Can Solarpunk Save the World?

Can Solarpunk Save the World?


The citizens of Puerto Rico, reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Fiona, in 2022, see something new under the sun: solar power, although not in the conventional sense of solar markets. Puerto Rican citizens are looking to the sun’s abundance as a means of defying the settler politics of today’s energy systems, which hinge on the continued disposability of populations like theirs. Hurricane Maria wrought nearly unprecedented devastation, in 2017. But it was the abysmal federal response—along with the proposed privatization of the electric grid, which promises to fatten the pockets of companies like US-Canadian joint venture LUMA Energy—that caused the island to protest.

This is why a new vision of solar power has taken root in Puerto Rico. Community-based nonprofits, like Casa Pueblo, are demanding decentralized solar energy, with an eye to boosting the island’s future resilience, as hurricanes and other extreme weather events worsen due to global heating. Similarly, the organization Queremos Sol (“We Want Sun”) imagines a state powered by localized solar energy, routed through substations positioned across the island. And Puerto Rico is not alone. Hawaii also boasts a robust solar grid. Outside Detroit, community organizers in Highland Park have founded projects that, like Queremos Sol, attend to both material demands and the historically racialized logics of extant energy networks.

Solar power is, of course, already being slotted into existing grids and investment portfolios across the world. This shift is occurring because of increasing awareness of the fact that “the sunlight striking the earth’s surface in just one hour delivers enough energy to power the world economy for one year,” alongside the belated acknowledgement of the catastrophic consequences of atmospheric carbon. (Although, because of the intermittent nature of solar power, it has yet to gain traction as a marketable alternative to fossil fuels.) But what organizations like Queremos Sol are calling for is something different: a society founded not on scarcity and hierarchy, but, instead, on abundance and equality. They don’t just want the sun; they want what energy-justice workers would describe as an “energy commons.” They want not only solar power, but a solar politics oriented toward solidarity.

The sun has long been celebrated as a source of unbelievable abundance. Socrates famously described it as the source of all life on Earth. Contemporary champions of renewable energy intone a similar (if promethean) sentiment: solar power is the foundation of many forms of planetary life, whether a living flower or a shard of fossilized carbon. Thus, as we find ourselves drowning in the ruins of fossil capitalism, we would do well to marshal the sun’s energies toward our survival.

Despite the technological promise of solar power, a thorny political question remains: How shall we engage with this abundance? Shall solar power be another filter for global capital to continue profiting off energy? Will solar power be used to prop up fascist states with militarized borders? Or will a different kind of solar power emerge—one that is decentralized and democratic, empowering a politics of liberation even as it powers communities of people during the climate crisis? Will we have solar capitalism, solar fascism, or—perhaps—solarpunk?

The word “solarpunk” encompasses both a political ideal and a burgeoning subgenre of climate fiction, which celebrates the brilliant abundance of the sun as well as what has been termed “solarity.” This “solarity” could refer to Socrates’s description of the solar elements that inhabit and enliven planetary life, or to what energy humanists define as “a state, condition or quality developed in relation to the sun, or to energy derived from the sun.” Solarpunk stories are drenched in the spectacular light of this solarity. Perhaps more critically, they advance a liberatory politics that marshals solar power in the spirit of a true energy commons. Characters in solarpunk fictions inhabit convivial spaces where historically marginalized communities and a nonhuman landscape that includes “comrade sun” live in economic harmony.

Significantly, as is evidenced by the success of projects like Queremos Sol, solarpunk fictions are not mere utopian fantasies. Indeed, such narratives ought to be understood within the framework of the “critical utopia,” which is “both an artifact of contemporary capitalism and an artistic action against it.” The critical utopia is also a means of realizing alternative forms of infrastructural sustainability.

That same desire motivates recent books on solarpunk, solarity, and solar politics, including the After Oil Collective’s Solarities: Seeking Energy Justice, philosopher Oxana Timofeeva’s Solar Politics, and the solarpunk short story collection Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures. These works propose a departure from the settler violence of fossil capitalism; an embrace of renewable energy infrastructures that rely on solar power; and a robust argument against the dystopian alarmism plaguing our global petroculture.

