Imagine this: you are a part of a lush green community, your house has a rooftop garden in a floating village. Everyone uses clean energy-fueled transport. Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, that’s exactly the kind of hope-filled tale that solarpunk offers (1). It imagines a world where everyone uses existing technologies. Yet, it is not for profit; instead, it is for the greater good of both humanity and the planet.
The term solarpunk was coined back in 2008, referring to an art movement (2). It broadly envisions what our future can be like if we learn to live in harmony with nature in an egalitarian and sustainable world.
According to Michelle Tulumello, a solarpunk art teacher from New York (3, 4), “solarpunk is the only answer to the existential corner of the climate crisis we have backed ourselves into.”
He added, “if we want to survive as a species and keep things we care about on this planet with us, it needs a fundamental critical change in the way we perceive our world. Where we change our entire outlook from being competitive to cooperative.”
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If we were to give you a short explanation of solarpunk, we would say that it centers on ecological responsibility. It maintains a fundamental DIY impulse, community-minded, autonomous, and optimistic (5).
The longer explanation is that the idea of solarpunk was started as an aesthetic. It was a visual vocabulary and literary subgenre of sci-fi. The suffix “punk” places it in a science fiction lineage that includes the likes of cyberpunk, steampunk, and dieselpunk with a dramatically different iconography and vision.
However, it has evolved into something practical over the past six or so years.
Often, solarpunk is seen in contrast to cyberpunk. Cyberpunk focuses on anxieties of the 1980s like monolithic corporatism, urban decay, and xenophobic streaks, Whereas solarpunk imagines a world where the climate concern – today’s existential crisis is either resolved or approached with adaptive ingenuity (6).
“Advances in technology don’t lead to dystopia in solarpunk. Instead, it leads to a harmony with the world and a more egalitarian civilization,” stated Keisha Howard, an entrepreneur, and a video game developer, in a 2018 TED Talk (7).
In the words of Rhys Williams, a preeminent solarpunk thinker (8), “solarpunk stands against a shitty future. The planet is on the clock, and we don’t have time for any fashionable pessimism.”
Meaning, solarpunk is not all unmitigated harmony. It is fiction with narrative tension and dramatic obstacles. At the same time, it also holds an unwavering sense of optimism.
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The Impact of Solarpunk Movement on the Tech Industry
The rising interest in Solarpunk, a utopian and burgeoning movement, pertains to the question of its impact on the tech industry. Our questions are whether the industry is getting any inspiration or if it is even listening to it.
According to Tate Cantrell, the CTO of Verne Global, a data center service firm based in Iceland (9), “renewable energy manifests the solarpunk aesthetic.” He says that Iceland’s supernatural landscape fits well with solarpunk.
“Its ethos embraces technology that disappears into the environment. And the technology powered by green energy is a literal part of the circular economy. It eliminates waste via the continual use of resources. Such synergy allows renewable energy to be a real manifestation of a solarpunk future,” explained Cantrell.
Yet, not all tech companies, even those working in the green economy, know the solarpunk movement.
For instance, Daniel Egger, a CCO of Climeworks, a company based in Switzerland that captures CO2 directly from the air with machines powered by energy-from-waste or renewable energy, doesn’t know much about solarpunk (10).
Notably, many people look at CCS, carbon capture, and storage technologies as an important way to bring CO2 under control (11).
“We aim to inspire people to remove carbon from the air; we don’t want to do it alone. Instead, we aim to be a part of an ecosystem.”
Even though the company envision tackling climate change and galvanizing the wider community, according to Egger, they don’t have much knowledge about solarpunk. “It is not that we don’t appreciate what others think. But, the overlay between Climeworks and solarpunk is not big,” says Egger.
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So, Are Anarchic Connotations of Solarpunk Off-Putting?
According to Phoebe Tickell, a scientist, social entrepreneur, systems designer, and co-founder of Moral Imaginations that works with companies including local councils, universities, and communities to encourage the better world reimagination (12), “it is much less inviting to people that they need to be more solarpunk than encouraging them to exercise their imaginations.”
Instead, Tickell believes that we need to use imagination. “After all,” she said, “every company and corporation knows that they need creative, flexible, resilient, and imaginative employees to weather the future in this uncertain, volatile, ambiguous, and complex world.”
