Solarpunk Is a Tumblr Vibe. It’s Also a Practical Movement.

The sunny, internet-born aesthetic continues to evolve online. What does that mean IRL?
Stephen Gossett
February 2, 2021
Updated: February 3, 2021
Stephen Gossett
February 2, 2021
Updated: February 3, 2021

Scan the #solarpunk hashtag on Tumblr or the 30,000-plus-member r/solarpunk subreddit and you’ll likely encounter several examples of a certain subgenre of architectural rendering: dramatically geometric towers dotted with rooftop forests or tree-sprouting condos, far easier imagined than built. Or you might see the 3D-art cousin to such renderings — grander and greener still.

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 wouldnt be out of place in a solarpunk story,” Springett said. “But also its real life”

The humble example gets to the true crux of solarpunk. It centers ecological responsibility, and it maintains a fundamentally DIY impulse — community-minded, self-sustaining and, importantly, hopeful.

Over the last six or so years, solarpunk has graduated from an aesthetic to something more akin to a practical movement, but it began in earnest primarily as a visual vocabulary and literary subgenre of science fiction. The “punk” suffix places it in a sci-fi lineage that includes dieselpunk, steampunk and cyberpunk, but the vision and iconography of solarpunk is dramatically different.

In fact, Solarpunk is often framed specifically in opposition to cyberpunk. Blade Runner and its brethren envisioned a dystopian singularity and, as Springett has noted, were rooted in the anxieties of the 1980s — urban decay, monolithic corporatism and, in sadly xenophobic streaks, Asia’s growing influence. Solarpunk, on the other hand, imagines a world in which today’s existential threat — the climate crisis — is either resolved or being approached with camaraderie and adaptive ingenuity.

In fiction, protagonists might be working to rewild an Australian suburb in the near future, or competing factions in a devastated landscape might be uniting to disseminate sustainable innovations. Cover art often favors the lush greenery and plant-like curves of Art Nouveau. It’s not all unmitigated harmony — this is fiction, after all, with narrative tension and dramatic obstacles. Still, a resolute sense of optimism pervades.

In the words of preeminent solarpunk thinker Rhys Williams, solarpunk stands “against a shitty future.” The planet is on the clock, and there’s just no time for fashionable pessimism, it implies.

Because the climate anxiety the literary subgenre engages is so palpable in the real world — “science fiction is really about now,” as Margaret Atwood has said — solarpunk has come to encompass a practical movement and subculture too. It considers how technology, sustainable agriculture and reoriented social and economic systems might help communities grapple with a world besieged by climate threats.

Like solarpunk the aesthetic, solarpunk the movement can seem almost collagist in its wide-ranging scope. Renewable energies, solar power, rainwater harvesting, DIY 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 look.

Four Key Aspects of Solarpunk, According to Solarpunk.net’s Adam Flynn

  • An eye toward decentralization
  • Ecological awareness
  • A long-term approach to design
  • Can it be beautiful?

 

A Fundamental Shift in Network Architectures

The term solarpunk dates back to at least 2008, but the term started reaching wider, if still niche, audiences around 2015. From the beginning, technology’s role has been a consistent thread.

Technology isn’t excluded from the ecological stewardship that solarpunk centers, but it isn’t fetishized 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 architecture, 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.

“There’s a general instinct toward, if youre going to have this kind of ecological future that has more responsiveness to the local environment, then there are questions about, which things are you hooking up into these giant, centrally organized star topology architectures?” Adam Flynn, another solarpunks.net administrator, said.

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

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 eschews 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. (They can also synchronize feeds even if they’re not directly connected, through so-called pubs.)

Not surprisingly, peer-to-peer networks have resonated with off-gridders who want to disconnect from the web entirely — one logical endpoint of solarpunks many factions.

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

“Its one of those lines that has been walked by the community since its inception,” Springett acknowledged.

To illustrate the sense of community, Flynn invoked the work of Darius Kazemi, who’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, Im building this ’cause I want to have a nice time on the internet with my friends.”

RelatedIs an Open Web Still Possible?

 

solarpunk shutterstock
Beauty is a cornerstone of solarpunk, but the movement is also vigilant against “green-washed eco-modernism.” | Photo: Shutterstock

What About Actual Solar Technology?

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

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.

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.

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

Second, the current solar technology paradigm often conflicts with solarpunks long-term approach to design — “things that are repairable, reusable and built to last” — Flynn told Built In. (That doesn’t just mean your phone.)

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.”

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/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, Williams wrote.

 

Which Version of Solarpunk Is ‘Right?’

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 “green-washed eco-modernism,” as Springett calls it. He fondly recalled one such rendering that featured Photoshopped-in cyclists and anarchist graffiti.

“If your rendering of the future has no people in it, its 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 emissions number-crunching, or a user may call “techno-green bullshit” on a contemporary green design that 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.

powering the dream solarpunkAt 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.

 

‘It Is What Everyone Collectively Agrees It Is.’

The movement that provided solarpunk its suffix 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 recent 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.” (Not surprisingly, Springett used the word “practical” nearly a dozen times in our conversation.)

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

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