Arguably, the solarpunk genre stands as an imaginative bulwark against the forces of solar capitalism—perhaps, too, against forms of solar fascism that may seem imminent given our current political trajectory. If we understand “energy transition” as a mere trope in a discourse persistently framed by the violent logic of fossil capitalism—which reduces most, if not all, planetary life to commodities to be extracted and exhausted—and thus approach the sun’s energies with the promethean vigor of petromodernity, a fascist solarity seems far easier to imagine than a solidarity-oriented solarity. Indeed, if ecofascists have successfully mobilized a Malthusian doctrine of population control as a response to the lifeboat ethics of Republican climate activists, a new generation of climate-conscious fascists will surely look to secure the border in the interest of preserving an explicitly American life fueled by renewable resources.

The choice, then, is clear: solarpunk, or barbarism.

 

SOLARPUNK AS LITERATURE

Of course, solarpunk is largely an aesthetic movement, although we ought to follow critics of speculative fiction like Shelley Streeby in recognizing that the distinction between aesthetics and politics is a facile one. Nonetheless, before exploring the discrete political goals of solarpunk, it is important to first understand its roots as a literary genre, and one that aligns with extant thinking in the burgeoning field of energy humanities. In several ways, the genre resembles forebears like steampunk and dieselpunk, both of which occasioned similarly revolutionary moments in energy and energy use—ruptures in what sociologist Patricia Yaeger famously termed the global “energy unconscious.”

Both namesakes also, notably, conjure Yaeger’s foundational argument to consider literary periods in terms of “energy … ages,” whether steam, diesel, or solar. Yaeger suggested a reconfiguration of literary periods to recognize the central mediating function of the fuel that enabled not only their material production but the various narrative frames and plot devices that would accompany each new chapter in global energy consumption. As Yaeger’s argument goes, we might think in terms of the “age of coal” rather than the Victorian Era; similarly, we might think, per critic Graeme Macdonald, of the “age of petroleum” in lieu of something like literary modernism—indeed, how “can we think of modernism … outside of an oil-electric context?”

Steampunk—a genre that also conjured a palpable “rupture,” in Yaeger’s sense—is perhaps the closest generic kin to solarpunk. Steampunk, which is largely associated with Victorian cultural expression, evokes a pivotal moment for physicists who, per Cara New Daggett in her 2019 book The Birth of Energy, were then confronting the Lucretian dictum that the Earth was bound for decay. That is, that the Earth was exhaustible and that the technological virtuosity of steam could also produce excessive waste in the form of nonproductive energy and heat. While the notion of a heat-death was hotly debated, the “paradoxical” nature of thermodynamics (whose entropic essence would potentially give the lie to our enduring faith in infinite progress) engendered the sort of dystopian sentiment that we see in steampunk.

Will a different kind of solar power emerge—one that is decentralized and democratic?

Steampunk also, and often, marshalled an infrastructural critique. In such popular steampunk works as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895)a late Victorian glimpse into King Coal’s vast necropolitical landscape—we see a robust indictment of the violent energy politics of carbon-fueled modernity. In Wells’s fictional world, set in the ashes of a “robust global extractivism,” the “unpleasant creatures from below” are clearly dispossessed coal miners.

Offering an imperfect but clear-eyed hope, rather than so many apocalyptic nightmares, is a key goal of solarpunk fiction. While many critics argue that radical change will only come about following the total collapse of Earth systems—in other words, the apocalypse imagined by popular climate fiction and much recent zombie fare—it has become increasingly evident that such alarmism possesses no political utility. Furthermore, in a discussion about climate and energy justice, we must acknowledge that, for many Indigenous communities, the “apocalypse” happened long ago: during the long 16th-century, when an expanding plantation system expedited the removal and enslavement of millions of BIPOC persons in order to accommodate the hyperconsumption of imperial centers like London.

Apocalypse, as a geohistorical event or literary trope, is thus not central to solarpunk. That is, solarpunk doesn’t require an environmental apocalypse, because most solarpunk practitioners understand the material legacies of settler-colonialism as on ongoing apocalypse.