On the other hand, other organizations such as CUT, Carbon Upcycling Technologies, a firm based in Canada, harness solarpunk to communicate its vision (13). CUT works with a reactor technology that breaks down materials and absorbs CO2 to create enhanced concrete additives.
Last year, CUT rolled out a consumer brand, Expedition Air, selling I-shirts and paintings made from carbon-captured material. The move is based on an Artist in Residence program and rooted in solarpunk (14).
Madison Savilow, a venture lead at Expedition Air, has found several artists positive about materials made from captured carbon (15). “As soon as we started working with artists to demonstrate the use of captured carbon materials in a variety of products, we started to receive considerable inquiries from companies and big brands that wish to integrate our material into their existing product lines,” stated Savilow.
She believes that one of the primary drivers of their art and consumer product offering is allowing customers to interact with carbon-tech materials. “We envision a future where products and art are carbon sinks.”
However, using art and imagination is not enough to get larger organizations to act.
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The Ethos of Solarpunk
The ethos of solarpunk advocates knowledge sharing and centricity of communities instead of profit, hierarchies, and uncurbed wealth for a minority; It mandates a change to the entire system.
“I believe that our voices have started gaining traction in the tech industry. Many small eco-friendly, high-tech startups with cooperative structures are the kind of companies solarpunk supports. A business model that is cooperative and worker-owned is more likely to maintain its principles and commitment to carbon-neutrality and sustainability,” says Tulumello.
It is worth noting that the open-source ethos is at the core of several such businesses. One example is Open Source Ecology, a US-based firm that develops industrial machines like ovens, tractors, and cement makers made for a fraction of retail cost and shares its designs on the internet for free (16). It aims to build an open-source economy.
Meaning, to become a solarpunk, people need to see beyond profit. While it is true that capitalism contributes to technology, solarpunk demands people always to be a priority over profit.
And according to Ellie Day, a solarpunk enthusiast and a software engineer (17), tech companies are well in a position to spread the solarpunk ethos without changing its fundamentals.
Its advocates argue that while solarpunk is at odds with some large tech companies, it is a big untapped opportunity to communicate new ideas and inspire innovation.
The tech industry, environmental industry, and social justice often see themselves as individuals and even at war with one another. Tickell believes that solarpunk is a powerful cultural narrative that has the potential to align these sectors together.
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Challenges with Solarpunk
While solarpunk is optimistic, its future imagining doesn’t fit nearly with today’s economic systems and political regimes. Solar punks are in the business of dreaming of an entirely different system of energy delivery, transport, and essential services. It is quite different from the behemoth of coal-fired power plants and roads amongst which we live at present.
In other words, solar punk resists the present by visualizing a future that needs a radical societal change.
At the same, while the change needed is radical, it is not impossible. Indeed, many of the practices and technologies that solar punks imagine already exist. We have urban agriculture, renewable energy, and even organic architecture. Like any sci-fi author, solar punks only remix the present and make an alternative future (18).
On Instagram, #Solarpunk has about 24k users, but it exhibits aesthetic sensibilities of the subculture that have started to emerge. On the other hand, the hashtag is more common, with more solar punks dabbling in cosplay.
And as it inches its way further into the mainstream, many fear that it may become difficult to keep the parameters open since subcultures tend to lose nuance instead of gain when they hit mass culture.
However, it is probably inevitable, and it might be worth it for solarpunk. This speculative movement is fixated on how things manifest in practice, “technological realism,” believes Elvia Wilk, a US-based Novelist (19, 20).
She believes that more visual platforms can reinforce the vision of solarpunk as “green-washed eco-modernism” and “skyscrapers with green garnish.”
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However, the biggest question that remains for us in all this is what makes solarpunk different from an ecosexual, or eco-afrofuturist, permaculturist, or even ecofeminist technopagan?
While there are similarities, solarpunk focuses on a cultural change that will go with the full transition to a renewable future. And we believe that it is the defining feature of solarpunk.
That’s what we find compelling about this subculture.
Many of us often ask if we can replace fossil fuels with renewables. While it is an important question, it fails to grapple with the links between energy and culture.
On the other hand, solarpunk asks, “what kind of world would emerge when we finally make a full transition towards renewables?” And we find their writings, Tumblrs, blogs, designs, and music intriguing.