Solarpunk is a subgenre that is currently having, or at least is beginning to have it’s ‘moment in the sun.’ It’s even possibly on the verge of going mainstream. Lorde recently put out an album called, “Solar Power,” for example. A couple days ago, an Instagram post was sent out from Emma Watson’s account to her 61 million followers that contained a 10 slide “Quick Guide to Solarpunk.”
Over the past year numerous articles have been written and published about solarpunk and the need for more optimistic and hopeful fiction. These articles have appeared in genre and entertainment specific publications, as well as broader themed magazines and news outlets with much larger circulation such as the BBC, Yes! Magazine, Time Magazine, and more.
Given the moment that solarpunk is currently enjoying here in the present, it seems like an good opportunity to examine nine reasons why we believe solarpunk is, in fact, the future we are both waiting for and creating together.
1. Rooted in Rebellion
Like other -punk literary subgenres such as cyberpunk and steampunk, Solarpunk is rooted in the spirit of rebellion that’s so familiar from the punk rock music scene. The target of rebellion in solarpunk stories is often fossil fuel companies and infrastructure, or the single-use and exploitative capitalist system more generally. In our present day real world, the climate crisis has been allowed to progress so far, and the fossil fuel empires preventing real progress are so firmly entrenched in systems of global power, that it’s hard to imagine how we can pull ourselves back from the brink without rebellion against the status quo.
2. Climate Solutions and Adaptation
There is no question that the climate crisis is one of the most pressing, and perhaps the most all-encompassing issues of our time. It’s not just about climate change. It’s a crisis that is tangled up with other important issues such white supremacy and systemic racism, imperialism, corporatism and capitalist exploitation, etc. No matter where we turn, the reality of climate change and its consequences stares us in the face.
Climate change is such a big, broad, and pressing crisis that it’s hard to imagine a future that isn’t dominated by attempts to solve and adapt to it. Such problem solving and adaptation is at the heart of solarpunk stories. A near-future where science fiction doesn’t address climate change and its consequences as a matter of course is a future in which science fiction will have ceased to be relevant as a tool of important social commentary. Such a state would be catastrophic for the genre. For this reason, solarpunk, ecopunk, climate fiction, and related subgenres need to be the future of the science fiction landscape.
3. Harmony with Nature
It’s estimated that almost 11 thousand square kilometers of Amazon rainforest were destroyed in 2020. That means that more than one square kilometer rainforest habitat was wiped out every single hour of every single day. That’s the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon region of Brazil in over a decade. This is only one symptom among many, including climate change itself, that indicates how far out of balance our relationship with nature has become.
The only way we can hope to begin reversing the damage we’ve done to the planet is by actively seeking, and once again finding that balance. If we don’t, then we’re likely going to continue destroying the planet until it’s uninhabitable.
4. Harmony with Technology
We live in a world where, all too often, technology is used as a tool of destruction and exploitation. Cyberpunk, the literary progenitor from which solarpunk has most directly sprung, is all about worlds where technology is used in this abusive way, and about the struggle against such power and abuse.
Solarpunk stories often take, as their starting point, worlds in which this has either changed or is in the process of changing. In that way, solarpunk stories seek to rectify that abuse that isn’t just about rebellion only, but is also about proactively building something new and better. Solarpunk stories often have a focus on technology that helps humanity solve the climate crisis or adapt to climate change.
One of the most appealing things about solarpunk literature and art is that they’re full of narratives where technological innovation functions in a way that fosters a relationship of harmony rather than of conflict with both humanity and nature. Technology serves human needs, rather than being used as a tool of oppression by which the few exert power and control over the masses. And it is used as a means of sustainability and coexistence with the natural world rather than one of destruction, conflict, and domination.
5. Local Focus
One of the results of the alienation produced by capitalism is fractured communities. With our communities fractured, we’re less likely to have the strength and organization needed to pose a serious threat to the systems of power that have caused climate change and so much environmental destruction. As a result, communities have to rebel. They have to have to fight and struggle for any semblance of equity and justice.
