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  • Writer's pictureEthan Olson

Solarpunk: The Power of an Aesthetic

Art by Jessica Kamman

Imagine a city of the future. Are there flying cars, cities with buildings taller than mountains, robots at every corner? Or is the world of your imagination one torn by conflict, struggling to survive amidst increasingly hostile climate change?

There are two common perceptions of the future in popular culture. One is stale and grey: bureaucratic and “futuristic,” filled with advanced technologies, massive transportation infrastructure, and towering monuments of glass and steel. It is sleek and clean, ordered and controlled, impressive and far beyond a natural human scale. It is “utopia,” possibly. But it is isolating, devoid of human character or charm. A monoculture of perfect lines.

The other is dystopia. Society is in ruins. Think Mad Max, The Matrix, or Wall-E. The planet is in shambles, whether or not that be because of war, aliens, or yes — climate change. Cities are dingy, overcrowded, perhaps ruled by a totalitarian state or beings from other planets. Or, perhaps the cities are gone, and the only humans left are those who roam the deserted landscapes of a forgotten world in packs of savage marauders.

Neither options appear appealing: controlled, heartless utopia, or broken, merciless dystopia.

Unfortunately for the world, climate change — if left unchecked — is barreling the future of our planet towards the latter form of dystopia. If we continue on our current emissions trajectory, sea level rise, heat waves, extreme rainfall, and millions of displaced climate refugees will be only a few problems facing societies across the globe. Meanwhile, the technocratic dreams of some entrepreneurial visionaries to mitigate climate change seem to announce a shift towards the previously mentioned version of “utopia,” with billionaires leading massive projects for privatized transportation (see Elon Musk’s Hyperloop) or planning to build futurist megacities from scratch. Others, in a like-minded top-down approach, argue that the government can mitigate climate change simply by investing more money into solutions like electric vehicles, wind farms, and high-speed rail lines. However, these often fail to recognize the root of the issue. They are intended to keep our way of life — which for the past half century has been marked by hyperconsumerism, individualism, exploitation, deregulation, and above all, growth — preserved.

This will not work in the long-run. Climate change is only one product of a greater social crisis borne out of an addiction to more. More GDP, more consumer goods, more social media likes, more resources. Arguably, it is this obsession with “progress” that has led to a variety of contemporary problems: environmental degradation, income inequality, and skyrocketing rise in mental illness, to name a few. The young, enterprising American no longer works 40 hours a week; they work around the clock, spending their free time learning new skills to set themselves apart from others in a hypercompetitive job market, obsessing over ways to increase their followings on social media sites, and adopting “self-improvement” hobbies that will give them a leg-up in an attention-oriented economy. In an era of late-stage capitalism, everything is about the individual pushing themselves to the limits to advantage themselves above others.

The notion of community is dying. And it isn’t difficult to see why. Our cities are designed around the single-family home, our public space is neglected, and our welfare systems are inadequate. We are living on a path that is not only bad for the climate, but bad for ourselves. It seems like we are approaching both dystopian futures.

Now imagine a future where we not only curb emissions, but get to the source of our problem. Imagine a future where we stop our obsession with growth, and put a new emphasis on resilience. What does this look like?

A growing aesthetic movement called Solarpunk may provide an answer.

Known for its burgeoning stock of illustrations depicting futuristic cities spilling with vegetation, radical designs for clean energy infrastructures, and creative bottom-up solutions to the contemporary struggle of ensuring a sustainable future for the planet, Solarpunk can be thought of as something that, according to one proponent, “seeks to answer and embody the question 'what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?'”

Art by Imperial Boy

Solarpunk is a word that encompasses many things. The official Reddit page for the movement, which boasts 69,500 followers, describes it as:

“everything from a positive imagining of our collective futures to actually creating it: aesthetics, afrofuturism, art, cooperatives, DIY, ecological restoration, engineering, speculative fiction, ecofuturism, gardening, geodesic domes, green architecture, green design, green energy, indigenous practices, intentional community, makerspaces, materials science, music, permaculture, repair cafes, solar power, sustainability, tree planting, urban planning, volunteering, 3D printing…”

At its core, Solarpunk is a vision. It is optimistic, passionate, and inspirational. It envisions a future as bright as the sun that will power many of its components. And although you may be unfamiliar with the name, you likely have seen images inspired by the movement somewhere in popular media.

