Solarpunk: visions of a greener future

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I love speculative fiction, from sci-fi to its more fantastical manifestations, from cyberpunk to steampunk. Connoisseurs of ‘serious’ literature may dismiss these and related genres as less-than, juvenile, well, just too damn unrealistic. What attracts me to them is their potential to explore and inform the real world in a more profound way than may be possible in more mainstream forms of prose.

That might sound rather counterintuitive – sci-fi and fantasy offering something tangible to actual, lived reality? But because they’re able to discard the constraints of conventional settings, circumstances and rules, speculative fiction writers open possibilities of envisioning an alternate world in which humans do things differently. Thinking well-outside established boxes, they and their readers are allowed to see the future in radically new ways.

And to me, that’s how revolutions begin: by imagining the world in ways we would like it to be and by sowing the seeds of innovative approaches in the hope that they will sprout and blossom in the decaying shell of the old.

The other day, I came across a term I hadn’t seen before, and which I think is quite exciting: solarpunk. It describes a literary genre that presents itself as an optimistic alternative to the gloomy cynicism many environmentalists (myself included) are partial to. It shifts the focus from dim, there-is-no-future forecasts to the potentialities of more sustainable and greener ways of living on this planet and attempts to move us from worn dystopian 21st century tropes to more positive ones.

In his ‘Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto’, Adam Flynn describes it as a mash-up of “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 [and] high-tech backends with simple, elegant outputs”.

The ‘punk’ part of solarpunk embraces the long-standing, counter-traditional, boot-strapping, do-it-yourself ethos of the punk movement as well as its dual emphasis on individual autonomy and mutual aid. Think stand-alone solar power arrays that afford off-grid electricity independence to households and neighbourhoods, combining neglected older know-how with modern technologies while avoiding overwhelmingly negative ecological impacts.

The word ‘solarpunk’ may be newly coined, but much of the aesthetic it encompasses has been around for a long time, both in social movements, from Murray Bookchin’s social ecology to permaculture and the transition movement, as well as in the speculative fiction of some of my favourite writers from Ursula K Le Guin and Neal Stephenson to Kim Stanley Robinson and further back to Edward Bellamy and William Morris.

As a type of fiction, solarpunk will have to grapple with the problem that utopian story-telling can be somewhat lacking when it comes to tension and excitement, but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed by introducing some dystopian counterpoints. At once techno-savvy and organic, it also has the potential to go well beyond just environmental concerns by addressing social and political issues as well.

I quite like Flynn’s summary: “solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears”. I can’t wait!

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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