On Solarpunk #3

Notes on Eric Hunting's masterful Solarpunk essay and musings on what's left to imagine

This newsletter is my third post about Solarpunk. Each week I’m writing a post with footnotes (notes, reflections, and recommendations) from my research. If you’re interested in following along, subscribe below to get new posts emailed to you!

A pragmatist’s guide to Solarpunk

A lot of the reading and writing I’ve done over the past few weeks has focused on defining the Solarpunk genre. I’ve read and watched Solarpunk sci-fi in order to hone in on a distinct vibe, which is helpful for painting a picture of what the far-future looks and feels like. Today, though, I’m going to talk about Solarpunk from a more pragmatic, tactical angle, using Eric Hunting’s extraordinary essay, Solarpunk: Post-Industrial Design and Aesthetics, as a guide (and inspiration).

Eric’s essay is a masterpiece, and everyone should go read it when they have time (disclaimer: it took me two hours to get through the first time). It’s also wonderfully illustrated by Dustin Jacobus (@solarpunkart on Instagram). The illustrations are a lot of fun to explore and remind me of the Dinotopia children’s books—I loved those growing up.

In this post, I’m going to summarize some of the main takeaways and themes from the essay and also highlight some of the areas that I would like to see explored further. Let’s jump in…

Infrastructure as resistance

What’s clear from the essay is that Solarpunk is as much (if not more) a political movement as it is a technological aesthetic. Solarpunk is infrastructure as resistance. It’s a way to use science, engineering, and community to adapt and thrive in a changing world.

The Solarpunk movement will be built out of necessity due to climate change and in protest of the corporate, consumer culture that is rampant today. Most people (especially those reading this newsletter) are incredibly dependent on existing infrastructure (companies and governments). As Eric says:

The Industrial Age systematically cultivated a desperately dependent society, overspecialized in knowledge, devoid of practical industrial and social skills, and reliant on a market economy for everything.

The Solarpunk goal is to make people more self-reliant without regressing to a less technologically advanced standard of living. Eric’s idea for accomplishing this is cosmo-localization.

A new cultural paradigm is emergent; cosmo-localization. Design and share globally. Make locally.

In this cosmo-local future, small local communities and the global internet would increase in influence while regional or national institutions would falter. Nearly everything (energy, food, technology, goods, etc) would be produced locally (in settlements, towns, and cities). While the know-how and designs for this infrastructure would be broadcast globally.

Thus we can imagine the future Solarpunk World to be one where towns and cities have been compelled to evolve toward autonomy by the creeping decrepitude of the state expressed through its deteriorating higher-level infrastructures, thus becoming new default units of social and political identity.

There will be thousands of Solarpunk communities. Maximally self-sufficient by design, each community acts as a mutation of our societal genome, increasing the chances of progress through increased experimentation. Eric imagines progress will occur in three Solarpunk eras:

  1. Early Solarpunk era - transitional, punk, re-education, DIY, “MacGyvering”

  2. Middle Solarpunk era - community, scaling, local fabrication, farming

  3. Late Solarpunk era - utopian, post-scarcity, self-fabricating architecture, terraforming, cybernetics, transhumanism, attention on outer space

The early Solarpunk era will be an abrupt transition, especially for knowledge workers. Due to today’s decadent culture in the developed world (and especially in America), most of us have ascended far up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. (Read Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society for more on decadence—I don’t agree with Ross on many things, but I find it a very convenient term these days.) In the early Solarpunk era we’ll descend from that local maxima and re-educate ourselves on a mass scale.

People will need to adopt a conserver lifestyle focused on rational needs, learn how their infrastructure works and is maintained, how the things they need are made, how their food is grown, and take their turn in mutual subsistence work. Most importantly, they will need to learn how to, once again, get along with each other without the anonymity of the ‘system’ and its bureaucratic mediation. In the process they may inadvertently discover a better quality of life than they have ever known.

While daunting, this emphasis on basic skills and self-sufficiency will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling lifestyle and create a portfolio of exciting challenges to solve.

It’s really a very interesting, exciting, time for design, with so much of the stuff of our habitat now compelled to reinvention, yet most professional designers remain oblivious! Indeed, the cutting edge is now nowhere near their offices and studios — still obsessed as they are with ‘style’ and ‘brand’ and all those other irrelevancies of the old corporate culture. It’s now with the Maker-entrepreneurs who define the cutting edge, immersed in the emerging new fabrication techniques and energized — indeed, radicalized — by the new design imperatives the future is imposing on us and the emerging fight over control of the cultural commons of technology, production, and design knowledge. It’s in the Fab Labs and Makerspaces where our initial hints of a Post-Industrial aesthetic can now be seen.