Consequently, solarpunk worlds are not necessarily postapocalyptic (nor set in the future), but they are postextractivist. Responding to the ethos of extractive capitalism—whereby the colonized exist as “fuel … for the sake of someone else’s good life”—solarpunk imaginaries demand a thorough dismantling of fossil-fueled modernity and the material infrastructures (and attendant cultural expressions) that occasioned our comprehensive dependence on prehistoric carbon. Quite logically then, solarpunk also rejects the techno-utopian project of saving industrial modernity via increasingly hubristic geoengineering schemes.

 

SOLARPUNK AS SOLIDARITY

“Can the desire for infinite energy [an oft-cited virtue of the sun] be disentangled from … extractive and oppressive histories of unfettered growth?” asks the After Oil Collective in their latest publication, Solarities: Seeking Energy Justice. “Or does a more solidarity-oriented solarity require a new vocabulary of imagination and desire that prioritizes subsistence and satiation over the ever-receding horizon of infinitude?” Clearly the latter.

To build a just energy future, solarpunk demands a decentralized energy grid that defies the energy logic of fossil capitalism. This requires a literal dependence on solar energy. But, as After Oil’s questions above make clear, it also seeks something more intangible: a planetary commitment to collectivism and collectivist justice for historically dispossessed communities and the global landless—as well as for the vast communities of nonhuman actors (whether lowly critters, like fungus, or the sun itself) whose labor has long been understood as a gift that requires no return on investment. Such a commitment, according to After Oil, must indeed demand that “energy is not [understood as] merely fuel for endless human consumption and [endless] growth but as a gift that makes life possible.”

Following philosopher George Bataille’s injunction (in his 1949 The Accursed Share), and steering toward a more collectivist understanding of planetary life, a “solidarity-oriented solarity” also “require[s] stories that move away from solitary, individual heroes to multispecies stories that are grown over time, stories that are intertwined with other beings and celebrate not individual feats but the mutual creation of new ecosystems … solarity means asserting that we matter only by relation.” Consequently, solarpunk imaginaries routinely reject the figure of the traditional hero or antihero. Call him Anthropos, this conventional martyr figure generally follows the trajectory of “individual moral adventure” imagined by popular American novelists like John Updike. Solarpunk offers something quite different: possible worlds framed by a properly relational, if transcorporeal, solarity.

Solarpunk as a genre, then, lets us imagine something beyond the dreams of petrocapitalism, solar capitalism, and more. Solarpunk imagines an energy commons where all peoples and all species share; where, per philosopher Oxana Timofeeva, the “sun [shall be understood as] neither a master, nor a slave … [but] a comrade.”

 

SOLARPUNK AS POLITICS

Solarities concludes with a rhetorical question, and one that Timofeeva takes up immediately in Solar Politics: “Can solar technology, produced through the exploitation of labor and nature, power a utopia?” Timofeeva’s monograph is framed by a resounding “no.”

A student of Batailles, Timofeeva demands that solarity be a fundamentally utopian condition and one in which the sun is a “comrade”—an ally in a multispecies assemblage constitutive of a “cosmic solidarity.” Such a cosmic imaginary will break “the promethean vicious circle of worship and extractivism” that has long characterized the energy politics of Timofeeva’s Siberian home.

Timofeeva argues for a revolutionary “solar politics” that resonates with the After Oil Collective’s plea for a “solidarity-oriented solarity.” It chimes, too, with one of the central mandates of solarpunk: the creation of a multispecies, collectivist commons. This would be a planetary commons—a “cosmic solidarity” par excellence—as well as a decentralized one, whose energy infrastructures are shared spaces.

Some would argue that such a commons is a utopian fantasy, with no material basis. But, as is already being seen in places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Highland Park, that is not true. Understanding the sun as a comrade promises a vibrant infrastructure built on a radically transformed energy imaginary.

 

SOLARPUNK AS AESTHETIC REVOLUTION

The planetary commons imagined by Bataille and Timofeeva is effectively realized in several of the stories collected in Multispecies Cities. The introduction opens accordingly: “In re-imagining the life of future cities not as dystopic dead ends or aquariums of a smart progress but as possible templates for a hopeful and inclusive multispecies future, the storytellers of this volume serve not only their well-established roles as aesthetes of a stricken time but also of designers and navigators of a tomorrow to look forward to.” This is a tomorrow in which cities are reimagined as “more-than-human habitats home to diverse forms of life,” where “we can learn to negotiate, coexist, and flourish together.”

