Originally published in ABC Environment, 10 November 2014:
“IMAGINE A SUSTAINABLE world, driven by clean and renewable energy. Now imagine large space sailboats driven by solar radiation, production of biofuels via nanotechnology, the advent of photosynthetic humans, and, as there is no perfect society, even terrorism against corrupt businesses and governments. Welcome to the bright green world of solarpunk.”
The past decade has seen a huge rise in post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction, particularly aimed at young adults, exploring a variety of unpleasant possible futures, ranging from planet-wide desolation and starvation, to a world in which the uber-rich live in space-borne luxury while the poor languish on a stricken Earth.
But a new theme may be emerging; one that reflects our desire for a more optimistic but also more realistic vision of humanity’s near-future; that acknowledges we have some enormous challenges and changes ahead, but allows us to believe we may yet meet those challenges and survive not only as a species but as a civilisation.
You may not have heard of solarpunk, and given that this sub-genre and cultural movement has so far largely been discussed only on social media sites such as Tumblr and Twitter, you wouldn’t be the only one.
Unlike its more established predecessors cyberpunk and steampunk, you would be hard pushed to find a novel in bookstores branded as being of the solarpunk sub-genre, apart from a single anthology of short stories published in Brazil in 2012, from which the introduction to this article is loosely taken.
So what is solarpunk? Adam Flynn, a brand strategist based in San Francisco, has been heavily involved in the early stirrings of this movement. In a recent post on the Heiroglyph website — a project from the Centre for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University — he wrote, “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”
In this nascent stage, solarpunk appears as a loose collection of ideologies, manifestos, and desires for a sustainable, achievable future. It’s elegant high-end technology powered by renewable energy. It’s a shift away from geometric centralised infrastructure to a decentralised, organic, free-flowing design. It’s microgrids instead of national grids. It’s stained glass solar panels, and natural fabrics merged with solar cells. It’s bespoke instead of mass-produced. It’s permaculture and microbreweries. It’s communal instead of corporate. It’s radical sustainability: when hippies and hipsters meet, and techno-geeks crash the party.
According to Flynn, solarpunk is about a “future with a human face and dirt behind its ears.”
“A lot it is just reacting against the things that people feel aren’t fruitful and aren’t sustaining, and are the consequences of the lives that we have been told we’re supposed to want,” says Flynn.
The ‘-punk’ suffix is generally dated back to the emergence of the cyberpunk sub-genre, with the publication of William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer, says Professor Gary Wolfe, science fiction editor, critic, and reviewer for Locus magazine.
“‘Punk’ is supposed to convey a kind of rebellious street smart attitude, and I suspect that it probably came from punk rock back in early 70s,” says Wolfe, also professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “I’m guessing the idea is that we’re going to be rebellious, we’re going to be counter-cultural, we’re are going to be to literature what punk rock was to rock in the 70s.”
While cyberpunk explored hacker culture in an often dystopic high-tech future featuring artificial intelligence and evil mega-corporates, and steampunk borrows steam-powered Victorian-era aesthetics and sets them in wild, post-apocalyptic worlds, solarpunk explores sustainable near-futures that bring people and communities together rather than isolate.
“If cyberpunk was ‘here is this future that we see coming and we don’t like it’, and steampunk is ‘here’s yesterday’s future that we wish we had’, then solarpunk might be ‘here’s a future that we can want and we might actually be able to get’, says Flynn.
While cyberpunk took off with authors such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, Wolfe says solarpunk is unusual in that the label has come before the movement, emerging as a hashtag on Tumblr [http://missolivialouise.tumblr.com/post/94374063675/heres-a-thing-ive-had-around-in-my-head-for-a, http://solarpunks.tumblr.com/], Twitter and Reddit.
Some of its energy can be traced back to an article written by author Neal Stephenson in the World Policy Journal in 2011 [http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/innovation-starvation].
“He said science fiction should be aspirational, it shouldn’t be cynical and dark, it shouldn’t be like his own fiction, it should reimagine hopeful futures, it should write the kind of thing that will inspire young scientists to say, ‘I can do this’,” Wolfe says. “I think that’s gotten translated into the idea that we need more optimistic near-future science fiction, and I think that’s bled over to the idea of solarpunk.”
Some of the technology described in posts on solarpunk, such as wind-powered ocean liners, has been described in earlier works such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 young adult novel Ship Breaker.
“He’s imaging the utopian energy-saving, but in his world only the super wealthy can have it,” Wolfe says. While steampunk aesthetics feature a complex mix of Victorian-era clothing, riveted metal, leather, and Gothic tendencies, solarpunk art is leaning towards a green Art Nouveau aesthetic, with stained glass and wrought metal topped with solar panels and surrounded by greenery.
But perhaps solarpunk’s most important feature is its optimism, at a time when the prevailing winds are blowing due apocalypse.
“When you start talking to people about climate change, it’s very easy for them to hit on the immensity of it all and just freeze up and say maybe it doesn’t mean anything, why should I care if there’s nothing I can do, what does this mean etc,” says Flynn. “I think there’s a lot that people can do to reframe thinking about how we talk about it and react towards it, and I think art has a role to play in that.”
As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, he says, and unfortunately, at the moment, that vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption.
“We need to have more models of what a scalable sustainable vision of a life lived with human dignity will be.”