On Solarpunk #5

An original Solarpunk vignette from 2041, Nike growing shoes, and an interview series

I broke the weekly cadence of posts—sorry about that! I’ve been traveling and didn’t find time to sit down and write. As a reminder, I’m writing regular notes on Solarpunk.

I’m trying something new in this edition. I’m sharing an original short story (more of a vignette) that I wrote to try to express Solarpunk ideas in a new way. Please be patient—this is the first sci-fi I’ve written in years. If you’d like to follow along, subscribe below to get new posts emailed to you each week!

Export from the memory of Raoul Oliveira

Journal entry started 2041-01-20 16:31:10

Signed by 0x1f42fE1e68E674fde239b5E54c29855a65aa3A39

We had our first sprouts today in Butler! During my morning botany class, we went into the greenhouses and a few of my lettuce seeds had germinated and poked through the surface. The greenhouse smells terrible—we compost inside so the heat from the composting helps warm the greenhouse during the winter—but I still love checking in on the plants in-person. The plant data streams are helpful and more analytical (obviously), just not quite the same.

As usual, Boone's seeds sprouted first. His mom runs the farm in their settlement, and I swear she helps Boone with his seed modifications when he goes home for the weekend. But mine were second to sprout, so I'm proud of that. I found some lichen on the Butler plot that seemed fast-growing and particularly hearty, so I sequenced it and used some of its genes in my spinach. Seems to have helped, though I’ll do a more in-depth analysis later!

I'm on the shuttle heading from Burroughs to Hudson Station. We're flying over the Hudson now, and I can just start to see the tips of the train station on the north side of the city as other air shuttles from around the region descend on it. They're all like silent, electric vultures, trying to get their passengers on the ground in time for the 17:00 train. I take this trip every week to head home from school for the weekend, but it never gets old...

Oh I just caught Nadia's eye! She's sitting a row up from me and looked around, probably noticing me staring at her—

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Okay back to the journal…it's crazy to think the Hudson used to ice over entirely. I know the river wasn’t so wide, and temperatures were colder in the winter. (Lauren, my terraforming advisor, would ask me to be more specific about the changes, but I can't remember all the details right now.) I can see a little ice in the Hudson Bay, south of the city. Sometimes I can see the outline of the old-style train tracks and historic Hudson train station in the bay. We have to be careful to avoid the underwater structures when we kite surf in the summer.

At our all-hands meeting this afternoon, Adrian recommended that we start reaching out to settlements for post-graduation opportunities. No new graduation criteria were voted in by the class this week, so it looks like we’ll graduate in about 6 months based on this week’s progress. A new class wasn’t scheduled to start with our advisors until September, so we’ll have Butler ready for them with a few months to spare.

We still have to print and assemble the dorms, though the designs are complete. The mess hall superstructure has been done for a while, but the kitchen appliances have to be fabricated and wired up to the electrical grid. Most things are working well though. The grid and internet connectivity are optimal. The fab lab and wet lab are cranking out designs—I engineered my second place spinach seeds in the wet lab. And they should have more than enough planted on the farm and greenhouses to harvest weekly for at least a year.

I remember exploring all the little details the last class had left in Burroughs for us. Each dorm room was unique—each student had laid out a room and left a note. I’d initially wondered how the advisors had convinced the class to be so thoughtful about the rooms. They were each designing and building a room in the dorms that they'd never stay in. I was the first person to inhabit my room, even though Sara Celebi had been the one to make it for me.

Was it mine or hers? I guess neither. Carter, our governance advisor, always says not to think in terms of possessives. The room is just an instance of a room that Sara had designed. She can reload the design from the commons and print it somewhere else at any point. That means I can reprint the room anywhere for myself too. So there's no point being possessive about the instance of the room at Burroughs that I happen to live in now. It's just a room.

I wonder what details I'll leave in Butler for the next class. I sort of want to engineer a special flower and seed it around parts of the land I like best. When we were scouting for plots as a class, I had found a few clearings that I thought would make for perfect party spots. Maybe I'll update some flowers to glow in the dark in anticipation of these late-nights and spread them there.

