Hosted by Luka Dowell, Solarpunk Now! is a science/tech and politics podcast highlighting radical ideas, projects, and theories for a brighter future. You can listen at solarpunkcast.net or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find the show on Twitter @solarpunkcast.
Luka recently agreed to sit down with Solarpunk Magazine Poetry Co-Editor J.D. Harlock for a chat.
SPM: Tell us a bit about yourself.
SP Now: I’ve worn a lot of different hats. I know some people who discovered their passion early on and committed to it, but that never happened for me. To be sure, there are a lot of things I’m passionate about, and I keep myself busy with a good mix of work, research, activism, and hobbies. But when someone asks me what I do, or what I’m most interested in, I can never give a straight answer!
For a while I worked in an art store, making extra cash writing typewriter poems on the street. I’ve also worked in book publishing and radio. I’ve competed nationally in slam poetry and I have one sci-fi short story published. I’m interested in natural language generation algorithms, open-source software, and cybersecurity. I enjoy cooking and sewing. I’m also really passionate about gardening and aquarium design, and I’m curious about pursuing those hobbies in sustainable, regenerative ways.
I originally entered college to study marine biology and computer science, only to somehow wind up with a degree in literature! That academic journey also gave me some exposure to ecology, cognitive science, philosophy and linguistics. The school I attended was very politically active–I started getting involved in protests and took awesome classes on topics like Marxism, neoliberalism, and the history of race in the US. At the risk of confirming right-wing fears about the university, I do feel like that experience really radicalized me (and I couldn’t be more grateful!).
I know that whatever I wind up doing with my life, I want to make sure I’m engaged with politics and committed to my ideals. I might like to go to grad school someday, but I’m a bit stuck because “all the things” isn’t a valid field of study… That’s why an interview-based podcast, where I can talk to people in a range of different fields, is a great project for me right now!
SPM: When and where did you first hear about the solarpunk movement/genre?
SP Now: At this point, I can’t really remember where I first heard the word “solarpunk.” I’ve probably had a passing awareness of the genre for a while. As a teenager, I was really active on Tumblr and other sites where digital cultures emerged, and I’ve always been interested in sci-fi and all things “futuristic.” Between that and my academic background, it’s only natural I’d stumble across something like solarpunk!
Recently though, I’ve been exploring solarpunk more explicitly. I’ve read a lot of cool solarpunk theory, and I’m enjoying novels like Starhawk’s Maya Greenwood series and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. A class I took through the Institute for Social Ecology introduced me to the theory I see underpinning a lot of solarpunk and solarpunk-adjacent projects. (So glad I finally Googled Murray Bookchin!) I’ve also found a lot of inspiration in other creators, like Saint Andrewism on YouTube, and more leftist podcasts than I can list here. And of course I’m keeping up with projects like Solarpunk Magazine!
SPM: What drew you to solarpunk and what does it mean to you?
SP Now: To be honest, I’m kind of an outsider to the genre, more so adopting it as a theme than working strictly within it. But that’s because solarpunk lines up so well with my politics! Solarpunk is interested in prefigurative politics and building local/community power. Ending the exploitation of our planet, and of our neighbors, are both central goals. That synthesis between environmental and social struggles is key!
In the last couple years, I’ve been trying to combine my interests in politics and science/technology. It’s critical that we understand these fields in relation to one another. When we let corporations define technology and its role in our world, we also let them define the debate around technology. Neoliberal ideology heightens economic language (efficiency, productivity, profit) to the realm of truth, and obfuscates the role of political and moral decisions in technology. That makes it hard for critics to discuss specific technologies without being written off as anti-progress, or big-government bureaucrats, or whatever.
Ignoring the sociopolitical side of technology is dangerous–to democracy, to health and security, to our very ability to recognize and respond to such dangers. Some tech evangelists think it’s goofy to argue that technology should be more democratic. But I’m not proposing that we make technology political; I’m suggesting it already is, and always has been. Every technology, by its design (whether intentional or not), lends itself to certain social arrangements and distributions of power. Safely managing a nuclear reactor seems to require a more hierarchical arrangement of power than does an array of solar panels. And it’s much more practical to give every household/community their own independently managed solar panels, rather than their own tiny nuclear facility. (Credit to Langdon Winner for this example, which I’ll discuss more in an upcoming episode on the philosophy of technology. Stay tuned for that!)
