Reverse Anachronism: Applying Present Day Perspective to Solarpunk Futures

Illustration by Owen Carson — Image Source

Solarpunk began it’s life as a genre a decade ago. It emerged from the Tumblr-verse as a speculative, sci-fi art and literary movement exploring possible, hopeful, utopian futures, the communities building those potential futures, as well as the various paths communities might take — and the challenges they might encounter — in the process of working toward such futures. In particular, solarpunk began as a movement envisioning futures in which humanity, technology, and nature exist together more harmoniously rather than in conflict. Other issues of social progress such as antiracism, anti-imperialism, and the support for indigenous sovereignty, reparations, justice that naturally flows from those have also been important and conceptually integral to solarpunk futures from the beginning.

In the decade since solarpunk has been around, it’s grown. It’s become more popular. In some ways it’s become more political. It has, at least to a certain extent, entered into a more mainstream of socio-political and cultural thought and ideas.

None of that is necessarily bad. And at the same time, none of that has changed what the heart of solarpunk is all about, imagining better futures.

By it’s very nature then, it seems Solarpunk should be open to possibilities for the future that in the present day may not make a lot of sense, or in some cases may even seem distasteful. There may be future possibilities worth exploring that at first glance seem contradictory to ideas and values like sustainability, at least as we currently understand them.

Deeming such possibilities and futures as fake solarpunk, not solarpunk, #solarjunk, or any other such label then seems to be where the real contradiction lies. Attempts to stuff solarpunk futurism and imagination into a narrow box confined by our present social, political, and technological context and limitations seem, to me at least, to be particularly un-solarpunk.

I frequently see social media posts, for example, where someone shares an image of solarpunk art depicting futuristic architecture such as sleek, glassy, spiraling metallic skyscrapers that double as massive vertical gardens and are filled with plant life. The commentaries on these posts insist that such architecture and imagery can’t possibly really and actually be solarpunk. It’s just not possible! It even seems to be an increasingly trendy take to completely rewrite the history of solarpunk by claiming that various high tech ideas when applied to a solarpunk future are somehow an “appropriation of solarpunk” when imagining high tech futures that aren’t currently possible is, in fact, what solarpunk is all about.

Often then, in a game of purity politics, the poster generally “calls out” the artist as a greenwashing capitalist because after all, acquiring metals like that (especially if we’re talking about building whole cities and societies that way) would involve intensive mining that is bad for the environment, and probably involves imperialism as well, which is something all we should all be striving to end, and therefore it’s appropriation to call it solarpunk.

I just can’t get on board with that way of thinking.

To clarify, I agree that such architecture isn’t sustainable, in the present. No doubt if we tried to build a high tech solarpunk city out of such materials right now it would involve shady business and be really damaging to the environment, to people, to communities, and to other life on the planet… in the present (as well as in the past too, of course).

But it seems wrong, to me at least, that it inevitably follows that the architecture in question isn’t and can’t be considered “solarpunk.” Solarpunk is situated in the future, in the realm of imagining, not in the present and the realm of the practical. In fact, we have no clue what other technologies might exist in the future to help enable such architecture in ways that aren’t possible right now.

What if, for example, industrial energy-matter conversion devices are invented and enter into widespread public use by the year 2040? In such a future, the materials to construct such buildings could literally be replicated by converting energy into matter ala Star Trek. If this is a post-scarcity future in which there’s an abundance of non-fossil fuel, clean and renewable energy, then no mining or imperialism would be required to bring such architecture to life on a large scale.

Maybe such technology will never exist. We have no way of knowing. In my opinion though, that lack of psychic ability doesn’t mean we should simply deem such architecture forever bad and unsustainable into infinity times a million no take backs or redo's. The same is true of technology in general. That kind of projection into the future is extremely limiting, and is the opposite of what solarpunk has been and should be all about.

I certainly understand and empathize with the desire to pull solarpunk values into the present, apply them to the world around us, and then project them back into the future. It can be easy to judge solarpunk futurist art and literature through our present day lenses and techo-cultural context.

This is an especially easy trap to fall into for those of us who are anarchists. We believe in the power and necessity of prefigurative direct action, and so it can be easy for us to slip into the habit of pushing the values of our present day politics, environmentalism, and other values onto solarpunk futurism. But doing so can be extremely counterproductive and quite frankly, it isn’t fair to the future.

Solarpunk as a genre is a means by which we’re exploring possible futures. In my estimation, that means we decidedly aren’t prescribing one single future that we declare to be the best. And we’re absolutely not going about trying to force any such single vision of the future (especially by pain of harassment and cyberbullying) onto anyone who dares to use the word solarpunk. I can’t find anything that I believe to be utopian, hopeful, or optimistic about such attitudes and actions.

We have to be careful then about how, where, and when we apply our present day values, world views, and critical lenses to solarpunk futurism. That doesn’t mean solarpunk and those who engaged in such imagining get a free pass to do create, say, or do anything without any measure of accountability. There are some things that just are and should be solarpunk by virtue of its utopianism—values such as being antiwar, antiracist, and anticapitalist.

But at the same time, it means we should be careful about doubling down on the fallacy that just because a technology as we use or understand it today is bad, unhealthy, or somehow damaging, that it’s predetermined to be so forever and always until the end of time. To hold such a belief is to insist that progress is impossible. Such a perspective is unnecessarily limiting, and it’s rooted in pessimism. How then can it be solarpunk? I’m skeptical, to say the least.

With what seem like obvious exceptions (again things like war, fascism, white supremacy, sexism, gender essentialism, capitalism, imperialism, bigotry in general, and other decidedly un-utopian things that make our current world the blatant dystopia that it is), I believe we should be careful about deeming things like technology as “not solarpunk” just because they don’t work in our dystopian present, or because they don’t fit into our current world view that has developed in reaction to that dystopian present. If we do, then we’re dooming our future to an extremely narrow and limited vision.

Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the editor-in-chief of Android Press, and co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.

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