Solarpunk: Against a Shitty Future
By Rhys WilliamsMarch 10, 2018
(“Synthesis”, Bogi Takács)
CURRENT WORK in the Energy Humanities insists that we must understand “modernity” as an experience informed by fossil fuels: our use (or abuse) of specific energy resources defines the shape of our culture and society. We can take this equation of energy types and socio-cultural characteristics — an iteration, roughly, of that old adage that we are what we eat or, better, that we are what and how we eat — as a general claim: petro-modernity in all its grimy grandeur is the current iteration of a longer historical relation between energy consumption and social life.
Given this relation, Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer argue that we need to “map out other ways of being, behaving, and belonging” in relation to energy in order to “reimagine modernity” in the face of global warming. It’s possible that a shift to renewables will spell the end of capitalism; that alternative forms of energy are not compatible with capital’s grail of profit and growth. On the other hand, however, where there’s a capitalist will there’s usually a capitalist way. The necessity of energy transition provides us with a historical moment of crisis in which opposing ideologies are wrestling over the future not only of energy, but of society. The point is less whether renewable energy automatically equals a fairer society, and more that the massive infrastructural changes ahead provide leverage to institute something better.
It seems important today to find, question, and celebrate narratives that are striving to meet the challenges facing us and that provide persuasive visions of a better future. As Amitav Ghosh and others have argued, however, literary realism runs out of steam in the face of the climate crisis and its increasingly commonplace impossible events. Realism relies on an unspoken reliability of the social and material world for its verisimilitude, yet when the world refuses to function as the stable background for our kitchen-sink dramas, a realism which ignores the growing instability of the Earth’s climate increasingly feels like escapist fantasy.
This is why the most interesting literary work that addresses the Anthropocene and its attendant crises is emerging from speculative (rather than realistic) genres: science fiction, fantasy, and the weird. Speculative genres provide a means to think beyond the constraints of what we have inherited as “reasonable” — they reveal the fragility and contingency of such reasonableness, gesturing instead toward seemingly unreasonable alternatives that we desperately need.
Over the last few years, a promising new speculative subgenre, Solarpunk, has emerged from a small online community to become a movement with a recognizable aesthetic and a preliminary manifesto. To date, Solarpunk fiction has appeared in three short story collections: two in English (Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Wings of Renewal: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology) and one in Portuguese, which has received Kickstarter funding for an English translation (Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável or Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World).
Solarpunk prioritizes hope and resilience in the face of the climate crisis. The stories in each collection are typically set in futures where solar energy takes center stage. Many are utopian. Others are post-apocalyptic, and these articulate a Solarpunk attitude in their portrayals of humanity’s battle to renew the Earth. According to Adam Flynn’s “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto,” Solarpunk is about “ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community” — the last of which is of particular interest — and rightly sees “infrastructure as a form of resistance.”
Politically, the stories vary, but they always feature a progressive focus on race, gender, and equality of all kinds: many revolve around themes of difference, recognition, and acceptance. Non-normativity is often raised to the level of heroism by imagining a world that facilitates the accentuation of one’s abilities precisely because of their difference. In Solarpunk, there is a place for everyone (except perhaps the occasional douchy white dude whose fate it is, in today’s cultural spectrum, to stand for all the problems that the genre strives to overcome).
Why is this genre promising? Because in Solarpunk, energy is explicitly political. Solarpunk presents the hope in community, in recognition, and in nourishing the potential of every individual. The solar energy foundation of these worlds is an objective correlative to this simple, clean, frictionless identification and affective flow. Whereas fossil fuels obscure the sun and turn our attention to the ground — contingent upon a rape of the land, a hegemony of extraction, and an emotional structure of dominance and control — solar energy is understood by contrast as gentle, non-centralized, and non-mediated. Solar energy here represents an openness to the outside: a communication and shaking of hands with the universe. It’s not just renewable: solar energy is conversational, loving, full of joy in relating. Solar energy provides a fruitful and flexible ground in the imaginary for experiments in being human and being social while it also preserves the ecological boundary conditions of our own existence. And that is the root of Solarpunk: an energy culture that serves as a platform for experiments in being, rather than a closure of it.
