Artwork By Mariam Mabrouk
“All great art is revolutionary because it touches upon the reality of man and questions the reality of the various transitory forms of human society.”
The modern human has manipulated the environment in an irreparable way. There is consensus among scientists that no effort is great enough to overturn the disruption of the natural world perpetrated since the Industrial Revolution. That the climate is changing in unpredictable and possibly fatal ways is now an indisputable fact, or at least it should be. Such is the existential threat of our time.
But the threat seems unavailable to us in an ominous way. Everyone can read the signs: the increase in global temperatures, the changing weather patterns, the incidence of droughts and natural disasters and so on and so forth. Yet, the threat is not palpable; it is hidden under layers of logic and “commonsense”, buried by empty rhetoric and pacifying performance. We know, abstractly, what it could amount to, but we do not even possess the conceptual framework to imagine it.
Civilization since the Industrial Revolution cannot be dissociated from our use of certain energy resources, which has birthed a complex system based on exploitation, technology and growth. Growth has been conflated with progress, and every threat to our way of living has been tackled with more growth. The rise of technology, giving us the ability to harness the natural world to our advantage, feeds this obsession, proposing that solutions to any problem arising from growth lie in a technology to develop.
The crisis is nevertheless felt in the shower, in every meal, in every purchase, in every unnecessary piece of packaging; we feel it breathing down our neck, we can almost taste the catastrophe it foreshadows. What have we got to numb this unutterable dread? For Slavoj Zizek, a new religion has risen. A religion where every minute action takes transcendental importance, a religion reliant on humility and penance, where we must suffer for every individual act that makes the issue worse. This approach might serve as a pacifier, but it desperately attempts to conceal the fact that we might not be able to do enough. But then what is left? A new nihilism is brewing, recognizing the overwhelming complexity of the climate problem, reducing our individual efforts to useless performances.
But this horrible defeatism stops at the door, sees no way to circumvent the problem within the logic of the current system and opts to do nothing. It is a political suicide that reinforces the exploitation, the consumption, the pollution that corrode our world.
Can we escape this dread? Yes, but It would demand of us, first of all, to accept the failure of our growth problem and confront the crisis in all its grim potential. And what comes after this is a radical reimagination of the way we live, interact and organize society. A change in the language we use, in the imagery, in the imagination, providing a new paradigm through which to see the world, one that dares to articulate the problem in order to see beyond it. As Rhys Williams puts it, to go “against a shitty future”.
From the depths of internet micro communities comes Solarpunk, a speculative genre daring to take on this challenge, to claim back optimism, embodied in a radical imagination of our relationship with the environment. Solarpunk recognizes what a climate catastrophe entails, and understands that it would not be the end of the world, rather, the collapse of a toxic, untenable system. Yet solarpunk ultimately believes in humanity’s capacity to engage with the crisis and provide radical sustainable solutions.
This is why Rhys Williams claims that the most interesting works of art nowadays come from speculative fiction. In an increasingly precarious world, realism and its reliance on the stability and normality of our social and material reality feels naive and escapist. For Williams, it is in works of fiction and fantasy that address the crises of the Anthropocene that we find a means to fight against what is “reasonable”.
Although it emerged in internet forums only as an aesthetic, Solarpunk has evolved to become a fully-fledged movement across disciplines. But as it grows, it becomes harder to pinpoint what it is and isn’t; like any subculture, it is budding with different imaginations and interpretations. A preliminary manifesto by a group of creatives attempts to solve this issue, gathering different ideas about solarpunk to give it a clear direction. For them solarpunk is, at its core, a vision of the future that embodies the best of what humanity can achieve. But the “punk” component of it must also be emphasized: Solarpunk is also about revolution, decentralization, counterculture, and a world beyond late capitalism. These solutions can only come about within the context of an end to our addiction to fossil fuels, to the paralyzingly real scarcity hiding behind false scarcity and abundance, to unjust hierarchies and crippling inequality. It is about a negation of the mainstream view, which, in its cynicism, fails to engage with the realness of the threat.
