On Solarpunk #4

Pokemon, self-fulfilling sci-fi, knowledge work in a Solarpunk world, virtualism, and the Solarpunk Canon

Welcome to the fourth edition of On Solarpunk. Each week, I’m sharing footnotes (notes, reflections, and recommendations) from my research into Solarpunk. If you’d like to follow along, subscribe below to get new posts emailed to you each week! (Or check out the Solarpunk Canon for a full list of references.)

Is Pokemon Solarpunk?

In search of mainstream cultural phenomena that may be considered Solarpunk, I wondered: is Pokemon Solarpunk? Victoria Zelvin wrote a post in 2019 called Pokemon is a Solarpunk Utopia. I personally didn’t play Pokemon extensively as a kid (or Pokemon Go as an adult), so I’ll mostly paraphrase what Victoria had to say.

Nearly everything is powered by Pokémon — from electric types providing power to the grid to riding Pokémon as the default method of transportation — and the few things that aren’t are green and sustainable. Pokémon offers a hopeful future where humans are at peace with nature (not just Pokémon themselves) to the betterment of everyone who lives there.

Here’s a nice synthesis of Solarpunk from her too:

Think of solarpunk like Star Trek — imagining the ideal, the best case scenario of what might happen if we worked together for once and the betterment of our planet.

Whether you agree that Pokemon is Solarpunk or not probably depends on whether you think the collecting of Pokemon is humane or not. Regardless, Pokemon is still a good example of a mainstream franchise that is at least Solarpunk-adjacent.

The Turnaround and the power of public imagination

Based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks Wyatt!), I read a short story this week called The Turnaround by Charlie Jane Anders. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The Turnaround is a great reminder of the power of public imagination. The story is set in a near-future San Francisco, where a virtual reality explorer (Whit) discovers a future utopia projected onto the built environment of the city (“Skin Francisco”). Skin Francisco is prototypically Solarpunk (and seems to match the criteria from Noah Smith’s recent blog post about Imperial Boy’s Solarpunk urban drawing).

The skyline was crammed with tall buildings, but they clustered together with tapered shapes that didn’t seem to loom over her, and there were more green spaces than before. More trees, more flowers. As she walked up and down Market, she noticed tiny kiosks, with people handing out doughnuts and samosas, and little stalls where you could get almost anything repaired. Or trade your old stuff for someone else’s old stuff, like a vintage smartphone that had been souped-up with new mods and apps. Sleek buses and trams rushed past, full of people, and there were almost no cars to be seen.

Though undoubtedly my favorite part of Skin Francisco is the renovated Market St:

And instead of Market Street, there was a river. A lazy current, foamy but blue. Somehow, it felt right, like a spirit that had been caged for too long was at last set free.

What makes the Skin Francisco projection powerful is that it’s self-fulfilling. No one seems to know how it was created, but many people have found it and roam its happy planes, inspired by what San Francisco could become. And then when Whit starts recognizing bits of Skin Francisco in real-life San Francisco, she realizes that the virtual vision has inspired people to start replicating it, manifesting the future they’ve experienced.

“I thought so too. But then I realized…it’s us. There wasn’t any supersmart computer after all. A whole lot of people built that future world, because we needed a way to imagine something better. And once we saw it, we knew we could make it real. Piece by piece.”

This piece is a concise and beautiful reminder of how public imagination informs the future—and how the future is malleable. (Charlie Jane Anders also did a TED talk on imagination.) As I wrote about futurism in my first Solarpunk post, if we can only summon dystopian images for the future, we’ll certainly end up with them. Solarpunk offers us an alternative that is optimistic, environmental, and progressive. The best way to manifest a Solarpunk future is by imagining it as clearly as we can.

Here’s a relevant quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.

Knowledge work, “virtualism,” and re-education

While some would cast a very broad definition of a knowledge worker today (as anyone whose value is their knowledge), I think of a knowledge worker as someone whose output is information—accountants, lawyers, management consultants, investors, web developers and designers, etc.

