has been both the genesis and the product of “neoliberalism,” a movement to deregulate capitalism and apply its principles to other spheres of human life. To indulge in a completely biased definition: neoliberalism sees capitalist economics as akin to physics, with a system of logics beyond the choices of actual humans; and therefore neoliberalism believes it is capitalism that should reform people, not the other way around.
Though it once preached prosperity for all, the mask has fallen away in the brazen aftermath of the financial crisis. Neoliberalism demands a global oligarchy of the mega-rich, and to get there they must destroy the middle class and dismantle the nation-state. But they must also quash opposing ideas and imaginations. Where once capitalist democracy argued its worth against the legitimate failures of the communist projects, now neoliberalism acts as an ideological superpower. Its mission: to make capitalism appear not just unchallenged but unchallengeable, as though it were the only possible system. It does this at the expense of acknowledging reforms that actually make the system sustainable. Any questioning, any poking at the limits, is met with sustained scoffing or resigned shrugs from the cultured classes. I said in the beginning: this is a lousy time for manifestos.
IV. If We Fail
Solarpunk, that’s where you come in. When I scan solarpunk posts on Tumblr, I see constant defiance of the neoliberal attempts to stifle political imagination. More than just sketches and photos of vertical farms, I see solarpunk inspiring people to question the arrangements of modern life and, more importantly, propose alternatives. Much of this takes the form of science fictional ‘world-building,’ which partly explains why I like solarpunk so much: for me, science fiction has always been the best inroad to expanding political consciousness.
But good science fiction must be more than daydreaming. So perhaps, as solarpunk starts to limber up its speculative muscles, we can learn a bit about the dimensions of its political agenda by contrasting solarpunk with some of the fictions and realities that are distinctly not solarpunk. What I mean to ask is: what does failure look like for solarpunk?
It looks like the skies on a hot day over Beijing, and the commuters shuffling into pressure-sealed office towers wearing stylized gas masks. Smogpunk is the first defeat condition of solarpunk: a world where environmental protection fails and pollution and climate change outpace our ability to make sustainable choices. Taken to an extreme, haze blots out the sun making both urban solar power and urban farming an unproductive imitation of what it could be with clear skies. Smogpunk means resigning to terrible environmental conditions, and a perverse lifting up of that resignation as a banner of our place in the world. Smogpunk is what happens if solarpunk does not act fast enough.
Failure looks like Fukushima and Bhopal every week: a world defined by its anthropocenic disasters. Development trundles along, perhaps with a reluctant bent towards cutting carbon; but we never change the inertia of our degenerating relationship with nature, and we never take on big projects for fear of costs or consequences. The human experience of the environment becomes a long series of mishaps, spills, contaminations and outbreaks. Our best efforts go towards rescue, containment and cleanup, but we are so busy reeling from these shocks that we can’t be proactive about preventing the development choices and infrastructure decay that caused them in the first place. Or else we respond to climate change with quick fixes that are themselves unsustainable. Call it hazmat-punk. This is what happens if solarpunk ideas are too reactive.
A weirder failure looks like Naypyidaw, the ‘purpose-built’ capital city of Burma, which features super-sized versions of suburban amenities unavailable in the rest of the country — but has next to no people there to enjoy them. 20-lane highways, empty at rush hour. Giant golf courses and parks, manicured by workers but played on only by a few elite civil servants. In this essay I’ve advocated for ambitious infrastructure projects, but the wrong project for the wrong reasons will devolve into Xanadu-esque self-parody, no matter how ambitious. A similar fate awaits us if we try to build a solarpunk community from scratch, and fill in the people later, instead of starting from what real people actually want and need. Let’s call this failure state sprawlpunk: a reproduction of unsustainable development approaches in the name of radical ideals.
We can see more visions of solarpunk-gone-wrong in the fictions of Paolo Bacigalupi. In The Windup Girl the future is spring-powered and mammoth-driven, with genetic engineering providing organic solutions in a world after plastic and without enough rare earth elements to go around. But in a tragic twist, the energy abundance solarpunk relies on is missing. Instead, with only the muscles of humans and animals to power most tasks, energy scarcity is taken to the calorie level, and with this comes famine and disease. This is solarpunk sans solar.