Again, it's weird that I care so much. I'll be off on my next journey, and I won't get to enjoy this place we’re creating. (Hopefully I'll be able to contribute to one of the desert settlements with a sibling settlement on Mars—they’re running identical botany experiments in both places to study how their engineering is affected by the environments.) But there's something cool about spending two years with 80 other students building a campus from scratch for others to enjoy. I’ll admit that our advisors helped us a lot, but that’s okay—this is high school after all.

I liked primary school back in Pittsburgh—everyone does early education in their home settlements, then applies to a high school program when they think they’re ready. I was accepted on the first try, so I’m on the younger side of my class. I think Geoff (he’s the oldest) is almost three years older than me. Some students join any high school they’re assigned, and others decide to wait for a particular group of advisors.

High school is cool because we’re all building something. I guess we could all vote to reduce our graduation criteria and move on by doing almost nothing, but I haven’t heard of that happening. I mean my friend Rosia wanted to drop out and tried to convince some advisors and students to have us all graduate early. But we talked about it in all-hands and decided to have her move from the farm to electronics. Things got better after a week or so. Though really she didn’t have a chance of convincing us all to graduate with a less complete campus—what would have been the point?

Every class moves into a campus that was recently graduated and starts scouting the surrounding area for a plot to build their own. We decided on the location for Butler after spending just five days exploring the area around Burroughs on rovers the last class had built for us. Though we did spend a whole day arguing over what to name it—Butler beat out Robinson in the final vote.

We’ve spent almost two years living at Burroughs and building Butler. We first built the energy grid, then set up internet so the class could collaborate between the two campuses. We built the superstructure next. That was the foundation and scaffolding for all future living and work spaces. We installed the labs, put together an irrigation system for the farm and gardens, and on and on. Our advisors are generally encouraging of everything we’re doing, though It’s hard to imagine Butler is almost done.

I did hear of a class in New Mexico that graduated in 17 months. I know it's not supposed to be a race! After all, the most embarrassing thing is when a campus is graduated with flaws that the next class has to fix. But still...17 months is fast.

I saw a broadcast about that class. Some of their designs (from high school) were already being downloaded in some of the new large-scale settlements in India. I hope they keep that campus around after the next class is done with it. You know sometimes we'll just scrap a campus after graduation, harvest its materials for a new one, and let the land re-wild. I know I'm supposed to appreciate that—change makes us resilient. But still I want them to keep the New Mexico campus around at least long enough for me to visit it.

Okay we're docking in Hudson, so I'm going to end the journal entry now. The train ride over to Pittsburgh usually takes about 75 minutes. I'm excited to see the family for the weekend.

Nike tries out Solarpunk

If you’re watching the Tokyo Olympics these days, you may have come across Nike’s new ad campaign about “tomorrow.” The main spot is called Best Day Ever (featuring all sorts of exciting sports futurism), but there’s a 30 second version called Play New: Tomorrow that’s very Solarpunk.

The ad is set in a futuristic greenhouse (maybe on Earth, maybe not), and young scientists are growing shoes from seeds. The lab is grungy and feels like it could be part of an underground movement of self-sufficient kids who genetically engineer plants to grow everything they need, from food to fashion.

There’s a certain irony to an ad that promotes self-sufficiency as it tries to sell you stuff, but I still appreciate the optimism and quirkiness packed into the ad. Growing our own clothing and shelter will definitely be part of the late Solarpunk era.

Solarpunk Canon changelog

Here are books, films, and essays that I’ve added to the Solarpunk Canon this week:

  • Walkaway by Cory Doctorow (Agatha and I have been reading Walkaway, and it’s Solarpunk in terms of self-sufficiency, though not explicitly environmental)

  • Play New: Tomorrow (Nike ad from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics)

Sign up for Solarpunk interviews

In an effort to better understand how young people view the world, Agatha and I are organizing interviews to talk about Solarpunk and related themes. These generally take 45 minutes, and we cover questions like “What is the most optimistic vision for the world in 2050 you can imagine?” and “What practical skills do you most want to learn and do you have a plan to learn them?”

We’re particularly interested in talking to high school and college students. If you have leads for us, please send them our way (Twitter DM if you don’t have my phone number). You can also use this Calendly link to sign up for a time slot. Thanks for helping us out, and thanks to everyone who we’ve already interviewed!