Beyond Cyberpunk: Towards A Solarpunk Future

Tales From The Dork Web #20

Substack asked me about the future of tech subcultures in a recent interview. Don’t take my noodling too seriously though. If anything 2020 has taught me the future will be far weirder than anything we expected.

I remain convinced COVID will impact subcultures as it's affected everything else. One subculture I believe will be particularly affected is Solarpunk. How this plays out is down to all of us. In this issue I’ll introduce the world of Solarpunk, what it is, why it matters and what we can do to build it. I also have more Solarpunk in the next issue. This issue is a follow-up to my issue on Cyberpunk: Then and Now. I suggest you open them both in new tabs come back to them after this. You can always close them or save them for later if you prefer.

If you’re reading this in a web browser and never want to miss an issue of Tales From The Dork Web, subscribe using the form below.

Art comes from Alfons Mucha, an anonymous source and Alex Le Guillou. Alex's art makes data beautiful. Check out On The Track and Woods Walk on his site. This issue’s music is comes from modern composer Max Richter, press play and read on.

Fear The Working Dead

Almost every modern media vision of the future is one of catastrophe. Climate collapse, zombie hordes, out of control AI hell-bent on our destruction. We now know everything in virus pandemic fiction was comically off the mark. That bubble has burst. Nobody will watch Contagion 2: Apocalypse Boogaloo.

The stories we tell aren’t accurate doomsday scenario predictions. They’re cartoon reflections of our current hopes and fears. In Shaun of the Dead the real zombies are the people working bullshit jobs for no damned reason. In the real world the natural disasters are almost all man-made. The Zombies are us. The AI was copied from stackoverflow by the lowest cost bidder.

We live in a world defined by the paradox of finite resources and the illusion of infinite economic growth. We’re bombarded by messages working against us. We’re told to keep buying, keep spending, keep scrolling and keep sharing. Snap a selfie, keep telling people you barely know your life is great. Don’t let the existential dread set in. Don’t let the existential dread set in. Don’t let the existential dread set in…

Megacorps like Disney process, sterilise and franchise the media we see. Our diet of recycled dystopian fiction has gone on for so long we forgot how old it was. One of TV’s best visions of the future looked identical to a nearly 40 year old film set in the year 2019. The most popular movies are franchises. Star Wars' release date is closer to World War II than today. The first Captain America movie appeared in 1944. The hottest sci-fi movie postponed in 2020 is from a 1965 novel many only know of because of a 1984 movie.

In generic hero franchises the superhero saves humanity at the unmentioned cost of losing it's agency. These films create a dependency on heroes, great men, strong men. But they're not real. Superman won’t save us. We can only save ourselves.

That’s not to say there’s no imagination. There’s lots of it, but much of it is so very dark. Raising issues and attributing blame even in movies doesn’t make things better. It increases anxiety as I’ve done for the past few hundred words. Filmmaker Evan Webster Wiley calls this the Critique Solution Fallacy. Problems are stated, discussed but very few, if any practical solutions are offered.

Maybe it’s my British despair fatigue. These messages combined with anxiety-provoking social media create what I'm calling post-millennial tension.

If we want to move on from anxiety and tension as literary currency we need to reframe the narratives we share. Solarpunk is the most optimistic movement in science fiction to come out since Star Trek but it’s so much more. Just as we built an accidental Cyberpunk present, we can build a Solarpunk future.

On Spaceship Earth We Are All Crew

Those born today will face a starkly different world when they reach your age. The punk in Solarpunk is a rejection of today’s dystopia in fact and fiction. Solarpunk is utopian because, as Solarpunk Notes towards a manifesto writes:

the only other options are denial or despair.

Solarpunk culture draws upon ideas of self-reliance and locality. Politically, Solarpunk shares much with movements such as Occupy, drawing upon prefigurative politics.

Most importantly Solarpunk is a rejection of dystopic fears and a return to hope, not as a con-trick, but as a construct.

Lights Out, Guerilla Art Deco

Solarpunk's worlds feature clean cityscapes with integrated green spaces. More Westworld than Blade Runner. If Hong Kong is Cyberpunk’s visual home then Solarpunk's home is Singapore.

