A Note on the Soul of Solarpunk

The emerging genre of solarpunk as a form of science fiction / general asethetic excites me. Its commitment to radical optimimisim in this day and age is admirable, in an age of rising threats visions of a better world can act as both inspiration and as maps to help us figure out where we need to go. The spectrum of influences people have tried to tie to it from Afro and Sino futurism to queer politics to radical leftism to green architecture make sense given Solarpunk's origin as a largely internet based phenomena. A globalized genre that reflects the multiplicitly of our current world and the one that we hope to inherit.

All that being said I feel like Solarpunk also lacks focus. Aside from being eco-friendly solarpunk lacks any firm political alignment. Obviously anti-capitalist are the main audience but aside from platitudes towards a more envrionmentally friendly economy little is actually concretely defined. This is fine, I'm a big believer in multiplicity and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks but handwavy platitudes about small is beautiful and more equitable eco-friendly markets seems unspired (although I am the type to read long books on political economy so perhaps this criticism isn't all that valid).

Likewise the emphasis on alternative aesthetics for technology is delightful - instead of the smooth, sleek aesthetic of modern laptops, phones and wearables that capitalism favours solarpunk instead opts for tech that is integrated into the environment. The parallels to open source and the marker community are obvious and the idea of a transhumanist aesthetic that isn't just typical cyberpunk is delightful.

Yet aesthetics alone are not enough to make a genre sustainable (heh). Hippies and punks didn't become countercultural movements because they looked interesting. It was because they had messages that resonated with people at a deep level. They challenged the status quo not just because they expressed discontent with it, but because they proposed alternatives, no matter poorly thought out they were.

Therefore when considering Solarpunk we should be radical and look to the roots of what this burging movement looks to express. In my (humble) opinion the true questions that lie at the heart of solarpunk that will set it as a genre out from climate fiction (cli-fi) and science fiction in general are the following.

  • How does society change when renewable energy becomes as ubquitious as computers are today and encroaches where fossil fuels were once dominant?
  • How does society change when products and services are designed around maximum circularity and modularity (thinks Spimes and open source hardware)?
  • And how do those two questions change how we look at combating climate change, capitalism, social justice issues and more?

Asking these two questions about all the problems we as a society face are were I think we'll see the most exciting and provoking Solarpunk art. You can still write about a world in which queer disabled minorities harvest plastic for open source desktop recycling machines powered by solar panels. And you can still design complex clothing that also doubles as fertilizer when it breaks down at the end of its life. But creating such art without realizing the broader context that we are going through an industrial (or de-industrial) revolution cheapens anything that calls itself Solarpunk.

How does corporate capitalism react to a societal movement that is not only more sustainable but also more economic? In the past year or so we're already seeing the dominantion of solar and wind + storage to cover for intermittency problems over traditional fossil fuels in terms of price, causing what were once stable investments to suddenly become unprofitable (my favorite being the German utility that had seen a reliable yearly profit since the end of World War II suddenly becoming unprofitable thanks to Germany's agressive renewable strategy). Obviously right now the battle is mostly one of hearts and minds with oil companies spending significant amounts of money on anti-climate change propagnada and lobbying politicans for protections. But how does this change when it goes from encroaching on the profits of oil companies to threatening them with bankruptcy? - espcially when states that rely on oil profits are particularly violent and corrupt.

But democraticizing energy through cheap renewables is only the beginning of the siesmic changes Solarpunk anticipates. In 2005 science fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote a phamphlet theorizing a particular type of technology called a 'Spime' which would be the logical conclusion of a highly networked society that looked towards sustainability. Spimes are objects so densely packed with information that they exist as instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes are designed to decay gracefully after use, returning to the material stream so their substance can be reused for future Spimes. Futhermore Spimes constantly gather data so that when they return back to the ether they can inform the production of future Spimes. How does capitalism react to such a process? The obvious answer is intellectual property restrictions but as we've seen with the success of open source software the ability for crowds to outperform corporations when it comes to coordinated action. Could cheap decentralized manufacturing overcome, or at least undermine the class divide thats existed since the industrial revolution?

These are the questions that I feel solarpunk that looks to be more then just an aesthetic movement should be grapling with. The art, aesthetics and IRL experiments should all be built on the foundation of the possibilities I've outlined. Sure you draw some art about a neat looking 3d printed dress but what does society look like when that dress is open sourceable and capable of being turned into feedstock at home? Sure you can write about guerrilla carbon capture but how would such praxis be affected by the existence of cheap ardunio sensors that can jack into the local insecure IoT network and transmit how much CO2 you've drawn down into the Cloud?

The future for Solarpunk is bright. But only intelligently situating it within a broader context will make it truly irradescent.