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Solarpunk Is Not About Pretty Aesthetics. It's About the End of Capitalism

At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.
September 2, 2021, 1:00pm

Imagine: A futuristic farm where robots pick oranges off trees and floating wind turbines generate energy. A multigenerational family gathers around for a meal outside to enjoy their locally harvested bounty. A woman tells her daughter: “Our job is to plant seeds, so our grandkids get to enjoy the fruit.”

This imaginary world might just be an ad for Greek yogurt company Chobani, but it is also the most mainstream manifestation of Solarpunk, a movement built on visual art and speculative fiction that hopes to build a more sustainable world. 

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Solarpunk took inspiration from the Cyberpunk and Steampunk aesthetics that came before it—take the lush paradises of Studio Ghibli films with just a few more solar panels. Cyberpunk uses science fiction to explore our anxieties in the rapidly developing technical age, while Steampunk is nostalgic for the aesthetics of the industrial revolution. But unlike these dystopian and mechanical universes, Solarpunk is a more optimistic, regenerative vision of the future. 

It imagines a world where energy, usually from the sun or wind, can be used without harming our environment. Where green roofs and windmills allow humans to live in harmony with nature. On the surface it might seem like a rosy, perhaps even naive perspective for our moment, when climate change-fueled disasters are in the news every other day. But imagining Solarpunk purely as a pleasant aesthetic undermines its inherently radical implications. At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines an end to the global capitalist system that has resulted in the environmental destruction seen today. 

“One of the things that I often see that spurs people toward this very doomy place is they can't imagine people as anything but destroyers,” Adam Flynn, a Solarpunk strategist and futures researcher, told me. “But why can’t you think of humans as stewards of the ecology and of a human society built on a more symbiotic partnership with nature?” 

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Many solarpunks agree that the “punk” element becomes clear when they go past the movement’s visuals and into the nitty gritty. Solarpunk is radical in that it imagines a society where people and the planet are prioritized over the individual and profit. Of course utopian visions of the future aren’t new and art and technology have long drawn from nature: Just take the example of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, whose drawings and buildings often employ biomimicry, where the form and function of organic elements influence design. The movement gained traction in progressive circles on early 2010s Tumblr, but as its popularity has bloomed over the past 10 years, early Solarpunks fear capitalist co-option. Flynn calls it “fake Solarpunk urbanism,” luxury condos with a green roof that price out existing communities and might end up doing more environmental damage.

Jay Springett is a consultant strategist and the solarpunks.net co-administrator, along with Flynn. Springett remembers the days when he could easily monitor every post tagged with #Solarpunk, but the movement’s openness—and purposefully porous boundaries—raise questions: Is Cottagecore Solarpunk? What if the peasant dress was bought from fast fashion retailer SHEIN?

“Solarpunk is so much more than the images that people generally first encounter,” said Springett, adding, “If you're looking at an eco-future image and it doesn't have people in it, then it's not Solarpunk.”  

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The main concern is greenwashing without actually addressing environmental issues; although many Solarpunks saw the Chobani ad as fairly innocuous, given that the company sells a health food made with natural ingredients. 

“It could be co-optation. It could also be the trickle down from the margins into the mainstream,” said Andrew Dana Hudson, a speculative fiction writer, sustainability researcher, and author of the forthcoming Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures. “But in many ways, I was very surprised at how we went from not having anything like that to having something that was so very clearly matched up to a lot of Solarpunk visions.” 

Jessica Woulfe, a Vancouver Island-based concept artist for animation and video games, worked on the ad and often incorporates Solarpunk into her natural landscapes. In 2019, Woulfe won the Atomhawk Solarpunk Art Competition; her piece depicts a farmer and his daughter in a world with both wind turbines (that also ended up in the Chobani ad) floating above fields and a generations-old traditional Norwegian farmhouse with a sod roof. 

“Art is a way to connect to people on an emotional level and has a chance to show them a different perspective, and one that people can identify with, regardless of your race or gender or nationality,” she said.