The re-use cycle

In the essay, Eric dives deep into categories of infrastructure—packaging, energy, building systems, domestic goods, clothing, housing, transportation, computers, and farming—and how they will evolve and change over the three Solarpunk eras. One of the key tenets across all these categories is re-usability—or really any form of re-purposing that prevents disposing of items. Eric puts it this way:

Reuse > Repurpose > Upcycle > Recycle > Downcycle > Dispose

We should re-use as much as possible. If we can’t re-use something, we should re-purpose it. If we can’t re-purpose it, we should up-cycle, re-cycle, or down-cycle it. If we can’t do any of the above, we can dispose of it. This mindset is fundamentally different from our current culture.

There is no excuse for designing to suit sliding scales of economy. That’s consumerism. Anything that is not designed to be best in functional quality by default only deliberately creates waste — an environmental sin. Design things right, design things to last.

The emphasis on re-usability is applied in all sorts of ways. For instance, we should get rid of packaging for most household goods. Packaging is useful for preserving goods as they sit in warehouses or travel long distances. It’s also used for marketing as goods compete for attention on shelves. In the Solarpunk future, most goods will be produced on-demand and locally, and marketing can be done digitally. So most packaging will become obsolete, especially the elaborate, plastic-heavy kind seen in the aisles of Walmart or Target. (Less unboxing content, more farmer livestreams.)

Eric also promotes re-filling stations as a new way to buy common household items.

The closer the consumer lives to the point of product access the less inconvenient it is to rely on reusable containers they own themselves. This is the concept behind ‘refilling shops’ which specialize in bulk goods customers bring their own containers to carry.

Re-filling stations sound a bit like the bulk goods or produce sections of grocery stores—but applied to everything. Bring your own containers (whatever sizes work best for you) and fill them up with all-purpose cleaner, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dishwasher pods, etc.

The fight over consumers’ right to repair their own devices will seem obvious in retrospect. (See Biden’s argument for the right to repair in his recent anti-competition executive order.) Most furniture, housing, vehicles, and devices will be designed with the expectation of re-use, re-purposing, and end user customization. And the recycled aesthetic will become hip. (Nike’s Space Hippie line is aesthetically very Solarpunk.)

The quirky, marbled, sometimes gnarled, appearance of recycled plastics that was considered too ugly for mainstream products will become an attraction.

The built environment will be designed for re-purposing. Spaces will trend towards easily re-usable components, like Marco Casagrande’s Paracity or large Lego sets for real-world environments.

So we can anticipate much use of things like the Grid Beam system, pipe-fitting systems like the well known Kee Klamp, scaffolding systems, industrial and commercial shelving systems, angle-iron, T-slot framing, theatrical truss systems, trade-show framing systems, light geodesic dome systems, and shipping containers — whole and in the collapsable box frames used for industrial and relief shelters.

The challenge of high-tech, high-coordination products

Communities will produce all of their commodity goods locally, but they’ll struggle to manufacture highly specialized products, like computer chips or nuclear power plants. This group of hard-to-manufacturer, high-coordination products will become less accessible in the early Solarpunk era, and communities will have to adjust. Either they find lower-tech alternatives, or they establish deals with groups that can develop these products and trade for them.

Energy production early on will favor technologies that are easily decentralized (solar, wind, hydropower, and biofuels). But nuclear or geothermal are unlikely to feature as energy sources in the early Solarpunk era because they are very specialized and normally require government intervention today. Here’s Eric on nuclear:

However, in the early Solarpunk era such technology is not likely to see much advance because of its continued reliance on systems of very large scale, complexity, and cost beyond the reach of the small community. In fact, at present nuclear energy is in decline everywhere and, with the likely turmoil we anticipate in the Post-Industrial transition, the development of these new types of systems may be suspended for some time.

Similarly, technological progress on smart phones, computers, and global internet infrastructure may temporarily slow, as communities adjust.

The early Solarpunk era may be a period where Internet connectivity cannot be taken for granted and so we will see expanded use of ‘meshnet’ and ‘outernet’ technologies, peer-to-peer systems architectures, and asynchronous communications systems able to cope with intermittent connectivity while protecting user’s rights to privacy and control of their own digital assets.

