On Solarpunk #1

An intro to Solarpunk, public imagination, the Earthseed series, and Chobani

Over the last few months, I've become obsessed with Solarpunk. So I'm going to start writing a weekly sampler of notes, references, and reflections on the aesthetic. The structure of these updates may change—maybe I'll add my own short contributions to the genre or include more multimedia—but the focus should always be Solarpunk.

A brief intro to Solarpunk

Solarpunk is often described as the green, optimistic cousin to Cyberpunk. Both are aesthetics—they are a way of grouping writing, film, music, and other art by a common theme.

Cyberpunk is high-tech and dystopian. It's the most mainstream of the punk genre, popularized by works like Bladerunner, Snow Crash, Ready Player One, and the Matrix. All-powerful corporations and governments control the Cyberpunk future using surveillance and advanced technology, and our built environment morphs into a mash-up of skyscrapers, neon advertising, and virtual reality. Heroes of the Cyberpunk world operate under the radar, hacking and bartering their way to survival.

In contrast, Solarpunk is optimistic and green, a utopia where technology and nature coexist and thrive. Taken literally, Solarpunk is about renewable energy and climate futurism. But it also inspires other aspects of life—Solarpunk worlds often include decentralized political movements, artistic creativity, strong female heroes, local agriculture, an emphasis on community and family, and bioengineering.

Solarpunk is still niche and not nearly as popular as Cyberpunk (or other pessimistic sci-fi), but that's a big reason I'm focusing on it. I think we need more optimistic visions of the future, and Solarpunk is a great starting point.

The effect of futurism

Science fiction is important because it informs the future—we can only become what we collectively imagine. If we're convinced that our future is Cyberpunk or otherwise dystopian, it will likely end up that way. And it seems like our public imagination is becoming darker and darker each year—or blurring with dread—as climate change, wealth inequality, and surveillance technology highlight the media.

Noah Smith wrote about public imagination and The Future recently. In the blog post he suggests that one reason we're lacking in optimistic visions of the future is that we were let down by the last round of prophecies. Many visions of the future from the 1950s have been invented and come to pass, but they’re not all evenly distributed. (Check out his enjoyable and sarcastic twitter thread comparing retro visions of futuristic technology with their contemporary counterparts.) So Noah’s point is that we may not be excited about the future, because regardless of what cool technology we dream up, it may only ever benefit rich people.

I generally agree with Noah, and I think it underscores the idea that any visions for the future should be both technological and political. We should imagine utopias and teach people how those worlds will be more evenly distributed than past futurism.

That Chobani ad

One of the densest examples of Solarpunk is a 30 second Chobani ad called Eat today, feed tomorrow. I don't personally like yogurt, but it's a perfect ad, animated by The Line studio. The ad paints a beautiful picture of life in a Solarpunk future, showing a harmonious intersection of many venn diagrams. The family is diverse, both racially and generationally. Robots, humans, and nature work together. And the setting is a farm within sight of a gleaming city and backdrop of airships and solar roofs. A big part of Solarpunk (to me) is taking what are considered opposing cultural forces and offering both at the same time (i.e. technology and nature or rural and urban).

It's worth noting that the Chobani ad is what I'd call late-stage Solarpunk—it's more “solar” than it is “punk”. Punk is anti-establishment and activist. This ad provides a snapshot of the future, but doesn’t address the (maybe very punk) methods of getting there.

The Earthseed series

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are graphic and dystopian, but there's also something distinctly Solarpunk about them. The series is more punk than the Chobani ad, and we only really get a sense for the longterm future in the epilogue.

Acorn, the community Lauren Olamina eventually sets up in an apocalyptic Northern California, is superficially Solarpunk. It's a family-oriented, diverse, farming community that also scavenges tanks, guns, seeds, and other supplies from neighboring settlements. The community learns to build its own homes and live off the land out of necessity, hacking their way to survival.

Earthseed, Lauren's discovered religion, is Solarpunk in a more abstract way. (I say discovered because she makes it clear throughout the books that Earthseed is a truth she feels she has come upon rather than something she has conjured.) The two tenets of the religion are (1) that our destiny is "to take root among the stars" and (2) that "God is change." She takes "The Destiny" literally, preaching that humanity's purpose is to become interplanetary, and Octavia Butler intended the third book in the series to be about the Earthseed community's adventure settling other planets, but she ended up only writing these first two books.

In an old interview with Octavia Butler, she talks about how she crafted Earthseed to be something she could have believed in at Lauren's age (18 at the beginning of Parable of the Sower) and how humanity may need the nonlogical push of religion to become interplanetary. The whole interview is worth a read. Also, here are a collection of quotes that are relevant to Solarpunk from the two books:

"It's a beginning. It's a way of trying to build tomorrow instead of cycling back into some form of yesterday."

"We need the stars, Bankole. We need purpose! We need the image the Destiny gives us of ourselves as a growing, purposeful species."

Purpose
Unifies us:
It focuses our dreams,
Guides our plans,
Strengthens our efforts.
Purpose
Defines us,
Shapes us,
And offers us
Greatness.

“Those people were willing to follow an 18-year-old girl because she seemed to be going somewhere, seemed to know where she was going. People elected Jarret because he seemed to know where he was going too. Even rich people like your dad are desperate for someone who seems to know where they're going.”

For next week

I'm going to stop there for now. I'll likely return to the Earthseed series later on—the story hits very close to home and feels almost tactical at parts, despite being a fantastical sci-fi series from the 90s. Right now I'm reading Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and watching the occasional Solarpunk film. If you have suggestions of Solarpunk content, DM me on Twitter and I’d love to feature them in a future post.

For now, here's a reading/watching list (I'll cover many of these later, though I'll write about things that are distinctly not Solarpunk too):