The contrast between communion and domination provides the main theme, and the communion of a Solarpunk world — its structure of feeling — is conveyed through light and lightness: sunlight on water, things glowing, things pearlescent. Emphasis lies on the caress of light: the touch that makes things visible, that warms and feeds and succors living things, a light that is also love. The lightness of things creates a recurring visual vocabulary, in blimps and zeppelins, kites and sails — this is a world in which we are thoroughly entangled, but which we press upon very little.
The cover art for the latest collection embodies much of my argument:
In this image the sun features prominently, dominant over the earth. Meanwhile the image of the earth, curving, suggests the planet as a whole, resonant with the sun. The sun’s light touches all, and motes stream down and up, a visual sign of the connection made between all things in parcels of movement and flow. The image owes something to Van Gogh's turbulent lights in The Starry Night, or Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun.
The line of light along the river, lighting the golden city, speaks volumes when compared with artistic representations of new electric lighting from the early 20th century, such as John Sloan’s The City from Greenwich Village. In that image, the modernity, sublime scale, and inhumanity of the city lights in the top left — the Great White Way — extends down to the human scale of the older Greenwich Village at the front. The train track and the street lights stretch toward it, the electricity through and bringing a new age with it. The source of light there is modernity, is power, is the city. The culture is one without the sun, which thrives in spite of it, which produces itself when the sun goes down. The image as a whole conveys a time of glamour and mystery of shadows, of noir, of chiaroscuro frames but unclear morality, of individualism and greed. In Solarpunk, on the other hand, everything glows as if by an internal light.
I imagine it something like H. G. Wells’s description of a new utopian dawn:
I felt as though I was a thing in some very luminous painted window, as though this dawn broke through me. I felt I was part of some exquisite picture painted in light and joy.
(In the Days of the Comet)
Notice also that the earth on the cover is a city upon which plants grow. The human, and the connection to the sun, form the central foci and in between thrives a new nature/culture, a city-world, rather than a garden city. Notice also lightness in the other sense. The floating boats, the air balloons — they present an elegance that suggests a lack of weight, a lack of footprint, a lack of effluence. Solarpunk is a world in which the value of shit has changed — we don’t abject, but rather produce the soil of our own transcendence. Humans become nature and our life processes tune to the flourishing of the biome that contains us.
In terms of genre, fantasy tropes feature prominently in much of Solarpunk, from elvish and pastoral aesthetics to harvest rituals, updated for a solar-powered world. One of the two English collections, Wings of Renewal, features dragons in every story. These dragons are typically avatars of nature, giving voice and body to the needs and desires of the environment, but also giving voice to its pleasure, and its recognition of humans. They communicate through language and affect and, most crucially, they glow:
At the sight of the sun flooding over the stone floor of the garage, Roshanak moved […] she reached the sunlight, unfolding her wings. Every vein was visible in the translucent skin. The scales on the crown of her head, neck, and back vibrated as the light hit them. They sounded like wind chimes. They rose from her skin, glowing as they soaked in the sun.
(“Summer Project,” C. B. Carr)
The crowd cheered as the dragon began to draw the sun to herself. Soon she was a brilliant white ball, nearly as bright as the sun itself, and she rained sunlight down among the crowd.
(“Glow,” Caitlin Nicoll)
In the story “Dragon's Oath” by Danny Mitchell, the dragon’s scales act as solar panels themselves. Clearly these dragons serve as fantastical placeholders for things which don’t yet exist but would need to exist for a Solarpunk world to arise: the attendant technology, attitude, social organization, and culture of letting the nonhuman speak. The same is true of magic in these stories. In a reversal of high fantasy narratives’ traditional conclusions, some of these stories envisage magic or dragons returning to the world thanks to the new ecological disposition. Again, the idea of communion looms large. In Archeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson characterizes magic as: “a figure for the enlargement of human powers and their passage to the limit, their actualization of everything latent and virtual in the stunted human organism of the present.” He goes on to quote a famous passage from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea:
as a boy one of his dearest pleasures had been to go alone out into the countryside and wander along the lanes or over the hills, feeling through the soles of his bare feet and throughout his body the veins of water underground, the lodes of knots of ore, the lay and the interfolding of the kinds of rock and earth. […] it was as if his body became the body of earth, and he knew its arteries and organs and muscles as his own.
