What Is Solarpunk? A Guide to the Environmental Art Movement.

The sunny, internet-born solarpunk aesthetic continues to evolve online — but what about in real life?

Written by Stephen Gossett
What Is Solarpunk? A Guide to the Environmental Art Movement.
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | Jan 22, 2024

Solarpunk, a science fiction subgenre that visualizes the successful combination of nature and technology, has since grown from online aesthetic into an ideology that some want to see applied to our real world.

What Is Solarpunk?

Solarpunk is a sci-fi subgenre and social movement that emerged from the internet in 2008. Solarpunk’s aesthetic visualizes collectivist, ecological utopias where nature and technology grow in harmony.

Search “solarpunk” on Pinterest, scan the #solarpunk hashtag on Tumblr or look at the r/solarpunk subreddit and you’ll likely encounter art, creative stories, mood boards and think pieces on the speculative fiction genre. You may find dramatically geometric towers dotted with rooftop forests or tree-sprouting condos, or even 3D renderings of gargantuan green cities, far easier imagined than built. 

So why, when I ask Jay Springett — longtime co-administrator of solarpunks.net — about what solarpunk looks like in practice, does he talk about an old phone box that was converted into a seed library?

“That wouldn’t be out of place in a solarpunk story,” Springett said. “But also it’s real life.”

The humble example gets to the true crux of solarpunk. It centers ecological responsibility and the actionable practicality of “what can be done in this moment?” It also maintains a fundamentally do-it-yourself impulse — community-minded, self-sustaining and importantly, hopeful.

 

What Is Solarpunk?

Solarpunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction and a collectivistic social movement that envisions the progression of technology alongside the environment. While the “solar” prefix signifies the term’s relation to solar or renewable energy, the “punk” suffix signifies the countercultural essence of the movement. The “punk” in solarpunk also groups the term beside other sci-fi subgenres like cyberpunk, dieselpunk and steampunk.

The solarpunk aesthetic depicts visually bright and optimistic ecological utopias, often imagining a society where the climate crisis has been resolved or is being approached with camaraderie. 

As an ideological movement, the values of solarpunk tend to be in opposition to philosophies like capitalism, consumerism and ecofascism. In the words of solarpunk thinker Rhys Williams, solarpunk stands “against a shitty future.” It implies the planet is on the clock and there’s just no time for fashionable pessimism.

 

solarpunk shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

What Does Solarpunk Look Like?

4 Key Aspects of Solarpunk

  • Aesthetic beauty.
  • Decentralization.
  • Ecological awareness.
  • Long-term design.

Greentech, walkable cities, sprawling plant life and an abundance of sunshine are frequent sights when it comes to the solarpunk aesthetic. A solarpunk society aims to be equally communal, sustainable and technologically advanced. The nature of solarpunk is often framed in direct contrast to cyberpunk, a dystopian futuristic aesthetic emphasizing urban decay, heavy corporate influence and xenophobic traits. Solarpunk at its core highlights the importance of people and the partnership between human intelligence and the surrounding earth to better humankind.

“If your rendering of the future has no people in it, it’s not solarpunk.”

In particular, Art Nouveau became an aesthetic touchstone for solarpunk. This was not only because of its penchant for earthy, organic forms, but also because it’s both ornate and approachable, according to Rosie Albrecht, editor of solarpunk zine Optopia. 

“One of the most iconic pieces of Art Nouveau architecture is the Paris Métropolitain station — and public transit is super solarpunk,” she told Enchanted Living, pinpointing solarpunk’s combination of beauty, sustainability and collectivist spirit. Not surprisingly, Arts and Crafts, the late-19th-century decorative arts movement that stood in opposition to the industrial revolution’s wasteful habits, is another reference point.

Green architecture is also a repeated element, as towering vertical forests frequently populate solarpunk social channels. But the subculture also maintains a skeptical eye on any leafy cosmetics that might adorn unsustainably-built projects. Truly green materials and approaches, like treated wastewater, geothermal heating, and urban greenhouses and gardens, are key.

Solarpunk in Books, Movies and Fiction

Solarpunk cover art often favors the lush greenery and plant-like curves of Art Nouveau, concepts which can be seen in sci-fi pieces like the novel Ecotopia, a commentary on climate concerns, and the movie Treasure Planet, showcasing solar-powered sailboats and a mixture of solarpunk and steampunk aesthetics. 

