Words by Van Lambie & Owain Williams
The cyberpunk subgenre, once a fringe area of science fiction, has now become a haunting reality that we are rapidly approaching. The genesis of the movement lies with science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick in the 1960s, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was ground zero for imagined futures of rain, neon signs, and ominous corporate rule. The novel was adapted to film in 1982 in the form of Blade Runner, which in 2017 received a reboot in the form of Blade Runner 2049, signaling a clear spike of interest in this dreary sci-fi subgenre as it inched closer and closer to becoming our reality. Orange skies ravaged by a worsening climate state, huge economic disparity and ubiquitous advertisements from faceless corporations is far-fetched fiction turned looming reality. This isn’t a lone example. The Matrix, an archetypal cyberpunk film depicting the bleakest of dystopian futures, received a reboot last year. In a similar vein, Ready Player One – a 2018 bestselling book and movie – depicts a world ravaged by corporations where a metaverse (a concept becoming worryingly familiar in the years since its release) is the only escape from a bleak reality. In the most explicit recent example, the video game Cyberpunk 2077 amassed massive excitement in the buildup to its release, culminating in the biggest digital game launch of all time, selling 10.2 million digital units.
The increasing omnipresence of cyberpunk aesthetics and narratives in recent years reinforces our trajectory into a world of its kind. The minds and imaginations of people everywhere are captivated by dark monolithic metropolises, continued economic stratification, and a worsening relationship with the climate. Pessimism reigns supreme. Did cyberpunk predict an inevitable future, or was it willed into existence? Perhaps it’s the desire to enter into an entirely new phase of living, and cyberpunk is simply the closest to our current reality. Current cyberpunk narratives, with their built-in attitude of defeat, certainly exemplify Mark Fisher’s idea that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. But what if, in a sickeningly unheard-of turn towards optimism, we began to address the issues that these dystopian narratives express, rather than shirking responsibility?
Blade Runner 2049
What about optimism?
Cyberpunk presupposes that humanity wasn’t able to overcome contemporary challenges, but what if we could? What if, instead of taking our seemingly impending failures to their logical extreme, we started to think about what the world might look like if we overcame them? Such thinking brings us somewhere close to solarpunk. Solarpunk is a genre and art movement that emerged in the 2010’s, that is noticeably optimistic. This, juxtaposed against the doomerisms of cyberpunk and many other ‘-punk’ suffixed subgenres, can certainly be interpreted as naïve. But in a world filled with denial and despair, hope can be punk. There is nothing less punk than lying down and accepting defeat, blindly willing a bleak future into existence through fiction. Without a positive future to aim at, we are collectively aimless and bound to stumble into a miserable cyberpunk future crafted for us by the ultra-rich. Destined to accept the impending climate crisis rather than orient towards a more sustainable system, apathy facilitates control.
Solarpunk is practically attainable.
From large-scale city planning in the vein of Stefano Boeri’s forest city to individual actions like cultivating green spaces in their own communities, solarpunk works bottom-up and top-down. Solarpunk blogger Andrew Dana Hudson suggests practical measures such as using $30 1Kw personal wind turbines to provide energy, divorcing ourselves from reliance on fossil fuels and decreasing demand. Small-scale individual action like community gardens allow for the flattening of artificial demand created by huge corporations: “they can’t mark up what we produce”. Tactics like these exemplify the happy marriage of political and personal responsibility which encourage individual action whilst not failing to address structural changes. Larger projects include Milan’s vertical forest, which allows 300 humans to live in harmony with 21,000 trees. Indonesia’s new proposed capital, Nusantara, seems to distinctly emphasise the harmony of humans and nature. Though not distinctly anti-capitalist or eco-friendly, these projects exemplify the potential unleashing of sustainable visions of living which consider human-driven architecture and union with nature. But as much as solarpunk could be attainable and appealing, it also requires a massive sacrifice of greed and selfishness. In that way, it maintains a positive horizon to work towards whilst separating itself from overly optimistic left-wing narratives like Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, where wild technological advancements are promised to lead us into utopia, ignoring the necessity of fundamental restructuring.
But solarpunk isn’t blind hope.
It is fundamentally a political ideology that encourages resistance, ambitious transformations, and ultimately the dismantling of capitalism. That’s where the punk in solarpunk comes into play. It is about the rejection of prevailing ideologies and things we are told are indispensable. The structure of our current economic system and this unchanging selfish “human nature” is eroded by the individual and political actions close to solarpunk. After all, any “emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’” and “reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency”. Zizek argues that the predominant ideology of today is not a vision of a utopian future, but a ‘cynical resignation’, the prevailing sense that any attempt at improving society will result in totalitarian dystopia. Any improvement or change in the way that we live will bring disaster and unforeseen consequences, we are told. Solarpunk takes the shocking, ambitious stance to suggest that… perhaps we could create a better world?
Solarpunk is a modern ideology.
Emerging from Tumblr posts and capturing the imagination of modern minds as a fresh and optimistic ideology, solarpunk blogger Andrew Dana Hudson aptly comments that “only in the twenty-teens could a series of social media sketches spark such an ambitious activist agenda”. We live in a digital age, one where distinct new ways of living could just as well show up on a Twitter thread as it did in the bohemian coffeehouses of the 60’s. Solarpunk seems to channel an optimism which has been suppressed for decades, that can now diffuse out through images and memes like the vines that may grow on corporate office blocks. Hudson describes the “cathartic uncorking of a pent-up imagination” that solarpunk seemed to unleash. The creation of “pockets of progress and imagination”, rebellious and rhizomatic thought freed from the shackles of horizontal and hierarchical thought. We should harness the desire to enter a new phase of living which cyberpunk tapped into to imagine new, brighter, more productive and more radical ways of living.
What does this all have to do with climate?
A compelling aesthetic in many cyberpunk narratives is indeed climate. Seemingly always raining, clouded over or tinged with a foggy orange hue, the climate becomes a moody spectacle shirked in favour of infinite upward economic growth and eye-catching technological advancements. Solarpunk turns this narrative on its head. The climate becomes an ally, with solar panels turning our adversary, the sun – which continues to heat our planet to unsustainable levels – to energy, comfort and food. It is an elegant image for the wind, rain and heat we are told to fear to be harnessed as a salvation through means of energy and resource abundance. Solarpunk and climate are intrinsically linked. Rather than being an opposing force we suppress until the last minute, solarpunk chooses to reignite notions from the 1960s surrounding working and growing in tandem with nature.
In a world plagued by uncertainty and despair, hope has become a revolutionary act. The solarpunk movement embodies this sentiment, providing a fresh and achievable vision for a sustainable future. It is both a political and personal movement, with potential for large-scale systemic change and small-scale individual and community action. This balance between the grand and the local is the essence of solarpunk’s appeal. What sets solarpunk apart from other utopian ideologies is its grounding in practical reality; it doesn’t rely on wild technological advancements or blind hope for a better future. Instead, it presents an attainable path that we can build with the tools and resources available today. By promoting renewable energy sources, green architecture, and regenerative agriculture, solarpunk offers a compelling alternative to the extractive and destructive practices and ideas that continue to dominate our economic system. It challenges us to think critically about the impact of our choices on the planet and to build a more just and sustainable future for all. Solarpunk is much more than a style or aesthetic. It is a movement that embodies the hope and possibility of a better future. By blending visionary thinking with practical action, solarpunk offers a roadmap for a sustainable and equitable world. It is an ideology that is both punk and hopeful, challenging us to think differently about the world and our place in it. As we confront the challenges of the 21st century, solarpunk offers a compelling vision of what’s possible if we dare to be optimistic.
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