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Solarpunk, Climate Change and the New Thinkable

Amitav Gosh’s thesis in “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” could be summarized with the opening lines of chapter three: “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.” Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of pages rectifying that. The conclusion is difficult to deny: climate change is treated as unthinkable in literary fiction. Even in science fiction, Gosh writes, the anthropocene is addressed largely through “disaster stories set in the future.”

Citing Margaret Atwood’s analysis of science fiction and speculative fiction, namely that they “all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one,” Gosh argues that this is precisely the problem. Climate change, after all, is not part of an imagined other world. It is very much our world today and for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he argues, climate change consists of events that are just as “uncanny” as the typical worlds in speculative fiction. This is the reason why “the Anthropocene resists science fiction.”

That climate change is mentioned even less in literary fiction than in the public arena is, however, something that may surprise many. Gosh published his book in 2016. As it happens, we’ve since seen the rise of climate-focused activist groups such as Fridays for Future (started by Greta Thunberg in August 2018), the Sunrise Movement (started in 2017), the September 2019 climate strikes, and Extinction Rebellion (started in May 2018), among others. But They haven’t yet led to the sort of rapid, all-encompassing changes that we know are needed to mitigate the worst damages of climate change. This failure itself has contributed to an increase in ecoanxieties among both climate scientists and activists. The popularisation of the term (also known as “eco-trauma” or “ecological grief”) coalesced with the rising popularity of dystopian imagery. And thus a pessimistic and seemingly endless feedback loop is created.

In the past decade or so, we’ve also seen the development of an art and literary movement seeking to think about and imagine our world in the present or future while recognizing the overwhelming presence of climate change but without falling into dystopian clichés that rarely offer much other than a generalized sense of despair and helplessness. This is not the world of zombies and lone warriors such as in the movies I Am Legend and World War Z or TV series like The Walking Dead, nor is it the world of impossibly massive climate events that come and go very quickly such as in The Day After Tomorrow, where nature’s wrath is merely the act of a divine-like entity punishing humanity and then allowing it to learn from its mistakes. 

This movement was already in existence in 2016 but only started picking up some steam in the past few years, no doubt also bolstered by the globalizing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is Solarpunk, also known as ecospeculation or ecopunk, a movement which came out of some corners of the internet as an offshoot, and a reaction to, cyperpunk. The group ‘Solarpunk Anarchists’ describes it as such: “Solarpunk is a (mostly) aesthetic-cultural and (sometimes) ethical-political tendency which attempts to negate the dominant idea which grips popular consciousness: that the future must be grim, or at least grim for the mass of people and nonhuman forms of life on the planet.” It is common to see a Solarpunk design as green, open and wonderfully-designed urban spaces interspersed with the world of Ghibli movies, although in more recent years a number of short stories and a few longer ones have also been published. 

The Solarpunk movement is decentralized, and as such can incorporate different aesthetics and even politics, although attempts to form a more coherent vision have also been ongoing. As far as I can tell, Solarpunks tend towards anti-capitalism, with various ideologies and practices intersecting and in conversation with one another, from radical ideologies such as anarchism, to practices such as veganism and vegetarianism, to aesthetically-oriented Tumblr accounts, Star Trek fans and various Tolkienesque or Ghibliesque worlds. It incorporates various ideas from degrowth or postgrowth to indigenous rights, feminism, racial justice and decolonisation.

The YouTuber ‘Saint Andrewism’ described Solarpunk in succinct terms and it is worth quoting him in full: 

“Solarpunk is a shining vision of a positive future, grounded in our existing world, that emphasizes the need for environmental sustainability, self-governance and social justice. It’s a movement dedicated to human-centric and eco-centric ends. It looks beyond the limitations of capitalism and beyond the current rift between humanity and nature. It’s a futurism that focuses on what we should hope for rather than on what to avoid. Solarpunk recognizes that climate change, the consequences of centuries of damage, aren’t averted in the future. Yet it still manages to incorporate hope. A future where we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re doing better. We’re using technology for more uplifting ends. Like seed bombing drones and solar ovens. Solarpunk emphasizes real-world application. It’s all about what we do here and now, from DIY projects to larger organization. Solarpunk is also very aesthetic. It uses a lot of nature motifs and takes inspiration from art nouveau, upcycling and Asian and African styles and artistic movements.”


Another, the ‘queererrant’ Tumblr account, put it like this

“One of the things I find most helpful about solarpunk is that it gives me a positive ideal to work towards. Of course solarpunk is at its core about dismantling capitalism, averting the worst consequences of climate change, and fighting systems of oppression, but always focusing on the negatives we are trying to end is a lot harder on my mental health than looking to a positive ideal to reach for. The world we live in is already rough on mental health. People are isolated from each other and from nature, overworked, underpaid, locked in hierarchical systems, and facing social problems that are massive in scope and well-entrenched. Imagining a positive eco-socialist future is already a radical and punk action.”

In other words, Solarpunk sits at the intersection of possible positive futures and likely negative ones. It is a recognition of humanity’s wide-ranging damage upon the natural world and inevitably, upon itself. Solarpunk is also a reaction to the cynical and dystopian imaginaries that have come out of the fear of climate change. It is a way of tackling ecoanxieties and an invitation to complement the important work of climate scientists. Just as climate scientists have sought to warn the world about the dangers of climate change, Solarpunks are offering alternative visions to the helplessness often generated by such warnings. Solarpunk, then, is a challenge to the modern adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, to which I can add ‘and growth-oriented economies’. It seeks to make imagining the end of capitalism easier, to make alternatives more reachable to the popular imagination, and to build community resilience in the process. Just as it is very easy for a child to imagine a zombie apocalypse due to the popular proliferation of such stories, Solarpunks seek to build a world where children can imagine better futures, and actively participate in making them true, or at least truer.