While not as widely recognized in media as cyberpunk, solarpunk in fiction has acted as significant groundwork for solarpunk as a movement. Because the climate anxiety that solarpunk engages in is so palpable in the real world, it considers how technology, sustainable agriculture and reoriented social and economic systems might help communities grapple with a world besieged by climate threats. Where characters habitually seek out solutions to save or sustain their planet, these themes have been pulled directly from solarpunk’s fictional stories and turned into the practical values used for the movement.

Like solarpunk the aesthetic, solarpunk the movement can seem almost too idealistic in its wide-ranging scope. Renewable energies, solar power, rainwater harvesting, self-sustainable community gardening, decentralized technologies and more all fit into the framework — though never uncritically. Any ethically sourced, community-focused solution that might stand resilient in the face of natural or manmade disaster will likely get a curious look.

 

Solarpunk and Decentralized Networks

Technology isn’t excluded from the ecological stewardship that solarpunk centers, but it isn’t romanticized either. Rather, certain tech approaches might help reorient our trajectory — “the possibilities of changing power relations through changing technology,” Springett said.

Perhaps the most important strain is decentralization. By the nature of their design, decentralized platforms would likely stand more durable than those atop traditional network architecture in the event of catastrophe. That’s because there isn’t a central “brain” controlling the body.

From solarpunk’s beginning, the roles of technology and decentralization have been consistent threads. As such, the use of decentralized technologies like peer-to-peer networks, blockchain and Web3 have piqued the interest of solarpunk followers wanting to advance the movement further into reality.

Solarpunk and Social Media

Solarpunk doesn’t ask you to surrender technology, or even social media. It looks toward decentralized social media, which, thanks to its network resilience, could offer community-building capabilities even after a disaster. The decentralized social-network ecosystem Scuttlebutt is popular among solarpunks. In fact, several of its developers self-identify as solarpunks.

Scuttlebutt avoids the star-pattern, hub-and-spoke architectures that predominate the internet, where network nodes connect to a central hub. Instead, the network is peer-to-peer. Individual social networks run atop Scuttlebutt, and users within those networks essentially act as servers themselves. They sync feeds directly when they’re near each other geographically, or through so-called pubs if not directly connected.

Given its nature, it’s easy to imagine survivalist or prepper culture being attracted to peer-to-peer and other solarpunk-friendly technologies. Despite this, solarpunk has nonetheless managed to stay animated by principles of community and hopefulness rather than nihilistic terror.

To illustrate the sense of these communities, Adam Flynn, another solarpunks.net administrator, invoked the work of Darius Kazemi. Kazemi’s built tools like Run Your Own Social, a guide to running a small social network site for a few dozen or so friends, and Home Town, which lets users create their own small-scale social network sites (Home Town is a fork of Mastodon, which isn’t peer-to-peer, but is nonetheless decentralized).

During an appearance at the New Public Festival, an event that explored the current state of digital public infrastructure and alternative social-media models, Kazemi was asked what motivates him to build such platforms. His reply: “Yeah, I’m building this ’cause I want to have a nice time on the internet with my friends.”

More on DecentralizationIs an Open Web Still Possible?

 

image of Gardens by the Bay architecture
Image: Shutterstock

Solarpunk Architecture and Technology

Of course, you can’t talk about solarpunk and technology for long without getting into solar tech. But the relationship is more complex than, “solar is good; buy some panels.”

Solar Energy Needs to Be Equitable

First, there’s a keen awareness of the relationship between the pre-installation production of solar technology and harmful resource extraction from energy-poor areas.

“If these relations of production remain the same as at present, [photovoltaic] infrastructure will not present a radical break but rather business as usual,” Williams wrote in “‘This Shining Confluence of Magic and Technology’: Solarpunk, Energy Imaginaries, and the Infrastructures of Solarity.”

He cautioned against the green-grabbing pitfalls of some concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, which are large-scale constellations of mirrors that harness solar energy to produce and send electricity to various corners of the globe.

“Using local land ... and draining scarce water reserves for cooling and cleaning the panels, these CSP plants are designed to generate energy at utility scale and send it north, to the U.K. and Europe, rather than to their own energy-poor populations,” he wrote.

Solar Technology Needs to Be Sustainable

Second, the current solar technology paradigm often conflicts with solarpunk’s long-term approach to design — that “things that are repairable, reusable and built to last” — according to Flynn. 

Williams writes: “Solar technology provides energy autonomy, but only for as long as the product works, only for the lifespan of a solar cell, before the question of production arises again. A genuine transition requires a transition of the means of production — a socially just means of solar technology production.”

Solar Solutions Need to Be Realistic

On-the-ground implementation can be challenging too. Springett points to the so-called solar tax in Spain. The controversial levy, which was suspended in 2018, charged homes outfitted with solar panels an extra 7 percent to stay on the grid, should the panels not generate enough electricity. It was a discouraging example of how grid limitations might prompt governments to enact policies that chill alternative-energy adoption, when they should be encouraging it.