Arcology is an important part of Solarpunk architecture. Stefano Boeri is a Milan-based architect bringing forests to modern housing. His first vertical forest in Milan went up in 2014 and more are being built from Eindhoven to Nanjing. Once you dive into it, you start to realise Solarpunk reality won’t be shining towers and cultivated lawns. It’s more Guerilla Gardening and Incredible Edible villages.

Miss Olivia Louise’s Tumblr post highlights the aesthetic’s Art-Deco influences. Art from Lautrec, Mucha (above), and Gaudi inspire Solarpunk art and architecture. Still, there is no singular Solarpunk vision. As the Sunlit Revolution states, “Monoculture is death”. Solarpunk favours permanence over the avant-garde. Sustainability flies in the face of modern fast fashion and skyscrapers.

Solarpunk’s Light Mirror

Solarpunk started as a literary movement. There’s a growing volume of Solarpunk literature. The poster child for Solarpunk is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed”. Other popular Solarpunk authors include Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Wieland’s Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation often appears on top lists.

But how can we have compelling stories without franchised super heroes and doom-laden settings?

One of my favourite proto-Solarpunk movies is Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. It’s the story of a boy who travels east to find a cure for a curse granting him enormous power at the cost of his life. On his journey he is drawn into a battle between forest spirits and a human mining community. As with all Ghibli films it’s beautiful, filled with depth and duality.

Munchie64’s video above discusses the movie and its meaning. Even at the most basic level, Iron Town's need to destroy the environment is a classic Solarpunk trope.

Hugs Against The Machine

I couldn’t find a source for the picture below but it sums up Solarpunk’s political outlook so succinctly:

Solarpunk doesn’t tie itself to a particular ideology. It is incompatible with a post-modernist consumption-driven economy. Solarpunk could exist in a such a world but it wouldn't be stable. Imagine a utopia with vertical forests AirBNB'd out by people indebted to the hilt while local people frozen out of rental markets. That isn't Solarpunk to me. If you want to know what a Solarpunk world would be like, you might’ve experienced something similar already.

Not everyone’s lockdown experience was good. It did show us where our daily lives can be both for the environment and ourselves. A Solarpunk existence is slower than modern life. It’s more reflective and relies on longer-term thinking. Solarpunk is about creating a life for all our children and grandchildren, not the next quarter. There is no Solarpunk hustle because there is no need for one. Evan Webster Wiley’s The Great Pause (above and below) invites us to rethink our lives in light of recent events.

Solarpunk interacts with modern identity politics through the prism of fixing broken systems. Blame is pointless in a world of collective responsibility. In Solarpunk, the collective struggle to solve the problem is king. Insisting on inaction until we find a perfect solution isn't an option. Recognizing solutions are not meant to be perfect grounds Solarpunk in the real. Persistence matters because progress matters more than short-term economic growth.

If we persist the wheel will turn. If we expect a hero to turn it for us, we only invite disappointment.

But what of money? There is a form of Solarpunk economy we’ve seen for over half a century in books, television, movies and games. It’s a world where like now production is a mostly solved problem but distribution is fairly managed. Several books have been written about the Star Trek economy. For something predating (and post-dating) Solarpunk it's awfully familiar.

The Star Trek economy is sometims described as communist. As Steve Shives discusses in the video above, that’s untrue. In reality, Star Trek’s economy is a post-scarcity economy. What makes it Solarpunk is the absence of consumerism.

Right now we could feed the world, house everyone and provide universal healthcare. We collectively choose not to. The power to make that choice isn’t evenly distributed, but it is an active choice. We can change that choice. Our power to make that change might not be significant, but it is ours and we can exercise it.

Andrew Dana Hudson’s On The Political Dimensions of Solarpunk notes:

You’ve heard of the hacker slogan “move fast and break things”? Solarpunk should move quietly and plant things. Don’t ask permission from a state beholden to oligarchs, and definitely don’t expect those oligarchs to do any of this for you. Guerilla gardening is the model, but look further. Guerilla solar panel installation. Guerilla water treatment facility restoration. Guerilla magnificent temple to the human spirit construction. Guerilla carbon sequestration megastructure creation.

It Has To Start Some Place

When Andrew Dana Hudson talks of guerilla solar panel installation he’s not joking. These things are real. The reason you don’t know about them is because these are things you build, not buy. Daniel Connell has tutorials for all kinds of tech. He has a $30 1Kw Wind Turbine, a $5 water filter and a $5 combustion stove built almost entirely from recycled parts. If that’s not your thing then a 140W pop-up solar generator might be more your style.

