Solarpunks: No More Doom and Gloom!!!

Utopia has always been a political issue, an unusual destiny for a literary form: yet just as the literary value of the form is subject to permanent doubt, so also its  political status is structurally ambiguous.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

Olivia Louise on tumblr (2014) gave birth to a new buzzword a while back: Solarpunk – “Okay, so I’m pretty sure that by now everyone at least is aware of Steampunk, with it’s completely awesome Victorian sci-fi aesthetic. But what I want to see is Solarpunk – a plausible near-future sci-fi genre, which I like to imagine as based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement to create a world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies, to dress makers and jewelers, and everyone in between. A balance of sustainable energy-powered tech, environmental cities, and wicked cool aesthetics.”

Adam Lynn would produce a manifesto for this technodream of our near future telling us “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.”

As Jeet Heer in his The New Utopians remarks Solarpunk’s “vision is a call back to the Victorian dreams of William Morris (who wrote his own utopia, News From Nowhere, in 1890), John Ruskin, and the members of the Arts and Crafts movement who hoped to humanize industrialism. Carrying forward and advancing the kind of utopianism that runs from Morris to Robinson, and now solarpunk, is a heartening sign that the dream of a better tomorrow is still possible, even in the face of the apocalypse. To build a better future we have to first imagine it.”

The Utopians not only offer to conceive of alternate systems; Utopian form is itself a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of the social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence which has not first thrown off Utopian  visions  like  so many  sparks from a  comet.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

In On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk Andrew Dana Hudson charts the political scope of this new aesthetic style of utopian longing as a speculative movement: a collaborative effort to imagine and design a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability and beauty, achievable with what we have from where we are. Only in the twenty-teens could a series of social media sketches spark such an ambitious activist agenda — not to mention a literary genre that has rabid fans but has yet to produce any literature.

Ernst Bloch in his trilogy The Principle of Hope gave voice to this hope and dream of utopian aspiration for a world living in the midst of pain, doom, and silence during the failed worlds of Hitler and Stalin. As Walter Benjamin would say:

“The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.”1

One of the radical wagers of utopian thought is not to adopt toward the present the “point of view of finality,” viewing it as if it were already past, but precisely to “reintroduce the openness of future into the past, to grasp that-what-was in its process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated existing necessity” (ibid., viii). Is this not what these solarpunkers are seeking, a way to redeem aspects of the past in the future, and the future in the past? A sort of retroactive making that brings out of the ruins of time certain forgotten dreams of hope that were left behind, lost amid the degradations of bourgeois societies ambitions and failures.

Utopia  can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and  ideo­logical imprisonment (something I have myself occasionally asserted); and that therefore  the  best Utopias are those  that  fail  the most  comprehensively.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

As Hudson remarks the very name “solarpunk” implies that scientific breakthroughs alone won’t fix our environmental, social and economic problems. After all, it posits a world of solar-energy abundance and then argues that we will still have need of punks. No magical tech fixes for us. We’ll have to do it the hard way: with politics. In fact as he tells it “Solarpunk’s strategy should be to create pockets of progress and imagination within a larger political landscape of decay, deadlock and long emergency.” There it is, that word: progress… plus imagination. Isn’t progress one of the hate words now? Haven’t we had enough of such technological progress, social progress, political progress? What has two-hundred years of Enlightenment progress given us after all? Isn’t it the enemy, rather than the friend? A part of the progressive global capitalist machine that has bulldozed across history like a demon god laying waste to nation after nation as it gobbled up resource after resource leaving apocalyptic famine, war, resource depletion, and civil-strife at home and abroad? Death, slaughter, economic enslavement: or these not the tales of Capital? So why should we align ourselves with some new utopian longing based on ecological solarism?

Here  as  elsewhere in narrative analysis what is most revealing is not what  is  said, but what cannot be said, what does not  register on the narrative apparatus.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

Even Hudson admits that as one commenter @Threadbare “pointed out to me that too often bright-green design is rooted in the tradition of modernist real-estate development, which sells a vision of places made wholly new. Past mistakes are cleansed. The clean hallways are haunted by render ghosts. It’s seductive, and easy to put in a magazine, but anyone who has sat through a planning board meeting knows how unrealistic it is.” So why follow such a path? He tells us “Solarpunk need not make this same mistake. We know what jugaad is. We know about water hacking, and guerilla gardening, and pressure-washer graffiti. Solarpunk can see the spots where trees have broken through the asphalt for what they are: great places to grow trees.”

