When I was in school, I had some professors who insisted that as teachers, they were also activists. They were right, but I don’t believe any teacher is automatically an activist just by virtue of teaching. The way those particular professors taught—the knowledge they created and shared based on their research and that of others, and the teaching methods they used—turned their teaching into activism, i.e. something that disrupts the status quo with the goal of creating social and political change.
The same is true of literature and other kinds of art. Being an author (or artist) and storyteller can be an exercise in activism, depending on what you write about and why. A coming of age story may not inherently be a work of activism. A coming of age story about BIPOC youth navigating and challenging racist systems and institutions in their school, however, is without question activist literature.
Solarpunk is an excellent example of a space where speculative literature and art come together with present day, real-world activism in a shared purpose to build, create, and be disruptive. Solarpunk literature and art are activism by definition, at least by the definition of activism given above.
Solarpunk is still a relatively new subgenre of science fiction, and any attempt at definitions are just that, attempts. Further, attempts to define the genre are likely best left at the descriptive level rather than the prescriptive, meaning that we aren’t trying to tell anyone what solarpunk is, we’re just describing what we’ve observed it to be.
That said, I believe there is general agreement that solarpunk stories are generally about futures where humanity has either solved, is in the process of solving, or is otherwise working together to creatively and optimistically adapt to climate change or live in harmony with nature. They are also about justice, Indigenous sovereignty and leadership, anti-authoritarianism, and ending white supremacy. This general theme and hopeful, utopian tone is the backdrop against which solarpunk stories exist and are told. That is activist art. It’s imagining a new and better world in a way that is rooted in social problems and global challenges. It’s literature and art that proposes solutions. Rather than ending at apocalypse and dystopia, solarpunk art and stories use apocalypse and the collapse of dystopia as a starting place, and then weave tales that propose creative, if fictional, solutions to rebuilding society.
When it comes to envisioning future solutions, it is common for solarpunk fiction and art to envision communities in which BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people are at the forefront, creating futures that are as genuinely diverse as reality, and are led by the communities that have been colonized and oppressed in the nonfictional present and past. In this way, solarpunk not only uses art and literature to propose solutions to the climate crisis, but it joins other subgenres such as afrofuturism and amazofuturism in using art and literature to consciously and purposefully challenge global systems of imperialism and white supremacy.
Solarpunk isn’t confined to the realms of art and literature though. Nor is it confined to the proposed futures of speculative storytelling. Solarpunks are out in the world, right here in the present, working to build the future that writers and artists are envisioning, and that we’re all envisioning together.
Around the world, solarpunk communities have been and continue to be built in virtual and physical spaces, as well as blendings of the two. These are groups of people who are working together to prefigure the world we want to create by living sustainably and building active networks of radically optimistic communities. A perfect example is the Solarpunk Action Week (SPAW), which is a week of action that is all about building a better world. SPAW has built a community that exists in digital space and also regularly spills out into the physical world through direct action. In addition to the week of action itself, which takes place in the northern hemispheric spring, the SPAW website also posts regular calls to action throughout the year for causes and struggles related to the solarpunk vision.
Solarpunks have joined and continue to join on the frontlines of struggles against pipelines, fossil fuels, deforestation, and other projects that would seriously damage the land, water, and air.
Solarpunks are at the forefront of the struggle for animal rights.
Solarpunks are helping develop climate solutions.
The list could easily go on.
Solarpunk is literature, art, fashion, cuisine, music, and architecture. It’s also activism. It builds community, solves problems, engages in prefigurative praxis, and uses radical optimism to creatively disrupt the status quo in service of that vision of a new and better future. This unique combination gives solarpunk the power to potentially change the world.
Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine and Black Cat Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.