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. ]