Solarpunk is unique as an environmentalist aesthetic that still recognizes, and celebrates, the role of technology in our lives. “Technology” doesn’t have to be one thing–one oppressive force exerting its tyranny over us, or an original sin from which we can never recover. Technologies (note the plural) can and should be evaluated individually, not just as a monolithic entity. We will discover which sort of technologies serve us, and which ones are holding us back. And it gets even more complicated (read: super fascinating!). Just as technology on the whole isn’t good or bad, it isn’t neutral either. Technologies can have greater or lesser degrees of neutrality, based on the factors that go into their design, the ways they can be implemented, and so on. Think about the different ways a bowl could be built, and how we could use it, vs. the design factors and potential use cases for a nuclear warhead (much more limited, authoritarian, and deadly). In solarpunk we see a world where the technologies that serve the planet–and its inhabitants–are central and necessary features of life. It’s a world where we’ve developed a healthy relationship with even our most advanced technological creations, rather than a wholesale disavowal (primitivism, cottagecore, Victorian romanticism) or an uncritical embrace (Silicon Valley, cyberpunk, aka the world we currently live in).
Solarpunk recognizes that change requires hard work, but it’s nowhere near impossible. It’s opposed to fascism/racism, capitalism and unchecked corporate power, social atomization and selfishness. Science and technology play a central role in solarpunk worlds, but they’ve been harnessed for the benefit of everyone, rather than for war or private profit. Not to mention how lush and extravagant everything is! Solarpunk worlds provide their inhabitants with so much more than the bare necessities for life. They’re full of art, love, and beauty–all the sappy stuff we can’t afford to live without. A sustainable future without murals, music, and ornamental foliage is no future I’d want.
SPM: How did this podcast come about? What inspired it?
SP Now: The idea’s been rolling around in my brain for a while now. When I graduated college, I suddenly found I was under no obligation to keep learning about the world or thinking about how to improve it, and that was terrifying. I didn’t want to settle into complacency with all the problems I’d spent the last few years studying. This was during the first year of the pandemic and the summer when the BLM movement gained a ton of visibility, so it was pretty easy then to see that the world wasn’t okay. But I worried that soon the outrage would die down and we’d return to “business as usual”–maybe with the necropolitical side of that business rendered a little more explicit. Too many movements seem to flare up and then burn out without any significant change happening. I wanted a way to connect with radical movements and critical analysis in a more sustained way, not just when they broke the surface into mainstream media.
When thinking about social movements, I always come back to the metaphor of a mycelium network. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms–the parts that grow above the ground where we can see them–are only a tiny part of the story. Mycelium spreads out much further under the surface, facilitating a forest-wide communication network. A protest, a direct action, or even a full-scale revolution is a moment when political energy breaks the surface and can’t be ignored anymore. But while a movement might seem to fade away in the public eye, or in the media, the ideas behind it never really go away. And the social connections forged in that movement stick around, maybe even grow, and can provide the impetus for another moment of flare-up that reaches the public view. Whether we succeed or fail in a particular action, the network of ideas and activists is there before and afterward. It’s important we ensure the continued growth and health of that network, especially after an action we might perceive as a failure. Losing a battle doesn’t have to cost us the war.
Anyway, the podcast. My idea was to show how radical ideas are still important, and how they’ve continued to grow and develop even during periods of apparent darkness. For example, I think there’s really interesting work in Marxist feminism, connecting class struggle to struggles for gender and racial justice, and to a recognition of vast global inequality. We’re not just dredging up some old ideas from a long-dead thinker, it’s an ongoing conversation that’s keeping pace with a changing world.
