One of my favorite short stories in the solarpunk genre is “Caught Root” by Julia K. Patt. You very well may be familiar with it. It’s the first story in the seminal anthology, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, which was edited by Sarena Ulibarri and published by World Weaver Press. The story is about an interaction between people from two different, future solarpunk societies. One of those utopian communities uses high tech to do as much of society’s work as possible, freeing up those who live there to pursue more artistic and creative endeavors. The other community, New-Ur, is a utopia that uses low tech with emphasis on the value of the relationship between people and physical labor in meeting survival and social needs.
We talk a lot in solarpunk circles about creating a world where humanity, nature, and technology coexist in harmony rather than conflict. We dream of a society where technology serves people rather than dominates them. We not only fantasize about, but we actively seek to create a world where technology is part of the solution to preserving the planet, rather than a tool of environmental destruction and extinction. But is technology required for a society, whether present or future, to be considered solarpunk?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is also yes. After all, from making hunting tools to erecting shelters to starting fires to keep warm and safe at night, technology is older the homo sapien species, and the creation and use of technology has always been part of human community building. But that long answer comes with a number of qualifications that will be highlighted in this article.
1. The Concept of Solarpunk Isn’t That Concrete
No matter how much we talk about what solarpunk is, what it means, or how it’s expressed, the fact remains that it’s still a relatively new concept and genre. Perhaps it’s best to think of the term as describing things rather than as a word that gives concrete defining limits to things. In this way, solarpunk is like a box that things can placed into for purposes of comparison, evaluation, analysis, and relationship building. Definitions are certainly useful, but using the term solarpunk as a means of applying strictly prescriptive limits on ideas doesn’t seem particularly useful at this point in the life of the genre. For more on this discussion, see Jay Springett’s talk on solarpunk as a narrative strategy and memetic engine.
2. Technology Does Not Necessarily Mean High Tech
In our world of relatively advanced, electrified, networked, artificially intelligent tech, it can be easy to assume that “technology” is the same as “high tech,” which can be defined quite simply as the latest, cutting edge, most advanced technology available. Much more broadly, “technology” itself refers to a wide variety of tools and processes created and used in the practical application of learned knowledge. The community of New-Ur in Pratt’s story mentioned above is a great example of a future utopia that uses technology to solve problems, but not high tech.
A classic example of low tech solutions is the way chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termite snacks. Those chimps are using technology no less than a human sitting at a computer coding a video game. Something doesn’t need to fit the human definition of cutting edge, and it certainly doesn’t need to be mechanical or electric in order to fit under the umbrella concept of technology.
3. High Tech is Not Required
Even though the use of technology, broadly speaking, seems to be a prerequisite for human world building, that doesn’t mean there is a necessary relationship between utopia and cutting edge, high tech. In fact, just the opposite. There are as many conceptions of utopia as their are ideologies in the world.
It’s okay for us to collectively look at a new technology and say, “No matter how advanced this may be, it’s probably not the best option for us right now.” More important than technology being the most advanced available is simply that it’s created and used for the purpose of building harmony and community between people, between species, and with the planet.
4. Utopias Are Accessible
While a utopian society doesn’t necessarily have to be high tech, it does need to be accessible. For example, if people who use wheel chairs or other mobility aids can’t move around, access both private and public community spaces, and meaningfully participate in the world you imagine, then that world isn’t utopian by any meaningful definition of the word. If a person with diabetes or some other ailment can’t survive in your future world because the medical technology they need to continue living no longer exists, then not only isn’t your world utopian, but the primitivist concept at the heart of your utopia is gateway to eco-fascism. In the same way, if the high tech in your imagined future results in systems of oppression, then you just can’t call it utopian.
At Solarpunk Magazine, we’re excited to read about utopian, solarpunk futures that are both high tech and low tech. At least I know I am. But if people can’t survive in your future world because of a either reduction in the use of technology or because of the way in which high tech is implemented and used, then your world might not fit very neatly into the solarpunk box.
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.