I came across a new word the other day: ‘solarpunk’.
It’s not new, but it’s new to me. So I’m hoping that you’ll indulge me while I ramble about it.
There are reams and reams of discussion around the various ‘punks’ and how people embody their aesthetic. Cyberpunk was the first, as far as I know. I’ve loved steampunk – a derivative of cyberpunk – in all its many forms for years. I love the reckless optimism and the swirling parasols; I love the way that women can wear corsets and coiffed hair and pistols slung over their skirts; I love that everything is steam-powered and yet it works so much better than our electronic gadgets because it was constructed by hand and not in some factory. I love the patchwork quilt of ideas that seems to have gone into the artform.
I even did some research on portrayals of femininity in steampunk when I was starting out with my PhD. And before you ask, yes: I did present an academic conference paper dressed entirely in steampunk regalia. People still ask about it.
Solarpunk is new. Solarpunk imagines a future where humans work with the environment; sustainability and cooperation keep the world alive and green. Solarpunk’s aesthetic is all solar panels, roof gardens, and clean white lines. There’s no coal smoke, like in steampunk, nor any dingy, rusted metal like in cyberpunk.
You know what? I love it. I can’t believe I didn’t hear about this sooner.
When it comes to ‘punk’, a prefix means everything. The prefix explains what it is that the punks who inhabit that ideology are rebelling against, or critiquing, or just plain amused by. The words themselves are all vastly different, but at their core they’re about the same thing: exploring worlds that are different from ours.
There are other ‘punks’ that I adore. There’s elfpunk, which is a subgenre of urban fantasy that puts magical beings in contemporary situations. I love this because it combines the magical and the real in a way that examines and celebrates both. Same for stonepunk, which is all about the stoneage! Tough to come up with costumes without leaning towards steampunk, but it’s still an awesome idea. And there’s nanopunk and biopunk, which are both looking less and less subversive the more technology advances.
The idea of ‘punking’ an energy source isn’t new. But I have to admit that I never considered solar energy to be ‘punkable’. Punk is traditionally a subversion or a critique. Steampunk explores the postcolonial and the postpatriarchal with varying degrees of success. Cyberpunk focuses the viewer’s mind on questions around technological vs. spiritual advancement: we are developing all of this technology, but will our lives actually improve with it? Will we be happier with it?
Solarpunk, as far as I can tell, is an optimistic punk. It wasn’t until I really dug down into the ideas driving it that I understood how subversive it is.
These last few years, to put it bluntly, have been a garbage fire. With the constant stream of terrible news on social media and in newspapers, you could be forgiven if you have started to think that the world will never get better, that people are only ever in it for themselves, and the planet is ready to fall apart at any minute. Things have been pretty terrible before and will continue to be pretty terrible as humanity moves forward, but my awareness of current events has really grown these last few years and as a result I think I’m more sensitive to the problems of the present.
(Sidenote: I went to a keynote by James Bradley at the conference in Adelaide and he talked about just this thing. His keynote was about how we are choking the world and we can’t force ourselves to focus on it because it’s too horrific, so we keep doing bad stuff to it even though we know it’s bad. It became a running joke of the conference. “Smile! The earth is doomed!”)
It’s gotten so bad that I’ve started to make lists on Twitter of positive people to follow (here’s a few: Millie Bobby Brown, Lilly Singh, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Travis McElroy) so that I can bypass all the other nonsense and go straight to the people I know I can trust not to crush my soul. I muted the shit out of Donald Trump because he seems to encourage hatred and blind anger, which is just awful to watch. The creeping sense of dread is getting harder and harder to escape. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but I’ve seen a lot of people on my socials worrying about how to maintain mental health in the midst of all of this.
That’s why solarpunk is so transgressive. It imagines the future with reckless optimism. As Katie Lynn Daniels puts it: “Solarpunk is best described as a rebellion against pessimism.” Solarpunk invites people to imagine a world where things are actually nice. It’s the sort of thing that creators have toyed with over the years – from Doctor Who, to Star Trek, to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series – but normally what creators do is create a ‘utopian’ society with something sinister underneath, like Aeon Flux, Brave New World, or Plato’s Utopia (an unintentional dystopia, I think). That doesn’t seem to be solarpunk’s jam.
You might recognise some of the images that I’ve included with this blog post. You might have seen something similar in the urban farming designs that float around the internet whenever someone points out that humanity might end up eating the world that sustains it.
The architects who design these lush, green skyscrapers imagine a world that can be both beautiful and nourishing. That’s solarpunk. These kinds of buildings could also help stabilise the bee population, cool cities, and teach us to appreciate food better. Of course, there are some problems with these kinds of approaches to urban farming that might make them untenable for the moment. Urban farming isn’t likely to be viable enough to sustain everyone – at least, not the way it’s being conceived of now – and might even do more harm than good according to some studies. But solarpunk doesn’t need to worry about that. It’s an aesthetic, one that has penetrated the popular consciousness despite it not being entirely realistic – just like every other prefixed ‘punk’ that draws inspiration from and critiques the world around it. Like nanopunk and biopunk, solarpunk is rooted in reality even though reality hasn’t quite caught up to it.
It’s not meant to be perfect. It’s meant to make you think.