My other goal is to encourage active engagement and deliberation with regards to science, medicine, and technology. All these pursuits have the potential to do great things for us, but only if they’re designed and implemented right. I believe that requires democratic deliberation with a diversity of perspectives. A corporation is typically a very anti-democratic social structure, and governments are increasingly powerless in the face of corporations, so I don’t know how this will all shake out. But I really don’t think we should just leave the fate of our social fabric, transportation infrastructure, and consumption habits in the hands of a few American billionaires with a blind faith that they, or their products, somehow know what’s best for us. I think we should talk about this stuff. I think we should be doing more than just talking about it, but consciousness-raising is always the first step. So I hope my podcast will be a good resource for those learning how to think and talk about science/tech and their role in our world today.
SPM: On what basis do you select guests? How does a project/idea give you the impression that it fits with solarpunk ethos?
SP Now: Well, I’m just getting started so the project isn’t fully developed yet. But as I start researching and scheduling more interviews, there are a few things I’m looking for. These criteria will probably change as my project develops, but here’s where I’m at right now.
First, I’m immediately skeptical of the “techno-fix”: basically, the promise that a company’s product alone will fix the world, and all we have to do is buy it. Electric cars are a good example: they promise to cut our carbon footprints while causing minimal disruption to our way of life (especially in such a car-centric country as the US). But actually meeting emissions goals and transitioning to a more sustainable way of life, at the global scale, is going to require a lot of lifestyle changes! Not to mention that a lot of these changes will be collective, not individual. We’ll be much better off expanding and building more sustainable public transport. We could do that with fewer resources, while simultaneously serving the needs of way more people than we could by building more electric cars. Anyone claiming innovation alone will solve this crisis, without modifying our predatory lifestyle that only exists through environmental destruction and colonialism, is thinking about profits before the planet.
This is related to the problem of Silicon valley hubris–maybe a tech CEO knows what would improve his life personally, and the narrow world he lives in, but it’s ridiculous to think that everyone else in the world would also benefit from the exact same solutions. We aren’t facing the same problems! Not only do top-down techno fixes prioritize profits, they’re also a blatant display of ignorance about local circumstances and culture around the world. Every time Facebook expands its operations into a new country, we get a fresh example of how bad the consequences can be.
All this is to say, there won’t be any Mark Zuckerbergs on my podcast. While there is certainly a role for technology in building a brighter future, it needs to be implemented in a way that benefits the people who use it over any other consideration, and that simply isn’t the case with Big Tech products. To reach climate goals we need to think outside the box of capitalist realism, not just continue to greenwash it. For those of us in higher-income countries, we need to anticipate more travel via public transport, less meat in the supermarket, fewer mall shopping sprees. Maybe it’s just because I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t own a car, but these seem like a small price to pay when the upside is a future that doesn’t kill us!
This leads into the second point: I want to highlight holistic approaches, those taking both the social and technical aspects into account. There’s a lot of cool interdisciplinary work happening right now. Climate science and anthropology are both important fields, but put them together and we can look at how a changing climate impacts communities in a given area of the world. And the insights from that research could inform a project like a mutual aid network specifically focused on helping vulnerable populations during natural disasters. I’m really excited about projects that try to tease out, or work with, the web of interrelations that shape our world.
That being said, there are certain topics where I feel it’s worth doing a focused deep-dive. Some topics are obscure, challenging, or controversial enough that they warrant more individual attention. So in my podcast you’ll see both angles: focused analysis and connections across disciplines.
Another very important consideration is ensuring I represent a diversity of perspectives. For example, I know that as a white American I have to face my racial bias–not just in my individual decision making, but in the fact that my relationships and the institutions/organizations I’m familiar with are disproportionately white. So I’m very committed to working against that bias in my guest selection process, seeking out perspectives that I might not come across if I just let my filter bubble reinforce itself. This is especially important for Solarpunk Now, since I see colonialism and racism as major causes (and ongoing factors) of our current social and environmental crisis. The environmental movement can’t keep pushing the same white western narrative that’s historically dominated it and limited its radical potential. We should be very skeptical when the same powerful actors who got us into this mess claim to also have the way out of it.
I also want to make sure I’m not just interviewing scientists and academics, but also those who do important work outside of formal research. This means activists, volunteers, artists, and anyone whose work aligns with the general principles I’ve laid out. I think we all have something to contribute, regardless of how much success we’ve found in powerful, established institutions.
A final consideration, and something that probably separates me from a lot of the solarpunk community, is that I want to allow room for pessimism. Solarpunk is a very utopian genre, which I think is really important, because we need to challenge that pervasive feeling of doom. But at the same time, there’s a lot of reason to feel doomed in our world today! I want to acknowledge that we’re all really tired, tired of working so hard and feeling like it’s not enough, tired of feeling powerless. This isn’t going to be easy, and we aren’t always going to feel optimistic. Activists, especially those involved in long-term power building, will tell you that it’s really important to pace yourself, find support when you need it, and practice self-care (the legit kind, not the retail therapy kind). That means acknowledging hard feelings and uncomfortable truths. The content I bring to the podcast may not always be the most hopeful. The connection to solarpunk may seem a bit tenuous at times. But make no mistake, I’m here digging in the dirt because I’m planting seeds. I still want the wild, extravagant flower garden in the end just as much as you do. Maybe we can call it the practical side of solarpunk–complementing utopia’s “what do we want?” with a “how do we get there?”
SPM: Was this your first experience working on a solarpunk project or did you work on something in the genre or adjacent genres before?
SP Now: This is definitely the first project I’ve done where I’ve actually adopted the term “solarpunk.” In the past I think I would’ve considered myself more of a cyberpunk, so this is a recent development for me. I’ve always loved science and technology, and cyberpunk stories were where I saw that reflected. I’ve also struggled with depression and feelings of hopelessness about the state of the world. Combine that with an interest in computer science and a penchant for dressing like I’m in the Matrix (one of my favorite movies), and cyberpunk fit me well. But I always knew cyberpunk was a very dystopian aesthetic. It’s interesting to explore and tease out the political/cultural critiques, but it’s not a world I’d want to fight for.
In college I spent a lot of time studying critical theory, which can be very focused on the negative, evaluating what’s wrong with the world. The positive dimension (social projects, calls to action, hope for the future) is often lacking, maybe because it’s harder to be intellectually rigorous when speculating about possible futures. I started to notice that a lot of my readings also lamented the lack of positive projects. There was all this rigorous analysis, but so little room for hope or imagination. This was around the time I took a class on the global 1960s, where we explored the theory and action behind a lot of positive projects, and evaluated where they went right and wrong.
As my mental health recovered, I found I had a lot more energy to engage with politics. I still love theory, and I find it helpful for making sense of the world, but my end goal is to turn that analysis into plans and action towards a better future. Solarpunk is where I’ve wound up, like the bright, psychedelic, hopeful flipside of nihilistic cyberpunk. Marx famously wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” We shouldn’t take that to mean that theory doesn’t matter, rather, it means that theory’s purpose is to inform our struggle. My podcast aims to highlight both!
SPM: Where do you see the genre/movement heading?
SP Now: Hmm, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to say. I haven’t been involved for long, so I still have a lot of catching up to do! I will say I’ve found places where I don’t want solarpunk to go. I’ve noticed a worrying trend on Twitter where NFT creators and other “web3” projects are picking up the language of solarpunk. The solarpunk genre to me has always seemed wildly open and imaginative, and I’d hate to see it become limited strongly associated with a specific (and deeply problematic) technology.
Could there be room for blockchain power in solarpunk? Maybe. I’m not opposed to the general principle, or to using computers and cryptography to solve complex problems. But there’s certainly no room for the sort of “innovation” in fintech that basically amounts to gambling on artificially scarce resources, constructing an endless chain of greater fools, defaulting to trustless protocols in situations where we haven’t first tried to cultivate trust. I could go on and on about this, but the point is that these so-called web3 projects, as far as I’ve seen, are like when Pepsi rebranded itself as the soda of choice for the 60s counterculture. It’s a marketing tactic, a way to repackage the old capitalist order for the new generation. It’s where the “punk” part dies, and the “solar” part never really manages to get off the ground.
There’s a sense in the community that we need to defend solarpunk against infiltration by capitalism, and I understand where that concern comes from–marketers these days really lean into greenwashing and other methods of re-integrating anti-capitalist critiques into their brands. I think it would be really worthwhile to discuss whether the genre is under threat from the forces of marketization and co-optation. But I don’t think these fleeting web3 projects, or people who buy NFTs, are the danger so much as neoliberal capitalism itself (and capital’s big players–the billionaires and large institutions actually profiting off these projects).
This seems like a case, all too common, where folks are legitimately convinced by the greenwashing and capitalist tech hype. And I don’t want to shame them, because they’re people who want to fight climate change, but don’t fully understand how it’s tied up with sociopolitical issues, or why web3 isn’t equipped to solve either sort of problem. For the most part, these are passionate young people who haven’t escaped the event horizon of capitalist realism. I have a hard time blaming them for that since inescapability is a defining feature of that worldview. I hope someday they can leave the empty promises of “web3” behind and join us in the combined environmental/political struggle that solarpunk recognizes so well.
Anyway, that’s all just one minor trend I’ve noticed lately. In terms of solarpunk as a genre and movement, I’m way more interested in recent efforts to diversify, decolonize, and decenter a white western version of the future. There’s been interesting work done in comparative literature–looking at solarpunk in relation to genres like afrofuturism, seeing where they align and where they don’t. Solarpunk has strong roots in countries outside of the “global north,” especially Brazil, and I’d like to see that global perspective continue to develop. The techno-solutionist perspective that drives the hype around web3 is only one very limited way to see the world. It makes sense for those of us who benefit the most from global capitalism, imperialism, whiteness, etc. to see our salvation in the latest gadgets. But the rest of the world has way more ideas, based on local/cultural needs that top-down techno-fixes can’t address. The history of radical futurism is much bigger, goes back much further, and shouldn’t be centered in the seat of techno/financial power that we’ve let chip away at our future for so long.
SPM: Do you have any other solarpunk/solarpunk-adjacent pieces/projects in the works? Do you plan to revisit solarpunk in the future?
SP Now: Well… yes and no. I don’t have any other projects as fully realized as this podcast–the most I have is a notes file on my phone called my “pet world” where I add world-building ideas whenever they come to me. Maybe it’ll turn into a novel, or a short story (maybe I’ll submit to Solarpunk Mag!) I think I’ve got at least one novel in me. Hopefully, I can find the time and effort to make that happen at some point in my life. Writing is a lot harder than brainstorming!
But for all I know, I’ll be drawn to something entirely different in the future. It’s really hard to say. What I can say is that I’ll always see social/political and environmental crises as intrinsically connected, produced by and producing one another. Solarpunk recognizes that, which is what makes it such an appealing genre for me.
As I mentioned earlier, my podcast is just getting started. I still have a lot of ideas for it that are yet to be implemented. And it’s a lot of work to be learning this all from scratch, but each episode gets a little easier! I’ve found so much inspiration and motivation in the solarpunk community, and in other creators working within it. I hope that I can give back to the community in return. If you’re excited about projects in the early stages, with most of their potential yet to be realized, I hope you’ll give my podcast a try! Check it out at solarpunkcast.net, or look for Solarpunk Now! on the streaming service of your choice. And follow @solarpunkcast on Twitter for updates (and occasionally spicy opinions)!
J.D. Harlock (he/him) is a Lebanese writer based in Beirut. His short stories have been featured in The Deadlands, Sciencefictionary, Defenestration, Wyldblood Press, and the Decoded Pride Anthology, his poetry has been featured in Penumbric, Mobius and Black Cat Magazine, and his articles/reviews have been featured in NewMyths.com, Mermaids Monthly, Interstellar Flight Press, and on the SFWA Blog.