Another wrong turn can be seen in Bacigalupi’s latest book, The Water Knife. In the American southwest permanent drought is making refugees out of everyone who can’t afford to buy a place in a verdant, self-sustaining arcology. This world is solarpunk for some. It is what happens if we allow capitalism to dictate the distribution of sustainable technologies.
This brings us to the last failure condition: the Jackpot. The high concept of William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, the Jackpot gives name and shape to the confluence of all the crises looming ahead of us: climate change, mass extinction, antibiotic resistance, economic instability, strife and terrorism, ecological collapse, singularity-style technology run rampant. No one of these explodes into a disaster that ends the world, leaving behind a Mad Max collapseland. But in Gibson’s vision together they roil into an emergent event that chips away at the human population until eighty percent are dead in the course of a few decades. Why call it the Jackpot? Because for the twenty percent who remain — those who could afford it — this horror is a bullet dodged, and one that frees them from all the problems of sustaining a luxurious lifestyle in a world filled with ten billion people.
What the survivors of the Jackpot build after might very well correspond to many solarpunk principles. It may be beautiful, and may one day yield a world better than we could ever get to from here. That doesn’t matter. I want no part of it. To yearn for the decimation of our people is an abomination. Solarpunk, as a political idea, must do everything to avert such a slow, multi-causal cataclysm. Otherwise it isn’t worth caring about or fighting for.
V. The Ways Forward
The roots of the Jackpot are here, and they are already starting to tighten around us. Without some political intervention, the middle class may very well disappear, cleaving the world into two kinds of urban living: the gothic playgrounds of the rich, immaculate and decadent, and the vibrant, dangerous, untamed favelas of everyone else. From there a gentle nudge from the climate crisis, from tech gone amok, or from toxic political movements could easily send the world spiraling into the cascade of failure Gibson describes.
But saying we want to stop the Jackpot isn’t the same has having an alternative. So: what does winning look like? Obviously fleshing out the look, feel, structure and technical details of a successful solarpunk future is precisely the project most solarpunks are currently engaged in. So instead, let’s discuss some of the routes we might take to that world of sunny abundance.
As I argued in my discussion of cities, solarpunk should be careful not to idealize either the gothic high tech or the favela chic. No matter how many High Line-style parks or vertical farms they build, Manhattan will be useless if it is only filled with the luxury condos of absentee financiers. And favelas may be full of jugaad-innovation and dense with diverse entrepreneurialism, but they feature a fatal flaw: no fire codes. Slums are fascinating from a design perspective right up until they burn down or wash away. In a world of more extreme weather, disasters will strike down favelas before their recycling-centric, low-carbon lifestyles can save the climate.
Instead, I like the idea of focusing on large-scale infrastructure projects that will provide value for communities into the long term. A seed bank; a hyper-dense vertical permaculture farm engineered for carbon fixing; a massive, low-maintenance desalination system; a space elevator. These projects could themselves be the organizing principle around which unique solarpunk communities are organized.
Perhaps they need not even be infrastructure in the traditional, utilitarian sense, but efforts to create lasting human works that can provide keystones of cultural continuity for centuries to come — works I believe capitalism has proven nearly incapable of building, or in some cases even maintaining. Think of the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 year clock, or the deep, dark caves that look for flashes of neutrinos in the perfect dark. Maybe they have no function at all but beauty. Imagine a community that devotes its generations to the creation and care of some enormous work of art: a mountain caved into a wind instrument; a rainforest that records the whole of human history in tree carvings along walking paths; a crop circle big enough to be seen from space.
The problem with investing in long-term projects is that they are particularly susceptible to environmental disruption. If the rains never return to California, people will be forced to leave all sorts of sustainable infrastructure behind. I want to believe that we can make some sensible bets on good projects, but I worry that the coming decades will see millions displaced by climate and strife. Such upheavals might scatter the resources and the will required for megastructure investments.
While we don’t want a future where the default mode of civilization is the refugee camp — the death toll in such places is too high — this may be the 21st century we get, and we should prepare now to succeed within that reality. If we are going to create solarpunk cities/societies from scratch, refugee camps may very well be the foundation we build on. This presents some interesting design challenges, as well as a few opportunities.