Ultimately, the degree to which Solarpunk communities regress at first depends on how widespread the Solarpunk movement is. If the entire world has to organize into local Solarpunk settlements due to a series of natural disasters or other crises, then stagnation (or regression) will likely occur. But if Solarpunk communities form at a more gradual pace and in parallel to existing society, they will be able to continue purchasing high-tech products from the rest of the world while becoming self-sufficient in other areas.

Left to the imagination

While Eric’s essay covers an incredible array of topics (and at great depth), there are a few aspects of a future Solarpunk world left up to the imagination. Here is a list of topics I’m excited to explore further…

Education - A large part of the early Solarpunk era will involve re-training a significant portion of the workforce in skills that help their local communities become resilient. What will this re-training effort look like and who will lead/organize it? Could we send a million people to MIT per year? And how will it change the landscape of education (for all levels)?

Currency - Eric mentions UBI a few times throughout the essay and suggests we’ll evolve into some sort of post-currency world. Moving beyond currency all-together would be surprising to me, but I could imagine a fragmenting of currencies. Each Solarpunk settlement, town, or city could have their own currency—similar to the Depression-era concept of town-specific money used to reinvigorate local economies. (Read this related note on airline miles and credit card points.) Cryptocurrency and trustless financial products will become the norm, because communities won’t want to depend on national financial institutions or governments (or have patience for the fees that come along with those intermediaries).

Regulation - Far enough in the future, maybe state, regional, or national regulation won’t be much of a concern—if climate change forces large portions of the population to relocate, I hope governments will ignore normal zoning or building rules to help displaced communities. But in today’s world, regulation would impede upon a lot of the experimentation discussed above. What opportunities are there to try new things without having to break the law? Do we need sanctioned zones like the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, or are there other options?

Military and defense - There’s a good chance that amid a global struggle for survival and resources, the world could become more violent (at least temporarily). And especially if Solarpunk settlements appear to be thriving (or at least sustaining a higher quality of life than most places in a changing world), Solarpunk communities could become targets for theft or even coordinated military action. (Remember Acorn from the Earthseed series?) How much R&D should go into Solarpunk defense, and what form does that take? What does Solarpunk evangelism or diplomacy look like? Similarly, if there are groups that refuse to adjust to a more sustainability-oriented society, should Solarpunk communities take action against them? (See related tweet about eco-terrorism.)

Health and medicine - There’s almost no mention of health (health care or personal wellness) in Eric’s essay. Some locations may try to adopt traditional or indigenous medicine for their health care, but I imagine (due to the emphasis on bio-engineering in other parts of the Solarpunk infrastructure) many will want to continue and expand upon modern, science-based health care. That will force them to either develop ways of producing drugs and other treatments locally or contracting with regional or global pharmaceutical providers (at least in the short term). How will health care change in a Solarpunk world? Will cosmo-localism help or hinder medical research? And from a diet perspective, are most Solarpunk communities largely plant-based? Or do people stick to broader diets out of pragmatism?

Tourism - The technology of travel is discussed a fair amount in the essay, but the culture of tourism isn’t as directly addressed. With a Cambrian explosion of Solarpunk communities, will people frequently travel between them—or to the wilderness?

Space - One of the exciting aspects of a Solarpunk near-future is that it (almost accidentally) will start to prepare large portions of the population for life on other planets. Far more people will be educated in science, engineering, and survival skills. We’ll be used to building new settlements for ourselves. Effectively, we’d be training a new generation of astronauts and then setting them loose on Earth. In his essay, Eric doesn’t think that space will become a focus for the world until at least the late Solarpunk era. I’m not so sure. I could imagine communities launching their own satellites or robotic probes relatively early to monitor the state of Earth’s climate and science-focused expeditions to Mars or the moon shortly afterwards.

Art and entertainment - Eric’s essay focuses largely on Solarpunk infrastructure and not culture—though the section on clothing briefly touches on personal expression. The internet is an important part of the cosmo-local vision as the main distributor of infrastructure design and knowledge. People may use the internet as much as today (or more), but the nature of the usage will shift slightly from entertainment to utility. There will be less escapism and more AR, as people will spend more time outside. Will there be a metaverse where people express themselves through games and digital art? What forms of art will flourish in a Solarpunk world?

For next week

If you have ideas on any of the areas discussed here, please reach out (DM me on twitter) and share them. I really enjoyed digging into Solarpunk from a more tactical perspective this week, so I’ll likely start including both sci-fi and practical discussion in newsletters. It’s exciting to try building a bridge between here and the future, regardless of how fantastical that bridge may sound (for now).