The stories collected in the volume eschew the “dystopic dead ends” that are all too popular in today’s media environment. Take, for instance, Kate V. Bui’s story “Deer, Tiger, and Witch,” a tale that defies Lockean logics, settler violence, and Muskian fantasies of geoengineering. Arguably, Bui’s story presents the most viable template for realizing a solarpunk imaginary: a world in which “humanity [is no longer] a single organism, its cells flowing along arteries made of fossil fuels and electricity.”

“Deer, Tiger, Witch” presents such bioengineering initiatives as a kind of fungal remediation, a version of myco-remedial efforts to break down hydrocarbon-contaminated soil. Set in a future Vietnam—long after the French “permanently changed the symbolic language of [the] people” and generations of plantation-style agriculture contributed to environmental ruin—the story imagines a world in which petroleum-based products have been “eaten away” by “bio-engineered polymertrophic yeast blooms” and a state-employed “Bioremediation Specialist” named Thu travels the countryside serving the needs of local farmers. Thu happens upon a village where a mother boasts of her daughter’s “oppositional” garden, in which “nothing is planted in rows.” Instead, the garden is a “riot” of life, and all is “interlinked: deer, tigers, people, plants.”

In an arena illuminated with “bioluminescent flood lights,” tigers are set upon “sika deer.” When a lone child, who befriends the deer, seeks to dismantle this tradition, she is reminded that the shared ecology of deer, tigers, and humans does not privilege any one species. Significantly, this illustration of shared ecology also speaks to a central aim of Multispecies Cities more broadly: to represent a more substantive understanding of multispecies justice. Per the editors, “multispecies justice does not simply mean straightforward notions of care, guardianship, and ‘living and letting live,’ but rather acting both responsively and responsibly in both life and death.”

If we understand solarpunk as an imaginative articulation of both a “solidarity-oriented solarity” and a figuration of Bataille’s “general economy” in its attention to multispecies justice, Bui’s story is a concise exemplar of the genre. What’s more, in its careful attention to renewables as a means of sustaining not merely an energy grid but a veritable riot of collaborative life, the story demonstrates the viability of such infrastructures. (Remember the bioluminescent lights illuminating the story’s multispecies engagements?)

Of course, this story collection also offers examples of grid transformation that might feel more familiar—more aligned, that is, with a promethean model. Natsumi Tanaka’s story “A Life with Cibi” is set in a dynamic infrastructure, where a “centralized system continuously modifies bus routes and optimizes schedules according to our needs,” much of it powered by the sun’s energies. The story also marshals a somewhat satirical impulse to drive home the not so “straightforward notions of care [and] guardianship” that accompany a multispecies imaginary.

“A Life with Cibi” features a strange relationship between a human protagonist and her uncannily familiar roommate … and eventual meal. In this world, “Cibus—food in Latin” is the name given to human-like forms created through artificial photosynthesis. These “edible creatures” are “designed to minimize human impact on the environment” by functioning as meat substitutes. “An artificial crop grown in a field, Cibi spread their leaves above the ground, growing underground like potatoes,” we’re told. “Once fully grown, Cibi are shipped to a market. Self-sufficient organisms, they take water on their own and perform photosynthesis.” Given their humanoid form, many humans develop attachments to them; they become pets and even friends. But the “life expectancy of a domesticated Cibus can be extended by being sliced.” The implication is that these creatures must be sliced.

Thus, we have a techno-utopian narrative with a Swiftian twist. In keeping with the imperative to transform not only our fuel sources but also our ethics, the reader is forced to confront a viable form of agricultural sustainability made possible by a radically different conception of social responsibility. In this sense, we might also read the Cibus as an instantiation of the putative nonhuman, in the form of what Jason Haslam has described (in the context of China Miéville’s magical realist story “Covehīthe”) as an imaginatively productive sort of climate weird. The weird functions here as a means of complicating georacial assemblages that frame Anthropocene thinking—the distinction, for instance, between “life” and “nonlife,” per thinkers like Kathryn Yusoff, whereby “nonlife” instantiates a fundamental alterity.

