Category Archives: Climate Change

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]

the caricature of a time that is no longer ours

Oncle Bruno on the radical ecological potential—or perhaps the lack thereof— of the current moment:

The originality of the present situation, it seems to me, is that by remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture. Including the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes – not to mention the migrants who, by definition, cannot be secluded in any home of their own. But this caricature is precisely the caricature of a time that is no longer ours.

There is a huge gulf between the state that is able to say “I protect you from life and death,” that is to say from infection by a virus whose trace is known only to scientists and whose effects can only be understood by collecting statistics, and the state that would dare to say “I protect you from life and death, because I maintain the conditions of habitability of all the living people on whom you depend.”

[…]

… there is another reason why the figure of the “war against the virus” is so unjustified: in the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity! But this does not apply to all humans, just those who make war on us without declaring war on us. For this war, the national state is as ill-prepared, as badly calibrated, as badly designed as possible because the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us. It is in this sense that the “general mobilization” against the virus does not prove in any way that we will be ready for the next one. It is not only the military that is always one war behind.

I keep trying to sit down and write about those extended police powers which, as they’re explained to me by friends and loved ones back in the UK, are scaring me way more than the virus, and to some extent more even than its economic aftermath; from my point of vantage in cautious and (seemingly) hyper-rational Sweden, it’s dizzying stuff. But my mind keeps sliding off the sheer, glassy enormity of it all; I can’t grip it in a way that gives me any analytical purchase. The last time I felt like this was the London riots of 2011. That seems a lifetime ago now.

Maybe Latour is right, and there’s no promise in the pandemic of a better state response to the environmental crisis. But that assumes a continuity of the state as currently constituted, and right now the continuity of any major institutional form seems like a pretty long-odds bet. What’s different now by comparison to 2011 is that the TINA doctrine of neoliberalism has been shown to be the fiction it had always been. I am obliged to believe that’s an opportunity for change, in order that I might work as if it is.

go beyond the injunction of innovation

An interview with the principals of the Design Friction atelier:

When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.

In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.

In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo […]

Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm.

Pulling this out as a quotable riposte to the inevitable “well, it’s just critique masquerading as design, isn’t it?” complaints… SD/DF approaches are going to form an important part of my work in the years ahead, and thus I assume I’ll find myself making that argument about social goods many times over.

fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking

A bunch of snips from an interview with Matt Ward [via Matt formerly-of-BERG Jones], until fairly recently Head of Design at Goldsmiths:

Speculative Design can act as a mode of inquiry or it can be a form of strategic practice within industry. At its worst it’s an aesthetic, a step-by-step guide or corporate vapourware, at its best it creates a gravity centre, attracting people to discuss different types of futures, whilst using the tools and the language of design to explore and expand our notion of the possible.

[…]

… we never design for today. We’re always projecting and imagining a world where our work will exist. Even design with the fastest turnaround times, from concept to production (say editorial publishing), you’re always thinking of a person in the future, using and engaging with your work. We design for a world that doesn’t yet exist. We’re constantly imagining (or making assumptions about) the conditions and possibilities of the future world we hope to inhabit. This is why, over the last decade, more work is focussed on different environmental and political possibilities, because these issues dominate our attention and imagination.

[…]

In informal educational settings, in workshops in industry for example, I see speculative methods can be used effectively to loosen up creativity – allowing diverse stakeholders to explore possibilities without getting stuck on the near term problems. By “suspending disbelief”, you can examine the values and assumptions your organisation holds.

He drops some good, concise gotchas for the practice near the end, too:

As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, over stating the power and claims of design can ultimately undermine it as an approach. Using it as a method doesn’t guarantee interesting or resonant work. Over selling its power risks it being dismissed in the future or turning us into snake oil sellers.

I’m having to think about this a lot right now, because I’m dragging something fairly closely related to SD into the world of environmental politics, where people on all sides are pretty desperate for some sort of magic wand to make everything better. It’s important that I continue to remind them, and myself, that SD and/or narrative prototyping is not and cannot be that magic wand — though it might be a way to support the creation of highly situated magic wands in those circumstances where it’s done successfully. Which is of course related to:

Designers are comfortable seeing prototypes as a fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking – a process of thinking through issues and ideas without finalising a future possibility. However, these futures, seen out of context, can become concretised in the imaginations of non-designers. The proposals, that we give material form, are often misinterpreted as possible and desired, not propositional and problematic. In other words, be careful what you wish (design) for.

This is our old friend, the hazard of hoaxiness — the interpretation, presumably fostered by the social conditioning of decades of marketing and advertising, of any designed object or service or environment as a promise rather than a proposal (as mentioned just a few days back, in fact, in the context of charismatic megaprojects).

This got under my skin early on, and has always been one of my major issues with mainstream futures studies and scenario-based methods of foresight — it’s genuinely terrifying how quickly people will not only start to eat their own dogfood, but also claim that they like the taste.

Last but not least:

If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.

Yeah, this. Political science (and the social sciences in general) are still pretty bad at this, but that’s at least in part down to the institutional inertia of disciplines, and of the academy more broadly; a lot of folk at the coalface desperately want to do more co-productive work, but getting it funded can be a real challenge. (There’s more than one reason I’ve come to Sweden; no UK research council would touch my work with someone else’s barge-pole, and that’s not only because of my vocal contempt for the ubiquity of “innovation” as the dominant quantum of value.)

I’ve attempted to keep myself honest on this aspect by drawing on theories prevalent in social-practice arts and placemaking, wherein the artist/researcher is not the author of the project so much as its catalyst and midwife… though this means I’m now in the interesting position of having to actually *do* that, rather than simply hold it up as an ideal.

But as Ward makes clear above, it’s necessary. It became obvious to me early on that a significant factor in the foreclosure of futurity experienced by ordinary people is that they feel like they’re subjected to a barrage of grand promises (or threats) that fail to materialise. We’ve spent a couple of decades telling people — with, for the most part, the best of intentions — how they should live under/against climate change. But social-practice placemaking recognises that people are the experts in their own lives — and so it’s time to try asking them how they think they want to live with climate change.

I am confident that the answers will surprise us. As such, resisting the urge to correct those surprising answers will be the real challenge.

resisting both purity and progress

Anne Galloway on more-than-human design:

… I’m not a believer that technology under capitalism will be the planet’s salvation, and I tend to part ways with (commercial?) designers and technologists who aim to design more “precision” agriculture through “intelligent” machines, and I’m constantly watching for bad omens. The ethos of the More-Than-Human Lab draws on Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” and tries to go beyond the design of human-nonhuman interactions to reimagine human-nonhuman relations. For me, this means not trying to “fix” the world, and resisting both purity and progress to live well together through uncertain and difficult circumstances.

The deep irony (?!) is that indigenous cultures all around the world and many non-Western religions have always understood that nature and culture aren’t separate, and that humans aren’t superior in our abilities or experiences. Western intellectual history and industrial capitalist societies have not allowed this kind of thinking to take hold except for amongst a fringe few, and I think this has played a pivotal role in the current climate crisis and the impoverished range of corrective measures on offer.

Amen.