That all might sound pretty fatalistic for a movement and aesthetic rooted in optimism, but it’s more a recognition of incremental realities. Energy transition is a series of “stepping stones,” still not extricable from fossil fuel and the present-day economic motives that solarpunk aims to one day transcend, but eyeing something more transformative all the while, said Williams.

“I have always considered solarpunk to be focused on the practical as opposed to the wishful thinking.”

 

The Future of Solarpunk

Like most internet-birthed subcultures, the medium is to some extent the message for solarpunk. As Elvia Wilk noted in “Is Ornamenting Solar Panels a Crime?,” the platforms on which a given version of solarpunk is parsed inevitably shape that particular vision of solarpunk.

Indeed, some of the more visual platforms can reinforce the vision of solarpunk as skyscrapers with green garnish — or “greenwashed eco-modernism,” as Springett calls it. 

“If your rendering of the future has no people in it, it’s not solarpunk,” he said.

Such critical pushback seems to be a hallmark of the community. On Reddit, an eye-grabbing biophilic 3D-art design might be subjected to real-world number-crunching emissions, or a user may call a contemporary green design unrealistic, as it lacks density and suboptimally positions its solar panels. That may scan as killjoy pedantry, but such points come from a place of constructive criticism, that very solarpunk reminder that our crises demand practical attention.

At the same time, the juxtapositional nature of Tumblr, according to Flynn, was foundational in building out the aesthetic — for example, a (populated) rendering alongside rainwater harvesting images, all next to the cover of Powering the Dream, or perhaps some other cornerstone solarpunk text.

“I would love to see the solarpunk that would’ve emerged from old-school message boards,” Flynn added. “I think it could be really thoughtful and inventive.”

That’s happening to some extent. The closest analogues to the internet forums of yore are where some of the most practical conversations take place, according to Springett.

“The real thing for me within the communities is the dialogue that happens in the comments, on Discord or in Slacks between authors and fans and other people,” he said.

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Will Solarpunk Be a Reality?

The movement that provided the “punk” of solarpunk has proven remarkably flexible since its late-’70s inception, mutating into hardcore, pop-punk and many other strands. Solarpunk is similarly malleable. It’s been around long enough to have built up its own set of visual and thematic principles and bullet-point-friendly genre specs, but Springett stresses caution against too much codification or prescription.

Because so many are unfamiliar with the technologies that might help ameliorate the climate crisis, solarpunk is almost by definition “partly propaganda” for those approaches, he said. But it’s not necessarily didactic, and in solarpunk fiction, it’s “just part of the world building.”

And for all of solarpunk’s openness toward technology, there are always broader considerations beyond gadgetry, said Springett, who was as eager to discuss the work of rainwater-harvesting designer Brad Lancaster and 3D ocean farmer Bren Smith as he was Scuttlebutt.

As solarpunk inches its way further into the mainstream, it might become more difficult to keep the parameters open. Subcultures tend to lose, rather than gain, nuance as they hit mass culture. And that arrival has certainly begun to happen, from solarpunk novel reviews in major publications to a call for solarpunk-inspired games in the wake of the Cyberpunk 2077 debacle. Even the long-gestating decentralization push seems to be meaningfully emerging from the shadows.

But such a tradeoff is probably inevitable. And it might ultimately be worth it for a speculative movement that’s so uniquely fixated on how things manifest in practice — one that makes some space for the fantastical but remains rooted in, as Wilk described it, “technological realism.” 

“I have always considered solarpunk to be focused on the practical as opposed to the wishful thinking,” Springett said. “And it’s a discussion that’s becoming more and more prominent.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Solarpunk is often framed as an opposing genre and aesthetic to cyberpunk.

Solarpunk highlights an optimistic future where technology and nature coexist, and humans seek to work together to create an environmentally-sustainable society. In contrast, cyberpunk highlights a dystopian future where technology dominates society, natural preservation isn't prioritized and humans don't seek overall camaraderie.

Solarpunk is an official subgenre of fiction and movement tending to focus on building a green, technological utopia.

Ecopunk is an unofficial fiction subgenre more so focused on how characters interact with their ecological environments. As a movement, ecopunk may idealize a balanced socioecological society, where sustainability is sought after but a utopia isn't necessarily the goal.

Examples of the solarpunk aesthetic in real life include the Bosco Verticale building complex in Italy and the Gardens by the Bay nature park in Singapore.

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