One of the most practical of the collected stories, in terms of effectively working toward a world beyond extraction, is Phoebe Wagner’s “Children of Asphalt.” A fable of sorts, this story invites its readers to consider the virtue of listening to children, on the basis that the urgent transformation confronting us requires a new “vocabulary of imagination”—one unrestricted by what Timofeeva, following Bataille, described as the violent logic of reason.

The story is set in a future where the asphalt—that “tarred rock that littered the city”—had been removed in the interest of cultivating land for a vibrant assemblage of human and nonhuman “kin.” Recalling the whimsical nature of Gabriel García Marquéz’s magical realist story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”—wherein a figure washes to shore and the villagers collectively populate his mythical lineage—Wagner describes an unfamiliar, amphibious creature who washes in from the Pacific Ocean to create nests for incoming pregnant mothers. Not unlike García Marquéz’s tragic Esteban, who ultimately colonizes the small village that has taken him in, the “landrus” transforms all the arable coastal land into a network of nests.

In the shadow of this fantastic beast, “biologists, librarians, and archivists” labor to understand its strange behavior; meanwhile, in the beings washed ashore, the local children simply recognize “kin” and take action to accommodate them—creating “paths … with sleds and footprints [to encourage] the oncoming parents toward the safest routes.” In a radical twist on the familiar postcolonial fable whereby the colonizer is satirized and the village mourned, this is a fable about climate change in which adaptation is embraced, and not merely as a necessary tool for survival. Here, “the biologists are excited to witness the birthing process. The field-tenders and growers consider if the manure might make for good fertilizer. The protein-finders wonder what we might make of the elders once they pass on. The archivists record the story for tomorrow. … And the children, they teach us how to cover the asphalt.”

In its implicit critique of what we might understand as an imperial logic—one that sees the landrus, for instance, as a “resource” or mere “species”—the story invites its readers to consider the folly of clinging not only to outmoded intellectual protocols but also to the dangerous hubris that continues to cloud our thinking. This fable also offers an apt metaphor for our current predicament, with perfectionist climate policies increasingly leaving our politicians wringing their hands and our cities drowning.

 

SOLARPUNK AS WORLDBUILDING

Fictions like those in Multispecies Cities remind readers that solarpunk imaginaries aren’t mere techno-utopian fantasy. They are, however, riddled with real-world obstacles—among them, the enduring myth that the primary obstacle to renewable infrastructures is the issue of energy capture and storage. Meanwhile, the real obstacles seem to be of an ideological and strategic nature. On the one hand, we persistently face the libertarian nonsense that—in the face of cataclysmic changes to global climate, a lethal pandemic, and the real possibility of peak grain—persists in its morally bankrupt commitment to some sort of individual freedom. On the other hand, climate activists potentially ignore a strategic error—per Andreas Malm, in his 2021 polemic How to Blow up a Pipeline—in rejecting more disruptive means of dismantling fossil fuel infrastructures.

Malm makes a good point: given the exponential increase in atmospheric carbon—which is now producing lethal heatwaves as well as cataclysmic weather events of the sort that routinely plague my home state of Florida—waiting for a socialist revolution, or putting our collective faith in nonviolent protest before combating climate change may be untenable. Arguably, Bataille’s call for more self-conscious consumption and expenditure might also be untenable: as a case in point, while measures restricting consumption to the essential were somewhat successful during the COVID-19 lockdown, the pendulum has quickly and violently swung back. It is plausible that only a revolution of the sort for which Malm calls can ensure the survivability of life on Earth.

And yet. Despite the myriad examples of productive violence, the negative consequences of that violence are often borne by industrial workers and their families, rather than their corporate overlords. Consequently, I find far greater value in the transformative power of the imagination, and I am drawn, as a result, to the generative, instrumental, worldbuilding potential of solarpunk—its ability to imagine new, workable infrastructures and assemblages.

Visions of planetary disaster “[leave] us with an intuitive understanding of infrastructure as almost necessarily a source of friction or impasse,” notes anthropologist Dominic Boyer, in his incisive argument regarding “revolutionary infrastructure.” Solarpunk worlds, meanwhile, are rooted in infrastructural logics that promise a viable (and truly revolutionary) way forward.

 

This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakkeicon

Image from John Pennecamp State Park in Key Largo. Taken by Christopher Bosek.



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