To tweak Jameson’s argument, magic in Earthsea, and in Solarpunk, is not only about the human; it’s clearly about the human in communion with the environment. The “actualization” of the stunted human requires this broader ecological relation. Magic is a way of narrating this desired state, this mode of being, and this is what Solarpunk draws on.
The dissolving of genre hierarchies between science fiction and fantasy demonstrates the suppressed links between previously differentiated modes of grasping the world. This blending of genre attributes also demonstrates an emergent ecological mode of thought in the attempt to think these ontologies together. In contrast with the rigidity of binding and segregating discrete genres, genre-blending rejigs possibility and becomes a way of thinking relationally between apparently separate systems of thought.
Surprisingly, genre-blending exposes in its proliferation and recombination the limitations of the narrative resources at our disposal. To think about a renewable future we currently draw on fantastical modes that are at least partly entrenched in pre-modern aesthetics and structures — this mode of thinking is a “forward looking memory,” perhaps, but it is also problematic because of its pastoral or nostalgic nature. As Marx noted, the new comes clothed in the past, and this is hopefully the pupation of something new. But for all that, we should entertain here a few doubts.
We can start with what we might call the fascism of utopia. The fact that there is no abject, no excrement, in Solarpunk belies a sinister omission. A different value system would likely change the abject rather than rid us of it. And in a couple of the stories the danger of pretending otherwise pokes its head above the parapet, in scenes where non-Solarpunk outsiders are righteously shunned or left to their dooms. We must ask, with Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man in mind, whether we would be able to stick out our tongue at this new Crystal Palace, and what that would mean?
Second, we should question whether there is an underlying whiteness to this ostensibly multi-colored genre. I don’t mean that all the characters are white but, in a rewording of my first doubt, this particular strain of utopian imagination tends toward a misty occlusion rather than visibly foregrounding and overcoming the racial inequalities that structure our present. When we ask who is burning the fuel and who is being burned, who is sucking up the riches of the earth and who is swallowing the poisoned draught, the answer falls along racial lines: from Global North to South certainly, but also when the sword falls somewhere like the United States. Notably, Solarpunk does provide a better attempt than many narrative genres at wrestling with this. Additionally, the sheer diversity of what John Rieder would call the genre’s community of practice (Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System), as well as its community traditions of online discussion and debate, bode well for Solarpunk’s future. But there is the attendant danger that the energy transition be treated as a given, a narrative necessity for the platforming of politics grounded in identity, while the actual rough politics required to make that transition happen in the first place fades into the background of the celebration.
Finally, and this is perhaps another way of saying the same thing again, we should ask whether hope carries too much weight in the genre. Take a look at Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), another more-or-less hopeful near future, and one sometimes claimed by the Solarpunk community as one of their own. Consider the wonderful scene that Robinson includes in almost every novel, in which the new world provides some new piece of art or sport: in this case the young boys, water-rats of the flooded city, gather to body-board through the littoral city streets as the tide rushes through them. In New York 2140, these boys get scratched and hurt and even sometimes killed; the water itself is toxic and makes them ill. To illustrate my last doubt, in Solarpunk the surfers don’t touch the grime — they soar perhaps a little too easily over the realities of the environmental crisis:
we is some fresh starts, yes.
We does soar over sighing tragedy,
the heaving high tide of Mama Dlo short of breath,
and laugh, cheer the wind on as we float.
We is some rebels, yes.
(“The Sailor-Boys,” Brandon O’Brien, in Sunvault)
The last word should, however, be a positive one in the spirit of Solarpunk, and a reflective one in the spirit of criticism. Writing about a new endeavor like Solarpunk from the perspective of a scholar makes for an odd task. Such an effort threatens to miss the point, to lose sight of its object, if it treats the work merely as literature. Solarpunk is better characterized as a kaleidoscopic manifesto, an argument in story and image, the song of a community both inchoate and coalescing, simultaneously committed and finding its feet. There’s no guarantee this will lead anywhere, that it will grow or thrive or influence culture and thinking as a whole. But the Solarpunk community and its stance make up a positive force in the current struggle. I hope that this article serves not only as an examination of an interesting genre development, but as a signal boost for the followers of Solarpunk. Here’s to the light.
This is a regularly updated repository of everything Solarpunk, from the beginning to the present. An ideal entry-point into the community.
Rhys Williams is Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Glasgow University.
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