If we’re to have a real chance of averting the worst effects of global climate change, if we truly want to build a better world, if we are going to work together to build utopias out of the ashes of climate catastrophe, then we have to focus on strengthening local communities, and building solutions that start from the local, grassroots level and work their way up, rather than the other way around.
6. Liberatory Social Justice
In order to build those stronger local communities, if we are going to work together to create genuine utopias that aren’t just rhetorical propaganda, then our movements and communities must be led by those who have been most marginalized, exploited, and oppressed under the current systems of political and economic power. Real and substantial change—genuine liberation—can never be handed down from on high like some act of charity by those with political control, by the privileged who have most benefited from those systems. That means if we aren’t following the lead of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, immigrant and refugee, neurodivergent, disabled, and other marginalized communities, then we aren’t serious about building a better world.
A common feature of solarpunk is stories set within future worlds and communities, and featuring protagonists from communities that have been most marginalized in our nonfictional world. In this way, solarpunk is not only imagining the future, but it is helping to prefigure it here in the present.
7. A Beautiful, Hopeful Aesthetic
One of the things that is so appealing about solarpunk is the gorgeous, shiny, sparkly, lush, green, and technologically advanced futures that have been created and depicted by years of amazing solarpunk visual artists, painters, illustrators, cartoonists, architects, etc. It’s the first point of contact that most people have with solarpunk, and there is no doubt that it’s what initially draws most of us into our love affair with the genre.
The world we live in is bleak. It’s pessimistic. The challenges we face often seem daunting, overwhelming, and even unsolvable. In times of darkness, nothing is needed more than the bright light of the warm sun. The pretty, shiny, sparkly aesthetic of solarpunk is not only important to the growth of the genre, but it also helps pull us out of our individual and collective apathy. It brings us to a place of hope, and helps us remember how to imagine a better future so we can begin working together to build a better world.
8. Dystopia Fatigue
We’re tired of the doom and gloom already. We understand why GenX is all about apathy and nihilism. They grew up with the ever-present existential dread of nuclear war and total annihilation. Not to mention being raised during the re-ascent of extremist rightwing, fire and brimstone Christianity, which traumatized a whole generation of youth by convincing them that if they didn’t believe correctly, then they needed to fear being “Left Behind” to suffer through the “tribulation” on Earth before being sent to hell, where they’d be tortured by demons in a lake of fire for all eternity.
That’s thick, heavy shit. We get it. Apathy and nihilism made sense as a reactionary defense mechanism to the environment GenX was raised in. But we’ve decided that we’re done with that now. We want a future, and that’s not going to happen if we drown ourselves in pessimism and refuse to take positive action toward building that better future. It’s time to end the real life dystopia that is our world and create a better one. It’s time to demand utopia, and that’s exactly what solarpunk is doing.
Solarpunk stories may take place within post-apocalyptic settings, but unlike stories following the current trends within science fiction and fantasy they don’t begin and end with dystopia. They begin with hopeful, optimistic communities working together to overcome challenges and build utopias in the wake of climate catastrophe and dystopia. Solarpunk can show us the way. It can help us climb out of the pit. It can guide us out of the darkness and into the light of a better tomorrow.
9. Not Just Fictional Futures
Solarpunk isn’t just science fiction, fantasy, and futurism. It isn’t just an idea or an aesthetic. It is those things, and we love it for being those things. But it’s also something that exists in the present day, nonfictional, physical world. It’s made up of people creating intentional communities, experimenting with technological solutions and low-impact living, taking action against fossil fuels, and working to build a better world right now, both right here within the seat of global empire and around the world.
Solarpunk provides the imaginative capacity building necessary to create a meaningful and just energy transition in the present. We can’t do something in the physical world if we can’t imagine it in our minds first. Solarpunk allows us to recognize that there is a different path we can take. It makes visible various potential paths that are available to us not just in the future, but in the present moment as well. Solarpunk is vital to our present, and so there is little doubt that it’s also our future.
Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the 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.