To illustrate, I will use an example of what Solarpunks often do: the creation of new words to speed up the re-imagining of our world. One such word is ‘permablitzing’, a contraction of permaculture and blitz, the German word for lightning. Permablitzing usually involves groups of people meeting up to “typically create or develop a community or household edible, wildlife-friendly garden, according to a permaculture design. Permablitzes can also involve sustainable non-food growing projects.” The latter can include almost anything from sustainable engineering to herbalism, aquaponics, mycology, geology and so on. As a word, permablitz stands in sharp contrast to ‘blitzkrieg’ (lightning war), a reference to the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom during World War II. Whereas a blitzkrieg obviously spreads death, a permablitz seeks to do the opposite. 

Part of the idea of permablitzing is also its speed – quickly learning ways to undo or mitigate the damages of pollution, soil degradation, climate change, and so on – while also focusing on building community networks. A Solarpunk story can then feature permablitzing and set it in various settings. How would permablitzing look like in London or Nairobi or Kolkata today, and how could it look like in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires or Cairo in the year 2050? What would the political economy of these places look like, and how would they need to change (if at all)? Could permablitzing help individuals and communities navigate the effects of climate change? If not, what is it good for? A Solarpunk design would feature people permablitzing, and a Solarpunk action would be the act itself.

This brings me to a grievance that is often addressed at the climate movement, one which I think speaks to a common failure of imagination within the activist community. In his essay “What If We Stopped Pretending?“, Jonathan Frazen argued against a popular tendency in the climate movement to avoid being seen as ‘alarmist’ by the wider public. The climate movement, he argues, continues to rely on false hope of salvation which ‘can be actively harmful.’ His argument could be summed up in this paragraph: 

“If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” 

The question isn’t, then, between hope and hopelessness, but between a hope rooted in understanding our reality and a false hope rooted in denial.

Funnily enough, Frazen’s conclusion is in line with Solarpunks’ argument: “Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land—nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it.” The added value of Solarpunk here is merely a recognition that these regenerative practices would benefit from a whole plethora of stories about what the world could look like if only to undo the damage caused by the disproportionate influence dystopian stories have had on our imagination. To use the example of the child who can imagine zombie apocalypses more easily than they can imagine a world where they would want to grow up in, what Solarpunk seeks to do is make gardening as exciting as a zombie apocalypse. A Solarpunk story can even include Zombies. It would just focus more on the communities coming together to support one another and are actively building a post-Zombie world.

A Solarpunk world can incorporate elements of fantasy as well and use that “same deep well”, to quote Atwood again. The difference however is in the added urgency behind such an expansion of the imagination. One could read Lord of the Rings without feeling the need to adopt its ‘lessons’ to our present and future contexts because J.R.R. Tolkien sought to create a mythical past to be enjoyed in the present. We imagine Middle Earth knowing that it is not our Earth, but we allow ourselves to be captured by its possibility nonetheless. A Solarpunk version would seek to reproduce, for example, the Elvish sanctuary of Rivendell and adapt it to the Anthropocene. It could look like a mixture of Rivendell and Wakanda, with some Ghibli elements sprinkled all over. 

Finally, to illustrate another example of Solarpunk, I think it would be useful to look at Star Trek. While Star Trek predates the movement it has elements that we might describe as Solarpunk, or at least proto-Solarpunk. In Season 4 Episode 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard visits his hometown in France sometime in the 24th century. The contrast between his agricultural hometown and his high-tech world is symbolised by his brother Robert, who is a bit of a Luddite in comparison to Jean-Luc’s world as captain of the Federation Starship USS Enterprise. Robert runs the family vineyard and refuses to have a replicator (a matter-energy conversation technology that can produce almost anything including food) because he believes they made life “too convenient.” 

Robert’s anti-technology attitude isn’t Solarpunk as Solarpunk seeks to use technology for more uplifting ends. But the very existence of an agricultural community in the 24th century is. Solarpunk also seeks to build a multiplicity of worlds that can cohabit, in sharp contrast to how technology in most modern societies is treated as an end in itself. In that 24th century French town, high-tech coexists with low-tech and the latter (Robert) still has something to offer the former (Jean-Luc). This contradicts the myth that growth has to be linear, that any technological ‘improvement’, no matter how insignificant, is worth revolving our entire economies around and worth spending enormous amounts of resources developing. In that world, technologies far more advanced than modern cell phones exist side by side with naturally cultivated wine, theater, card games and countless cultural events from across the galaxy’s many civilizations. When he’s not being the embodiment of high-tech human genius, everyone’s favourite android Data performs Shakespearean plays, paints or just plays with his cat.

Writing in MUSE, William Flores wrote that we deserve to move “towards a post-scarcity, solarpunk, Star Trekkian future.” Towards the end of his essay, he quoted Jean-Luc Picard explaining 24th-century life to a group of time-travellers from 20th century Earth: “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” That is, in essence, the case for Solarpunk.

Joey Ayoub

Ilustration: Vardal Caniş.

This text was first published by Mangal Media.

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