illustration by Brianna Castagnozzi

Solarpunk and She-Ra: How Netflix’s She-Ra reboot
invites us to imagine a high-tech, just, and sustainable future
by Elizabeth Sutterlin

The relationship between technology and justice, both social and environmental, has felt tenuous at best lately. For every encouraging article about harnessing technology to halt climate change or solve our way out of complicated crises, it seems like there are twice as many about automated discrimination, new ways to harvest, sell, and trade personal data, and blockchains burning coal to mint pictures of monkeys. In the midst of this, it can be tempting to swear off technology entirely; to throw our clogs into the printing press and slow the endlessly accelerating march of technological progress that always seems to promise a better world but delivers nothing but more money for those at the top.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and I would argue that it can’t continue to be this way. Any solarpunk future we can dream will require us to enlist new technologies for environmental good—and we should not feel as though we have to choose between technological advancement or a sustainable future. If we can push for changes to the exploitative models that govern our current technological systems, we can harness that power for a much brighter, solarpunk future. There aren’t many examples of this transition in media, but I have found one allegory in an unlikely place: N.D. Stevenson’s reboot of She-Ra.

Plenty of cartoons have addressed our environmental crisis through allegory. What makes Stevenson’s adaptation of this beloved cartoon from the 1980s unique, however, is that it makes this environmental framing part of a larger allegory for  social and environmental justice. She-Ra moves beyond portraying technology as intrinsically good or evil. Instead, the show prompts its audience to consider how the values we build into technological systems uphold or challenge environmental and social injustice. Stevenson’s She-Ra makes a strong statement about what lies at the end of extractive technology, for both our planet and our society. The show’s conclusion offers us a look at a solarpunk future that is just, sustainable, and perhaps closer to Earth than we think.

The fictional Etheria of the new She-Ra is a world that mirrors our own. Technological change has accelerated, but societies are war-torn and weary, and the planet itself is fraught with environmental crises centuries in the making. 

At the start of the plot, the central conflict mirrors tropes of the natural vs. the artificial. The villains live in a dark, industrial wasteland and their power comes from high-tech weapons and laser-shooting robots. Early on, every use of technology is extractive, while the protagonists use magic and nature to restore communities and ecosystems as much as they do to fight. The First Ones, an ancient race of people who learned to synthesize natural magic with technology, are presented as an alternative to the villain’s “conquer and extract” model. On screen we see the antagonists pump sludge into forests and drill into tundra, but the technology of the First Ones appears to have left no environmental impact, save for their crystal ruins. As the show progresses, though, Stevenson points the viewer past that façade. The First Ones do not represent an alternative paradigm of sustainable intergalactic settling—they are extractive colonizers, too. Their ancient technology “integrated”  nature by hijacking and weaponizing it, without concern for the planet or its indigenous people.  

When the heroes of the new She-Ra discover an ancient, abandoned dumping ground, the audience is finally shown the true ecological impacts of this civilization, which turn out to be more pervasive and unsettling than anything in the show up to that point. Where corroded tech was left to die, it consumed every living thing it touched. The “synthesis” of magic and technology that fueled castles and spaceships came at an enormous cost: the creation of an ecological wasteland-turned-island-of-horrors known as Beast Island. If we strip back the fantasy elements, Beast Island evokes our own planet’s electronic waste dumps, the hidden graveyards for silicon and heavy metals that poison people and land to fuel our annual demand for newer computers, phones, and smart devices.

The synthesis of tech and magic from the First Ones causes damage not because it is technology, but because of the imperialist design and mindset coded into its every system. For the First Ones, Etheria and the people on it, rather than being equal partners in the planet’s development, were merely a means to an end for technological advancement. When the show’s heroes rehabilitate robots, clones, and former villains, it is not the heroes’ use of technology that is inherently good, but their new conceptualization of and framing of technology that challenges the social order based on extraction of resources. 

Light Hope, the AI program responsible for training and monitoring the planet-defending protagonist (She-Ra), is a prime example of She-Ra’s nuanced approach. Stevenson portrays Light Hope  with more complexity than the standard sci-fi trope of AI turned evil. Stevenson makes Light Hope a thousand-year-old computer program that was written by people who wanted to use Etheria’s magic as a weapon against their intergalactic foes, despite the cost. By refusing to cast Light Hope in the simple role of villain, Stevenson’s storytelling shows us that technology is only as evil as it is designed to be. As Light Hope disappears after an act of heroism and humanity, we realize that it was not she who wanted Etheria weaponized and destroyed—it was the colonial system that created her. 

Stevenson’s She-Ra revealingly mirrors  our own society in other ways, as well. Imperfect and biased algorithms, left to their own devices, wreak devastation and further entrench social inequalities. Vast natural resources and technological capabilities are used to fight endless wars instead of being used to share historic levels of peace and prosperity with everyone in the world. Just as the show’s villains hardwire Etheria and sap its magic for their own use,  enormous real-life monopolies sap and sell data for profit while cultivating our dependence upon their platforms. Computer programs, algorithms, and websites do not inherently create harmful societal outcomes; the fault lies in the choices, biases, and values of the people who design them. The assumptions, biases, and extractive frameworks that humans build—intentionally or not—into code and algorithms can turn technology into a force for good or for evil that lasts long after its creators are gone.

The rebooted She-Ra‘s  finale also sets it apart from shows with  disappointing pop-culture conclusions; those shows where the protagonists merely take the place of the vanquished villains in power structures that remain unchanged. The protagonists of She-Ra do not re-establish the First Ones’ lost civilization, and they do not try to put a new face on a galactic order that harvests magic for weapons and wars. Instead, the show  concludes with the people of Etheria reclaiming their planet—and their magic—from the colonial powers that attempted to eradicate them. This happy ending, in which redeemed tech-powered antagonists begin healing and forming a genuine community, shows us a future where technology is not opposed to the forces of nature. 

Much progress remains to make our world’s social, technological, and environmental systems more equitable. At the moment, tech companies often silence those who point out the racial biases and environmental costs of AI and other cutting-edge technologies that will shape our world in the decades to come. Meanwhile, many companies fail to adequately  address their products’ enabling of authoritarianism, violence, and misinformation on everything from climate change to vaccines. 

Yet there is reason for hope. Whistleblowers like Timnit Gebru, Sophie Zhang, and Frances Haugen bring failures and abuses within these companies to public attention. At the same time, the community of people imagining what a better, more equitable, more inclusive tech-powered future could look like keeps growing.

A solarpunk future is possible, but one resembling what Stevenson’s heroines achieve, in which we right social and environmental harms and implement technology for good, will by no means be easy to reach on Earth. New technologies will provide us with opportunities to rethink our extractive and exploitative social models that hurt people and planet, but we cannot hope to merely escape our problems with technology. Our algorithms and tools will continue to reflect the values, priorities, and problems of our society. Reforming the ends to which we use technology in order to fix environmental and social inequalities is one of our greatest current existential challenges . A better world requires thoughtful design, boundless creativity, and massive effort. But in this uncertain moment, the finale of Stevenson’s She-Ra gives us an opportunity to imagine the solarpunk future our efforts could achieve.

Elizabeth Sutterlin (she/her) is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her poetry has recently been published in Short Edition and Sixfold Magazine, and she has led workshops on poetry as a spiritual practice for the Beacon Hill Friends House. She works at an international non-profit organization on issues related to digital human rights, technology, and democracy. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and going for hikes.

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