I’ve mentioned Meshtastic for LoRaWan-based comms before. Amateur radio enthusiasts used JS8Call to monitor the US food supply-chain.

It Has To Start Some Time

Spain is uniquely positioned for solar energy. In the 2000s it was leading the world. In the 2010s Spain scrapped Feed-in Tariffs and introduced a 7% sun tax on all solar generated power. This applied whether or not it was grid-connected. The sun tax was finally scrapped, but there are no guarantees it won’t return.

School farms help kids learn more about their food. They’re popular across the world, apart from Clayton County. There, the local government ordered a pre-school to stop selling their food at a loss. After a year, the school won the right to sell its food at a loss. My favourite part from this Treehugger article is:

The city argued that if it changes the ordinance, there could be a farm stand on every corner. Okunoren-Meadows highly doubts that would happen but, if it did, that would be a good thing.

Imagine the horror if this happened. Local food growing on every corner. I mean, where would it all end?

What Better Place Than Here?

Much of of real-world Solarpunk is localised. Communities such as Woodbine NYC or informal ones like French ZADs were Solarpunk before it existed. It’s tempting to paint them as somewhere between Portlandia or crusty protest camps but they fulfill important civic roles. Makerspaces are Solarpunk. Libraries (which would be almost certainly outlawed if created today) are Solarpunk. The Commons are Solarpunk.

Solarpunk discussion started on Tumblr. There's also an interesting social network called ScuttleButt. It’s a little awkward to get started with and I’m still learning how to use it but so far, so good. The main Solarpunk Mastodon instance is Sunbeam City. Registrations are closed while the cooperative that owns it restructures.

The Solarpunk subreddit is a lively community with around 25,000 members. Also worth visiting are the Solarpunk Magic Computer Club, Solarpunks.net, and of course the No-Tech and solar-powered Low-Tech magazines.

What Better Time Than Now?

The sheer range of Solarpunk can overwhelm, but the seeds of Solarpunk are sewn all around us. From sprawl repair to localised permaculture we are the creators of our own Solarpunk futures.

Solarpunk political reading includes Murray Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Communalism, Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

If that's all too heavy I have a link to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed at the end of this issue. If you like that world, you can take ideas from it and use them in your own. Or not, it’s up to you.

At the local level there's lots you can do to move towards our own Solarpunk future. We can make seed bombs for guerilla gardening, build hyperlocal gift economies, become street medics, grow new food from scraps, and even build vertical bottle farms in the tiniest spaces. Solarpunk is what you make it. There is no singular vision nor leader. Only the occasional chorus and the common good.

We sleepwalked into a Cyberpunk present, but can build a Solarpunk future if we choose to. We don’t need permission. We don’t need to do it all at once. People from Spain to the United States are doing this now. Why not join them?

Solarpunk isn’t about doing your bit to save the world from climate collapse. Solarpunk is about building the world you want your grandchildren to grow old in.

Things You May Have Missed

Keith E. Stanovich of the Univesrity of Toronto writes about ‘Myside bias’. If you only have time for one long read this week, make it this. NPR's piece on a man trapped in his body for 12 years is well worth reading.

On A Retro Tip has made a full-length documentary about The Making of Monkey Island. If you haven’t played the Monkey Island adventure games you are genuinely missing out on some of the best-written interactive fiction of all time.

Benedict Evans believes we’ve seen the end of the American Internet. Daniel B. Markham has an incredibly thought-provoking piece comparing technology to heroin.

The weirdest tech piece you’ll read this week is about Low or No-power computers, bathtub-based computing and gravitational supercomputers.

I’ve searched for Solarpunk music but there’s no clear definition. Some people think that there are Vaporwave styles that are Solarpunk, but Vaporwave’s often corporate and backward-looking aesthetic doesn’t fit the Solarpunk vibe for me. Instead, here’s Hyro The Hero. If you like Rage Against The Machine you’ll love it.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue as much as I’ve enjoyed researching everything that went into it. If you did, please share Tales From The Dork Web with your friends. I’ll be back in two weeks with more Tales From The Dork Web. If you’re not already subscribed you can make sure you never miss an issue by filling in the form below.