I remember The Water Thief by Nicholas Lamar Soutter’s series of executive letters at the end of this dystopian fable, where one of the anonymous corporate enclave minions states to a friend:

I’d love to be generous. I hate hoarding resources. But as I said before, generosity is the enemy of the people, of civilization. It is the men who can do anything, the man who, like myself, takes money from the poor and bread from the hungry, we are the ones who save society, who save life, by being able to do that which lower-contracts cannot. I do not heed their opinion of me or my work, their happiness or despair. They are nothing more than a number, the final line on a ledger sheet, and that is how they know I love them. Because it is for all mankind that I resist the temptation to be generous.2

Isn’t that what all philanthropists have done? With one hand like Bill Gates and his wife, or any number of other current day philanthropists – George Soros, etc., they will supposedly give a helping hand, be generous – yet, with a price, with a form of governance, overseer entrepreneurship; a gift that has the price of a specific form, a technological determinism that constrains the gift to lean into existence and force the future to do its bidding. This is no generosity this is dominion by others means.

For Hudson this “is a messy task, and we will probably need to have some difficult discussions about just how solarpunk aspires to relate to “the natural world.” Can cities ever exist in harmony with nature? Does such a thing as “nature” even exist anymore? Do we need to fundamentally change the way we relate to the natural world? Or can we find sustainability through piecemeal reforms? I don’t know the answers, but I do believe that solarpunk shouldn’t shy from its urban destiny. Solarpunk is a continuation of the Anthropocene.”

…it is certainly of the greatest interest for us today to understand why Utopias have flourished in one period and dried up in another.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

One discovers the truth of the above in The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, where the future is already a future of resource scarcity, of distant, comfortable haves and multitudinous, ubiquitous have-nots, of corruption, betrayal, violence and nihilism. It is usually only a slight exaggeration, in other words, of the time he lives in — a pessimist’s forecast. A place where the Anthropocene is moving swiftly into darkness. A world of walled cities and lucrative water-rights, where power reigns unabashedly, and builds an empire of futuristic skyscrapers using the pinnacle of sustainable architecture and technology so as to survive the drought, sometimes even in plain sight of the unwashed masses.

Harmony with nature? What is nature these days? As Timothy Morton in Ecological Thought comments “if we want ecology, we will have to trade in Nature for something that seems more meager. The mesh is made of insubstantial stuff, and its structure is very strange. The more we examine it, the hollower it seems. Gala is out. “Harmony” is out, but cooperation is in.”3 Ah, our notions of “nature” are changing, and instead of harmony with the natural let’s “cooperate” instead. Work together. As Morton explicates: “Nature” tends to be holistic. Unlike Nature, what the ecological thought is thinking isn’t more than the sum of its parts. (ibid. KL 469) There is not objective, total system of the world out there named “Nature”, and neither is it some constructionist toolkit, a model we can just willy-nilly pull out of the rabbit hat of our computer statistics and probabilities. Nature is part of a dialectical and interactive movement of the world in time in which humans are embedded as in a mesh, a giant hyper-object that seems to grow bottom-up out of the luminous darkness to things. We have to start with the muddle of things.

…in the case of the Utopian texts, the most reliable political test lies not in any judgment on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones, Utopian visions that include those of the past, and modify or correct them.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

Bataille The Solar Anus: Ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another; all things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.

Caught in the mind’s weave we travel a well-trod labyrinth of the solar anus of the organic: The simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide. From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun.  … Vegetation is uniformly directed towards the sun; human beings, on the other hand, even though phalloid like trees, in opposition to other animals, necessarily avert their eyes. (Bataille)

The Utopians, whether political, textual or hermeneutic, have always been maniacs and oddballs:  a  deformation  readily  enough explained by  the  fallen societies in which they had to fulfill their vocation.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

Yes, we who follow the sun are averse to its repercussions, we hide from its light, hollow out caves and build artificial structures to live out our artificial lives outside “nature”. We are not at home in the natural light of the great void of the Sun. As Hudson says: “Afraid of the sky” should be an easy one, right? Solar power turns climate disaster on its head by making the sky the source of energy abundance, not just superstorms, frozen winters and rains that never come. This is the high concept that drew me to this cause: what more elegant image of our salvation than a solar panel, turning the light that heats our planet beyond comfort into energy, the very commodity for which we set the world on fire? It’s a powerful start to an ideology, and one we should rightly smile over. But the reckoning with the sky remains.