According to its manifesto, the aesthetic principles of Solarpunk can be found in the intersection of practicality and beauty, of intelligent design and green lush, of the colorful with the solid. Technology is not excluded from this future, but it can’t be fetichized either. It exists only in communion with the natural world, appropriated for the design of a built environment with renewables at the forefront. In the same way, creations must beware of greenwashing modernity. Solarpunk stands for decentralization and community, claiming power back to the local level and reconciling it with the environment. There is no place for inefficient and centralized urban development with pretty gardens. The manifesto begs us to “imagine smart cities being junked for smart citizenry”.
In a classic visual rendering of a Solarpunk future by internet user Imperial Boy, buildings seated on a body of water are showered by the engulfing light of the sun. Trees sprout from every corner, covering whole floors and extending from the top of buildings to meet the light of the sun. Branches subtly fall from windows and balconies, and the run-down appearance of the buildings embodies the idea of repurposing existing infrastructure. Branch-like Bridges and waterways connect the exuberant city, giving an interconnectedness to the scene that fosters the idea of a complex living ecosystem.
We should, however, question the spotless beauty of this world. As Williams puts it: “the fact that there is no abject, no excrement, in Solarpunk belies a sinister omission”. Where there are humans there is trash, and there is suffering. In their effort to produce an optimistic landscape, their failure to account for the bleak threatens to undermine the verisimilitude of such a future. We must be acquainted with the ways in which this world is not perfect, we must be able to reject it on some principle, so as to make it palpable and possible to realize.
We must demand this framework from solarpunk because, for the movement, fiction is not just a form of entertainment, it’s explicitly political. The imagination of a practical, decentralized and smooth running relationship with energy stands in stark opposition to our grim energy culture, confronting the reader to the horrors of a system we have come to consider reasonable– grounded on infinite growth, on senseless extraction, on a pillage of the earth’s resources and an unequal distribution thereof. In this way, the speculation becomes an exhortation; solarpunk is propaganda, working to inform people in the variety of ways a transition to more integral forms of production and healthier relationships with the environment can be realized.
Here, the practicality of solarpunk comes into play. As a language through which to envision a future, solarpunk must include action. It is not just about the stories, it’s about how we can get there. At the center of this is, of course, the transition to renewable energies . But again, it’s not as easy as buying some solar-panels and congratulating ourselves for our service to the planet. If our relationship with energy and production does not change, “infrastructure will not present a radical break but rather business as usual”, says Williams. Solar energy provides autonomy only as long as the product works, and products are meant to stop working. Still, existing solutions must be implemented in order to make way to a greater paradigm change. Solarpunk, as a counterculture, embodies and applies every local solution available, creating a community burgeoning with stories of a sustainable transition. Creating autonomous functioning systems, installing local power grids, ditching harmful land management for permaculture and more are all part of the movement.
As Solarpunk begins to be assimilated by the mainstream, it will have to rise to new challenges. Solarpunk will increasingly become a banner for a variety of movements, practices and imaginations, making it difficult to preserve a single purpose and direction. The movement’s future will be defined by its ability to fend off the threats of the institutionalizing, greenwashing, and regurgitating force of mainstream discourse. Will the “punk” aspect remain the driving force, or will its more radical tendencies be dampened?
It will probably be a mixture of both. I can imagine a head of state alluding to the beautiful cities of solarpunk when inaugurating a vertical garden whilst he plans his reelection campaign with fossil fuel money. But who knows? Maybe significant pressure to set national agendas on a course to something that resembles solarpunk will achieve sweeping reform. Perhaps, even, as a radical branch enters the public consciousness, people will be irreparably infected with visions of this sustainable future, refusing to stand for the ravaging of our world for one more second.
In the words of Jim Morrison: “We want the world and we want it now!”.
Alexander, S. (2014). “Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it”. The Conversation
Gosset, S. (2021) “Solarpunk is a Tumblr Vibe, It’s Also a Practical movement”. Built In
The Solarpunk Community. (n.d.). A Solarpunk Manifesto. Redes Regenerative Design.
Williams, R. (2018). Solarpunk: Against a Shitty Future. Los Angeles Review of Books.