Woulfe added that creative projects often reach broader audiences than say a scientific paper and are a powerful medium to communicate knowledge (“like putting some broccoli in mac and cheese”). Adam Flynn highlighted Solarpunk themes in Black Panther, with Wakanda as an Afrofuturist urban landscape—featuring no cars. Many Solarpunks see their movement on the precipice of wider influence, with a mature pop culture phenomenon as the catalyst; that moment might be here, with a recently announced A24 film adaption of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In the sci-fi classic, a young protagonist builds her own Earthseed religion in an America ravaged by the climate crisis and social inequality.

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Of course, the practicality of a Solarpunk future beyond the silver screen remains a central priority. Solarpunks point to a range of global initiatives: During Solarpunk Action Week (a yearly event for independent and collaborative actions that support community building) someone turned a British telephone booth into a seed library. Flynn is most inspired by Cooperation Jackson, a network of worker cooperatives in Mississippi aimed at building economic democracy. Springett pointed out Ridgedale Farm—59°N in Sweden— where Richard Perkins has done the seemingly impossible: profitable, sustainable farming so close to the Arctic Circle. 

Living in the UK, Springett, said “I think the explosion in small scale regenerative agriculture, particularly the European instantiation of that, is the most Solarpunk thing that is happening in the real world.”

It’s a sharp contrast to back in 2012, when Adam Flynn was working in advertising and trying to imagine these better futures. In the aftermath of the financial collapse and the threats of climate change becoming more apparent, everyone seemed obsessed with the end of the world: The Mayan apocalypse was imminent and The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead were leading a trend of dystopian hits. 

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Flynn quickly became a notable contributor to the burgeoning Solarpunk community. Now, he and others see it as a solution to rising climate anxiety, as wildfires rage, communities flood, and ecosystems around the world drastically change. It’s a powerful counter to the apathy many feel when seemingly little can be done on an individual level to fix a warming planet.

“A post from the Sunrise Movement or one of AOCs [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s] cool little videos, you’ll see that inside the Solarpunk hashtag,” said Springett. “It's expanding and building the larger movement; Solarpunk is just one signal in a much larger media environment or societal shift.”  

But Solarpunk isn’t new: Many of its practices are drawn from centuries-old Indigenous agricultural and living systems, like permaculture or rain collecting. It also pulls from more recent innovations like regenerative agriculture and keyline design, a landscaping technique to most efficiently use an area’s water supply. In popular culture, a proto Solarpunk appeared in the Talking Heads’ 1988 hit “(Nothing But) Flowers," on which David Byrne croons, “This was a Pizza Hut / Now it’s all covered with daisies.” 

But more hopeful outlooks were limited. “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” Flynn said, quoting a saying that's been attributed to both literary critic Fredric Jameson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

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By 2014, Solarpunk had begun to expand to Reddit, Facebook, and other platforms, with Flynn writing “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto.” The same week, Tumblr user Miss Olivia Louise published a viral post defining the movement’s aesthetic, including the landscapes of Japanese artist Teikoku Shônen AKA Imperial Boy. Andrew Dana Hudson, the writer and researcher, came across Flynn’s manifesto and decided to explore the political dimensions of Solarpunk, turning a speculative movement into something more tangible. As he wrote, “A genre explores ideas through motifs, variations on a theme. A movement provokes change through iterations of strategy and deed.”

Hudson said he wrote the 2015 essay with the assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win the next year’s presidential election and “the neoliberal hold on the levers of change was going to continue… so we had to create a competitive alternative to capitalism from the margins. Trump was elected and that proved to me very quickly that in fact no one had their hands on the steering wheel.”

As America seemed to be moving in the wrong direction—with the Trump administration withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and rolling back environmental protections—Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement led some of the largest protests of a generation. Their ethos fit into the purposefully broad container of Solarpunk, according to Springett. 

