Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto

September 4, 2014 in Hieroglyph

It’s hard out here for futurists under 30.

As we percolated through our respective nations’ education systems, we were exposed to WorldChanging and TED talks, to artfully-designed green consumerism and sustainable development NGOs. Yet we also grew up with doomsday predictions slated to hit before our expected retirement ages, with the slow but inexorable militarization of metropolitan police departments, with the failure of the existing political order to deal with the existential-but-not-yet-urgent threat of climate change. Many of us feel it’s unethical to bring children into a world like ours. We have grown up under a shadow, and if we sometimes resemble fungus it should be taken as a credit to our adaptability.

We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.

The promises offered by most Singulatarians and Transhumanists are individualist and unsustainable: How many of them are scoped for a world where energy is not cheap and plentiful, to say nothing of rare earth elements?

Solarpunk is 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 at the species level, rather than individually. Our future must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.

And yes, there’s a -punk there, and not just because it’s become a trendy suffix. There’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk, but it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance. We’re already seeing it in the struggles of public utilities to deal with the explosion in rooftop solar. “Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination,” said Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, MS, and he was right. Certainly there are good reasons to have a grid, and we don’t want it to rot away, but one of the healthy things about local resilience is that it puts you in a much better bargaining position against the people who might want to shut you off (We’re looking at you, Detroit).

Solarpunk punkSolarpunk draws on the ideal of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, Ghandi’s ideal of swadeshi and subsequent Salt March, and countless other traditions of innovative dissent. (FWIW, both Ghandi and Jefferson were inventors.)

The visual aesthetics of Solarpunk are open and evolving. As it stands, it’s a mash-up of the following:

  • 1800s age-of-sail/frontier living (but with more bicycles)
  • Creative reuse of existing infrastructure (sometimes post-apocalyptic, sometimes present-weird)
  • Jugaad-style innovation from the developing world
  • High-tech backends with simple, elegant outputs

Obviously, the further you get into the future, the more ambitious you can get. In the long-term, solarpunk takes the images we’ve been fed by bright-green blogs and draws them out further, longer, and deeper. Imagine permaculturists thinking in cathedral time. Consider terraced irrigation systems that also act as fluidic computers. Contemplate the life of a Department of Reclamation officer managing a sparsely populated American southwest given over to solar collection and pump storage. Imagine “smart cities” being junked in favor of smart citizenry.

Tumblr lit up within the last week from this post envisioning a form of solar punk with an art nouveau Edwardian-garden aesthetic, which is gorgeous and reminds me of Miyazaki. There’s something lovely in the way it reacts against the mainstream visions of overly smooth, clean, white modernist iPod futures. Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears.

Image courtesy of Olivia/Land of Masks and Jewels. Check out Olivia’s Tumblr post on solarpunk, which has stellar artwork and some great additional thoughts on the concept!

Adam Flynn is a researcher-at-large and artistic troublemaker. He lives in San Francisco, tweets as @threadbare, and can usually be found mining the intersections of the antiquarian and futuristic.

4 responses to Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto

  1. I think that science fiction should deal more with the near future if it wants to really have an impact. Otherwise, the audience thinks what is being presented is fantasy and mere entertainment rather than a practical guide for the future.

    Check out the new book BOLD NEW WORLD and the POTENTIALISTMOVEMENT (at Amazon)

    I think you will see that it is possible to provide a better future by taking realistic steps to improve upon what exists by simply creating a new type of community in the very near future.

  2. There is a lot about the young farmer movement here in the Adirondacks that I see in your essay. See, for example, the Greenhornsand Farm Hack. At a very early stage, I raised the subject of this kind of rural, agrarian futurism on the Hieroglyph site but wasn’t really sure where to take that conversation.

    Also of interest along these lines is the Adirondack Futures Project.

  3. Going solar is a deep mental shift: it will be the central metaphor of our future civilization.
    Consider this stunning fact: heliocentrism has never been mythologized. In other words all our mythological and religious traditions ignore this simple physical, geographical fact: it is the sun that is ‘in the middle’.
    Of course we ‘know’ it. Every child learns it at school. But do we really know it? Do we experience it? All human languages still use the words ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’. How many of us visualize ourselves flying backwards as we contemplate the ‘setting’ sun?
    Going solar is about putting the sun in the middle, at the very core of our identity as human beings. We are the children of the solar system, along with all our fellow critters on this earth . And we humans are its consciousness and conscience.
    It is time for the children to journey forth and embrace the next stage of our evolution.
    The Copernican revolution is still ahead of us.
    The solar system is our playground.
    The solar system is our garden.
    Solar or bust!

  4. Adam, great idea and great post, and nice to meet a fellow luftmensch and artistic troublemaker! You wrote, “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”

    I love it, great genre term! Go with it. We need all the poz energy we can get on these issues. But cli fi is also poz in its genesis and future. see here

    AP wire story worldwide link here wire story

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