For example, the image below shows a frame from an animated commercial for Chobani Yogurt.

Beautifully animated in a rich palette of watercolor backdrops, the short clip presents a reimagining of our agricultural future. Floating wind turbines, ivy-laden solar panels, and fruit-picking robots are all included, but despite this impressive catalogue of advanced technologies, the entire setting — bursting with vibrant vegetation, cheerful characters, and picturesque agrarian meadows — feels incredibly human. It is a utopian future, but not one of order and control, straight lines and grey concrete, bureaucratically-administered “perfection.” It is a world filled with character and life, and all of the imperfections that come with it.

Solarpunk imagines a future where people are curious and possess individual purpose, setting it apart from other futurist movements that imagine a world where automation will eradicate all labor. Within the Solarpunk genre, people continue to work, but the relationship between labor and society is unrecognizable from its current neoliberal condition. The main difference being that in the Solarpunk imagination, there is a greater respect for it. In lieu of working purely for profit, people either work for collective purposes — such as feeding the community, stewarding the environment, or ensuring reliable access to clean electricity — or to pursue individual interests. A strong social safety net and measures to restrict the hegemony of corporate giants ensures that no one must work a menial job with inadequate pay and exorbitant hours.

In a world where the dominant narratives surrounding climate change are about impending devastation, government inadequacy, and flashy solutions to mitigate emissions, Solarpunk provides an important role as a framework for real change. In contrast to top-down policy proposals or corporate sustainability strategies, Solarpunk is all about the bottom-up, and the collective power of people to ultimately determine the fate of their communities, cities, and thus, the planet, through cooperative ingenuity.

Influenced by the inadequacy of governments and private entities, the Solarpunk movement advocates for massive waves of decentralization. Energy production is a great example, as many Solarpunks envision a future in which electricity for urban dwellers is not produced via a select handful of gargantuan power plants, but through an interconnected network of solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable sources that may be fitted to individual buildings or small plots of land. Food production, too, is another process that the Solarpunk community emphasizes. In the face of corporate agribusiness and the decline of family farming, passionate followers of the movement are busy creating plans to expand urban agriculture, community gardens, farming cooperatives, and the viability of homesteading. This means more food grown closer to home, and more people building connections with the land they depend on for survival. In a similar vein, there is little surprise that the movement also consistently experiments with the possibilities of technologies like 3D printing, CAD, and CNC machines, which offer an opportunity to transition the power of manufacturing away from big companies and towards communities. The trades themselves — electricity, plumbing, carpentry, welding, etc. — are emphasized, but with an added flavor of creativity and purpose: to engineer things that protect the environment. The basic skills of these trades may be included in primary education, alongside a curriculum with a greater focus on ecological systems, energy resources, manufacturing processes, permaculture, human medicine, coding, etc.: practical knowledge and skills that give people the power to carry out action and support themselves or others.

Images within the Solarpunk aesthetic may often romanticize certain features of its imagined future, but why should that be an issue? Since the end of World War Two, Americans romanticized the notion of the American Dream, creating new cultural institutions and radically changing the country’s landscape through the creation of suburbs, massive freeways, and mechanized agriculture. Why can we not do the same thing now?

The supremacy of the neoliberal order remains, but the cracks in its veneer widen with each passing day. For a society bleeding due to income inequality, housing shortages, institutional racism, political polarization, disinformation, and overwork, we need solutions that do not only mitigate climate change, but that creatively reimagine our societies to become more sustainable in all facets. With this in mind, Solarpunk — with its dreams of coexisting with the land, utilizing collective action to build community support networks, and abandoning the obsession with growth — does not seem all that radical. If anything, it is pragmatic.

Narratives around climate change tend to be bleak. They focus on government gridlock, dreadful weather impacts, and the economy’s reliance on fossil fuels. Solarpunk offers an alternative perspective. The consequences of climate change may be grim, and the inadequacy of governments depressing, but the power of change ultimately rests with us: the people. If we can recognize this, and recognize the gifts of our own creativity, there is little we cannot do to build this world into one that will remain healthy, vibrant, and prosperous for centuries to come.


For more information about the Solarpunk movement, visit these sites:

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