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“Solarpunk is more concerned with delivering the practical things that you can do on route to a better world, rather than the gestural things,” Springett said. “You can't LARP Solarpunk because LARPing Solarpunk is going out and planting a garden.”

Solarpunk has gained international resonance, most strongly in Brazil, a country whose natural resources were also facing existential threats from a right-wing administration. The first collection of Solarpunk fiction was published in 2012 in Brazil. Ana Rüsche is a writer and researcher from São Paulo who incorporates Solarpunk into her work. In her novella Telepathy Is Other People, the protagonist travels to Chile where she learns about seed preservation, a significant issue in Brazil where the vast majority of corn is transgenic, meaning it’s genetically modified. Rüsche also explores these themes in nonfiction work, like a piece about frogs whose croaks used to calm her at night; now gone because of housing development, she’s replaced their calls with a tone on her cellphone. (The piece will be published in a book of essays on literature and the Anthropocene.)

“Solarpunk is not naïve,” she said. “We are facing the world we have already, so the challenge is to imagine together, and that’s really beautiful.”

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Rüsche is one of many bringing broader diversity within Solarpunk. Although it’s founded in largely non-White and non-Western practices and believes (and is a response to problems caused by the richest nations) much of the early Solarpunk work began in the U.S. and Europe. But the movement’s growth has been accompanied by a more expansive range of voices and backgrounds. 

Keisha Howard is the founder of Sugar Gamers, an organization encouraging diversity in gaming and beyond. Previously working in luxury real estate development, the Chicago native learned about Milan architect Stefano Boeri, whose firm is a leader in sustainable and green building. Howard went on to give a Tedx Talk on Solarpunk and sees the potential for Solarpunk video games. 

Howard decided to create her own game, Project Violacea, exploring what freedom looks like and what compromises must be made for a Solarpunk future. She believes video games and tabletop role-playing games can bring together diverse casts of characters to explore solutions to save the planet. But she doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge of eliminating plastic or fossil fuels.   

“We would have to rethink systems of capitalism,” she said. “We would have to rethink hierarchies in themselves, and that is a major conflict that's not necessarily all that utopian.”

While this level of radical change might still be reserved for the pages of fiction, Solarpunk’s biggest proof of concept might be in the name itself: Solarpunk began with the sun and many point to the drastic—and unexpectedly quick—drop in the price of solar power in the past decade, making the technology significantly more accessible. 

A central tenet of Solarpunk is not being afraid of how the world will change, and the adaptations that must be made. Jay Springett describes this as the “poisonous pill” one most swallow when engaging with Solarpunk: “It means that there's the decentralization of technology, the decentralization of power.”

In fact, many of Solarpunks solutions are readily available, drawing on traditional, sustainable practices. Writer and artist Saint Andrew first learned about Solarpunk on Reddit, and created his YouTube channel to explore political and cultural concepts through an easy to consume format. He has created videos about why the climate movement is broken and permablitzing—a Solarpunk act of quickly transforming an unused space into fertile ground for plants to be grown and harvested. But his Solarpunk primer is the most popular. From Trinidad and Tobago, he is particularly interested in how Indigenous growing practices and cultural celebrations fit into Solarpunk, as well as mutual aid and community gardening. He is now working on a short story collection centered around a fictional Solarpunk society in the Caribbean, exploring ideas of regional solidarity and self-sufficiency. 

“I want to provide a vision for a better world for my fellow islanders,” he said. “I want to boost our representation as diverse Caribbean people in the sci-fi/speculative fiction genre, and I want to explore the strengths and weaknesses of a Solarpunk society in the ‘playground’ of fiction.”

After about a decade into Solarpunk, Adam Flynn said the stakes are now higher than ever, but it might also finally be its moment to shine. More and more he sees a revolution in values gaining traction, with Solarpunk narratives that feed spirits and give a sense of purpose for the tough work that needs to be done. 

“It does feel like people are very hungry for new ways of finding meaning in their lives,” he said. "That requires sort of new stories of what can be and new ways of how we think about ourselves in relationship to the earth.”