One will admit as the world grows warmer so will the sky, a new age of storms, clouds, mist rising, wetness, blocking the precious sun from the green earth, leaving us in a night of mists… a coming age of steam and rain, dark times of shadows and slime, deserts and wastelands. Bataille: “In opposition to celestial fertility there are terrestrial disasters, the image of terrestrial love without condition, erection without escape and without rule, scandal, and terror.”

…for those only too wary of the motives of its critics, yet no less conscious of Utopia’s structural ambi­guities, those mindful of the very real political function of the idea and the program of Utopia in our time, the slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

As Hudson remarks that means the sky is no longer morally neutral. A storm on the horizon is not apart from us. A hurricane or tornado is not an act of God. We have no precedent for dealing with such a burden on a global scale. Our climate sins may grow to define us. If we aren’t careful, the response of most will be: it’s everyone else’s fault. And, because blame is always about power, this debate will either turn violent or exacerbate existing inequalities. Against this disastrous world of late capitalism he’ll offer struggle, saying,

I see solarpunk emerging as a reaction to this sensation of strangling decay. People want to feel the vibrancy of progress, not just the anxious giddiness of capitalist churn. We want to seek out and apply our true talents, not warp our lives around making money for other, richer people. We want our work to mean something more than survival.

Bataille: The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray. Hudson reminds us of another future that awaits us if solarpunk fails, Smogpunk: it is the “first defeat condition of solarpunk: a world where environmental protection fails and pollution and climate change outpace our ability to make sustainable choices. Taken to an extreme, haze blots out the sun making both urban solar power and urban farming an unproductive imitation of what it could be with clear skies. Smogpunk means resigning to terrible environmental conditions, and a perverse lifting up of that resignation as a banner of our place in the world. Smogpunk is what happens if solarpunk does not act fast enough.”

Hudson’s essay is long and worth a read, and in the end he offers homely advice, saying, “the biggest difference solarpunk can make, for the real danger of our current path comes not from rising seas or the economic exploitation, but from violence and chaos, nations squabbling over scarce resources, countries and communities fracturing, xenophobia devolving into ethnic cleansing. Whether we cover every roof with solar panels or fill every skyscraper with vertical farms, we should always have our eyes on the more vital goal of peace.”

Ernst Bloch posits a Utopian impulse governing  everything future-oriented in life and culture; and encompassing everything from games to patent medicines, from myths to mass entertain­ment,  from iconography to technology,  from architecture to eros,  from tourism to jokes and the unconscious.
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

In the end Solarpunk is an art form, an aesthetic, a way of envisioning a future worth living in. Part art nouveau, which provides diversity, incorporating art styles from multiple cultures in respectful, non-appropriative ways. The most important aspect of solarpunk aesthetic is the melding of art and life. A world of Permaculture. Aquaponics. Algae lighting. Compostable products that turn into fields of flowers. Buy Nothing organizations. Tiny, beautiful, efficient homes. Solar power cells you can see through. That’s all happening now. Solarpunk is within our grasp, at least on a personal level. I’m not saying there aren’t still big, ugly infrastructures devoted to unethical consumption, but we can start to tear them down. We can build a solarpunk world with stories and small changes. And small changes lead to big changes. That’s the real beauty of solarpunk. As kdhume comments: “It’s not a post-apocalyptic power fantasy. It’s not a wistful daydream, or an elite future only for physicists. It’s something we can work towards right now. It’s tangible.” (see 7 reasons)

It appears the children of light have awakened once again to shed the dark dystopian visions of war and death for a new world of cooperation and utopian longings. Will it effect change? Or will the Oligarchs of the realms send our dreams into the sea of blood where nothing ever returns, not even dreams.