Knowledge work is prestigious today, but I expect it will become obsolete in a Solarpunk future. And we’ll want to implement mass re-training to give people the skills they need to be as self-sufficient as possible—either to prevent climate change or to deal with the effects when they happen. Workers who deal in bits will have to learn to build with atoms.

This transition may end up being a painful one. The internet (and computers broadly) can be transformative tools for communication, learning, and automation. In the ideal Solarpunk world, designs for common infrastructure are digitized, shared globally through the internet, and produced locally. (This is the concept of cosmo-localism discussed last week.) But right now, the internet seems like a destination in and of itself that may hinder real progress.

The internet has created a seductive shortcut to fame and riches. You can play out fantasies, build worlds that defy the laws of physics, receive global, instant feedback for their work, take on extreme personalities without consequence, and measure your worth in “the great online game”. And building in Minecraft or Replit is 100x easier and faster than building in meatspace. Anyone can plug in and work, fundraise, and play from anywhere with an internet connection.

The internet is fast-paced and exciting, but we risk tricking ourselves into thinking of it as a suitable, permanent replacement for the physical world. In his 2005 essay, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford calls this concept “virtualism”:

What is new is the wedding of future-ism to what might be called “virtualism”: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.

Virtualism is the cyberpunk future predicted by the Matrix. It’s the metaverse. And as a culture, we’re sprinting towards it with excitement. Corporations battle each other in court over the opportunity, and American kids would rather be Youtube stars than astronauts. Knowledge workers are the lifeblood of the information economy, supplying an endless feed of messages, emails, pictures, designs, pull requests, contracts, reviews, prices, and videos. Our education system grooms us to be generalists, capable of shape-shifting based on whatever is trending:

The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out, and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry.

Crawford’s essay spends a lot of time describing how we’re priming young people today for knowledge work, under the false assumption that it’s empowering.

It seems we must take a cold-eyed view of “knowledge work,” and reject the image of a rising sea of pure mentation that lifts all boats. More likely is a rising sea of clerkdom. To expect otherwise is to hope for a reversal in the basic logic of the modern economy — that is, cognitive stratification. It is not clear to me what this hope could be based on, though if history is any guide we have to wonder whether the excitation of such a hope has become an instrument by which young people are prepared for clerkdom, in the same perverse way that the craft ideology prepared workers for the assembly line. Both provide a lens that makes the work look appealing from afar, but only by presenting an image that is upside down.

In order to launch Solarpunk settlements and create a credible alternative to centralized infrastructure, knowledge workers will have to develop practical skills. Fostering a culture of self-sufficiency (producing our own energy, food, shelter, and technology) will make us more resilient to climate change, more capable of crafting a sustainable future, and more fulfilled.

Crawford doesn’t address climate change or the environment, but he promotes craftsmanship (of a manual trade, specifically) as an alternative to our culture of knowledge work. The example trades sound a bit folksy—he talks about motorcycle repair and electrical work—but he makes a compelling point about fulfillment through craft.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

Despite the benefits, the information economy is a hard habit to kick. The internet is exciting, people are scared of specialization, and it’s easy to feel helpless as a knowledge worker in the face of climate change (“I can build CRUD apps, how will that help?”). While it may be hard to imagine a cultural shift towards self-sufficiency and decentralized infrastructure, re-training programs are one of the best things Solarpunk communities can offer. The more craftspeople capable of providing basic infrastructure for their communities, the better off we’ll be.

The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the distinction between the Right Way and the Wrong Way. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life — a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good.

Introducing the Solarpunk Canon

At the end of the first blog post in this series, I included a reading/watching list of Solarpunk content. Each week that list is expanding as I explore more and friends recommend new leads. I’ve aggregated all of these books, essays, and films into a single page called the Solarpunk Canon.

The canon theme is copied from a16z’s Crypto Canon. That essay was (and still is) a great resource for anyone interested in digging deeper into the crypto world, and I’m hoping the Solarpunk canon develops into something similar for Solarpunk.

Each week I’ll add a changelog of what’s been added so it’s easy to keep track. Additions this week: