Solarpunk: Speculative fiction for climate optimists


Solarpunk is a movement in literature, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer the question: “What does a sustainable civilisation look like—and how can we get there?”

A 2008 article about sustainable marine transit published in the Republic of Bees appears to coin and define the term:

“Solarpunk… conflates modern technology with older technology… the interest in older technologies is driven by modern world economics: If oil isn’t a cheap source of energy anymore, then we sometimes do best to revive older technologies that are based on other sources of energy, such as solar power and wind power.”

Solarpunk is optimistic, but never naive

Mainstream literature and film are saturated by tales of dystopia, with Black Mirror, Mad Max, Never Let Me Go, and The Road serving as just a few examples. Solarpunk—which features empowered characters and successful outcomes—offers an important counterpoint to these darker eco-narratives. Part of solarpunk’s charm is in its didactic form, proffering solutions to climate change with great consideration and attention to detail. This climate action generally occurs at both a sociopolitical and a technological level, and often features a melding of the two—techno-activism.

Since climate change is a global crisis, solarpunk is necessarily inclusive. Its aesthetic can’t be pinned to any one culture, and indeed, to any one era. As a relatively young movement, solarpunk is still finding its footing in terms of aesthetic but there are some recurring elements, which often relate to the sun and serve as implicit references to solar power: Art Nouveau and stained glass windows, lush greenery contrasted with urban settings, earth-tones, drapey convertible clothing with Middle Eastern, Asian, and African influences, handcrafted wares, sustainable technologies housed in vintage silhouettes (e.g. electric streetcars), and of course—solar panels.


Solarpunk is, well, punk

With its fusion of past and future, solarpunk is also a critique of modern-day capitalism—of tech giants, consumerism, environmental exploitation, irony and cynicism, etc.—by consciously excluding it and its particulars, or else, by having capitalism be the structure the protagonists work to dismantle. Change is enacted by earnest individuals who integrate decentralisation, communal living, and DIY into their solutions—a celebration of human diversity, harmony, and agency.

If you’re interested in solarpunk and aren’t sure where to begin, this author recommends picking up “Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation,” a collection of solarpunk short stories, poetry, and artwork edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland.

According to Goodreads, “Sunvault focuses on the stories of those inhabiting the crucial moments when great change can be made by people with the right tools; stories of people living during tipping points, and the spaces before and after them; and stories of those who fight to effect change and seek solutions to ecological disruption.”

“Solarpunk: A Reference Guide” published on Medium features a comprehensive—and chronological—list of articles related to solarpunk, providing a kind of timeline of the movement’s development.

Titular image is by Owen Carson.

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