I found only one anthology Wings of Renewal: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology that explores the exciting new subgenre of solarpunk through the lens of dragons reborn as environmental guides and agents of a new earth wisdom, etc.. Whether they irrigate dry terrain or serve as spaceships, are mythic beasts come to life or biomechanical creations of man, these dragons show us a world where renewable energy overcomes gas and oil, and cooperation replaces competition. Goodreads offers a selection of possible solarpunk fiction with some old classics (i.e., LeGuin, Robinson, Butler, etc.) with some new faces. If anyone has discovered other works please leave a comment and link to the work if possible!

Also found an interesting site where scientists seem to be forging alliances for future change: FLI – Future of Life Institute. Founders Max Tegmark (Physicist) with a usual lineup of scientific advisors: Hawking, Rees, Guth, Bostrom, and an assortment of Hollywood activists… etc. Mission: “We are a charity and outreach organization working to ensure that tomorrow’s most powerful technologies are beneficial for humanity. With less powerful technologies such as fire, we learned to minimize risks largely by learning from mistakes. With more powerful technologies such as nuclear weapons, synthetic biology and future strong artificial intelligence, planning ahead is a better strategy than learning from mistakes, so we support research and other efforts aimed at avoiding problems in the first place.” Problem with such statements is that in the back of my mind I keep remembering all those scientists who became a part of the atom-bomb Manhattan Project who thought planning ahead was a good thing. We know where that got us…


 

  1.  (2013-11-25). The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, SIC 8 ([sic] Series) . Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lamar Soutter, Nicholas (2012-04-18). The Water Thief (p. 230).  . Kindle Edition.
  3. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Kindle Locations 470-472). Kindle Edition.

6 thoughts on “Solarpunks: No More Doom and Gloom!!!

  1. Oh my God SC I can see some light again. The darkness was making me want to, for just a second, cut into my wrists or decathect some more and plunge into the hell of a depressed libido. But no I am not really like that anymore because I am too expressive and free with thoughts and language so a couple more cents for your woven, handcrafted, organic collection basket, or with gentle, respectful appropriation, a little mana as the Polynesian tribes used to say. I offer you a Zizekian potlach. The first serving of this feast for the mind where fledgling ideas are watered by light and empathy in the Vischer sense in this moment familiar to Semper alluded to in his affective appreciation of the decorations on a Greek Doric Column as stimulating or disturbing yet soothing, eurythmic… with a beat to it but also a caesura or an intermittent disruption to alleviate boredom;– involves the food for thought of a further exchange on the gift of the void, understood, of course not as a fixed nothingness but the opening of a new world, not the imagining of its shape but the very event of a beginning in the beginning, a primal formless form of the world then, an unimaginable potential, a veritable Proteus who/that in Hui–neng’s commentary of the Diamond Sutra chapter 32 becomes a pragmatic neo-confucian Chinese dragon — Or… here is a zero degree signifier, more mana for a basket decorated in the style of the high baroque or in a Gothic style when finally the dark and dank medieval churches became filled with light due to, after much trial and error, much construction and destruction; the invention of a flying buttress. So now for emergent organizations of subtraction, a sort iteration of a flying buttress in the ingenuity of an emptiness that is not a fixed nothingness but richness of possibilities, not centralizing authority of prestigious references and terminology but ongoing translation or defamiliarizing paraphasing, textual poaching of an elsewhere. Zizek writes in “Absolute Recoil” that the first motion toward/of an emancipatory politics is not an identification with the excess, “we are flaky rabble”, “we are Jews” , “we are Syrian migrants”, “we are spirituals other than monothesists”, etc but an antagonism of class struggle which dissolves, cuts across, traverses social unity. Is this not a conflict between sliding into becoming a dependent of authority (prestigious references and terminology), into becoming a colonized thinker; and free abstracting expressionists ingeniously hacking together their own language through textual poaching, bricolage, misreading (Harold Bloom), defamilairization (Shlovsky), automatic writing (Breton), open source and creative commons contraband, etc.?

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    • So tell me Ari have you become a molar pirate; or, an extravagant mole in the tunnels of cultural smog? You’re more of a signifier lost within the textual slime of an empty sea seeking neither a way out nor a way in but rather a way to float upon the belly of the beast…

      Kidding of course 🙂 Excellent foray!

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