First, while many such camps linger for years, they often feel temporary. This is partly because fast-deploy structures are weak to storms and other environmental threats, and partly because migrant settlements are always on thin ice politically. I see great promise in designing our solutions to be modular and easy to both deploy and pack up. Living roofs are nice, but what if we focused on garden boxes for truck beds? Solar stained glass sounds awesome, but might we get more use out of photovoltaic tent canvas?
Just as important as the materials and the tech, refugee camps will need mindful, optimistic politics. The denizens of these places may be strangers to each other, thrown together without any clear lines of authority or organizing structures. This makes them fertile grounds for radical, horizontal, intentional community arrangements. Solarpunk could be such an organizing principle, and in doing so turn what could be a diaspora of strife into a network of peace and progress.
That, I believe, is the biggest difference solarpunk can make, for the real danger of our current path comes not from rising seas or the economic exploitation, but from violence and chaos, nations squabbling over scarce resources, countries and communities fracturing, xenophobia devolving into ethnic cleansing. Whether we cover every roof with solar panels or fill every skyscraper with vertical farms, we should always have our eyes on the more vital goal of peace.
Whether solarpunk ends up building megastructures or organizing climate migrants, the solarpunks of today can start, as many of you are doing, by connecting with each other to begin the fight for the optimistic, verdant, sun-powered world we are envisioning. I see solarpunk as the seeds of an open source movement, the primordial form of global network society.
This means anyone can join by claiming allegiance, anyone can contribute by offering up a contribution. Barriers to entry are low or non-existent, because such movements are based around controversial principles instead of acquiring specific benefits for participants. Leaders, where they exist, are spokespeople and media liaisons, not hierarchs or dictators. The hacker collective Anonymous is perhaps the best example: their very name is designed to allow anyone to take up their mantle. Nearly all the most successful and influential popular movements of the twenty-first century are of this type, from Tahir Square to Occupy, from ISIS to #BlackLivesMatter.
I’d like to close by suggesting some principles of composition and norms of action for the solarpunk movement. Many of these I already see flourishing! It is the act of taking them up collectively that would make us a movement.
First is a tautology: the product of the community is the movement, and the product of the movement is the community. Solarpunk’s interest areas are such that meaningful change can only come from connections amongst individuals strong and deep enough to allow them to build real things that make their lives better — not just getting enough people to trend on Twitter. While political demands are vital, solarpunk is really about changing the ways people arrange themselves, not how we are arranged by the state.
Second, without excluding anyone, push the boundaries of what it means to be an open source movement with a norm of “teach one, try one.” Only by taking on projects outside our individual wheelhouse will we keep from being niched. We must be both fictional and practical, aesthetic and political, of design and of action.
A lot can change very quickly when artists become activists and activists become planners. Encourage diverse participation from solarpunks, contributing what they can and learning about what they can’t. This will also stop people from dipping in for a few ideas and then dipping out without adding their voice. Or worse, lobbing their suggestions in as they drive by, without stopping to listen to others. Think of this as the solarpunk equivalent of “if this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight.”
I’ve seen many people describe solarpunk as optimistic. My last suggestion is this: don’t be optimistic, be hopeful. As Vaclav Havel explained: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Havel, an artist turned activist turned statesman who led his nation out of a time of crisis, in many ways embodies the transformational power of ideas and aesthetics — and thus the potential of a movement like solarpunk to do real good in the world.
This essay has been long, and it has discussed many troubling situations and possibilities. I wrote these things because I think it is important for any cohesive body of political thought to contrast what it wants with what it opposes: for transparency and privacy, against surveillance and deception; for conservation and abundance, against hoarding and exploitation; for neighborhoods and collaboratives, against gangs and police.
I also wrote this because I believe the enormity of our problems doesn’t have to paralyze us. Quite the opposite: seeing the world as it is is vital if you are going to figure out how it could be. Now is the moment to be galvanized, to know that we are on to something, and to make acting on these ideas a real part of our lives.
As I write this California smolders with wildfires. A harsh wind runs across the world, hot and dry. But it is at our backs, and if we let it, that wind will fill our sails.