What is solarpunk, and can it really save us from the climate crisis? We explore the sci-fi art movement that's preaching radical optimism and politics
Clear water pours over a hydro-powered wooden wheel, while a cow grazes in the shade of a photovoltaic solar panel. A woman pours coffee fresh from the hob, a kettle hovering inches above the electric heat, before surveying her bountiful farmland.
Blimps tied down with rope capture wind power overhead and, in the distance, a city filled with shimmering glass skyscrapers—some with vegetation clambering up their walls—merges seamlessly with the green around it.
This animated film, titled “Dear Alice”, has become one of the most recognisable images for the emergent aesthetic movement, solarpunk, over the past year.
Created by the BAFTA-winning company THE LINE, with a score devised by a Studio Ghibli composer, the anime-style clip has been watched more than 4 million times on Twitter, where self-proclaimed solarpunk futurist Stephen Magee posted it with the tagline, “This is the solarpunk future I'm fighting for!”
But is it actually? Even as “Dear Alice” briefly made the niche solarpunk aesthetic go viral, its sudden popularity sparked debates within the solarpunk community about greenwashing and authentic politics.
Is it enough to dream of an eco utopia, when your art may actually mask unsustainable practices?
Cyberpunk’s eco successor
Solarpunk is a reaction to the more dystopian cyberpunk, which dominated sci-fi in the Eighties and Nineties. In films like The Matrix, Bladerunner and Ghost In The Shell, mega metropolises stretched out for miles, crammed with forbidding towers, cowboy hackers and robots with dubious motives.
The more that humans plugged into the disembodied web, the more cyborgian we became, and further from our grounded, pastoral selves. Rarely do you see a plant flower in cyberpunk, let alone a sprawling forest.
Not so in solarpunk, an alternative vision emerging on the internet, which dreams of a more hopeful future for people and planet. Solarpunk’s central premise is that there are ways for nature and tech to exist in harmony—we just need the imagination and motivation to make it happen.
Solarpunk’s radical utopia
Solarpunk imagines a world where technology and nature co-exist in eco-friendly harmony
“We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair,” Adam Flynn writes in a seminal essay that sketches out some of solarpunk’s core principles.
Rather than give in to dystopian pessimism, solarpunks preach radical optimism. It’s a solutions-focused movement that concentrates, in Flynn’s words, on “finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us”.
Head to the r/solarpunk subreddit and you’ll find reams of posts sharing new innovations in renewable energy, vertical farming or sustainable architecture. Key to the solarpunk mindset is a belief that today’s threats to humanity’s future, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, can and will be fixed.
"We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair"
Unrelenting optimism might seem naive, given the IPCC’s latest report. With researchers predicting a higher than 50 per cent chance that global temperatures will rise by more than the (already disastrous) 1.5°C threshold, you’d be forgiven for thinking that solarpunks are just burying their heads in the sand.
But solarpunks would tell you that their attitude is just the antidote we need for climate doomism. Climate doomism is the belief that it’s already too late to solve the climate crisis, which leads to inertia—exactly the opposite of the proactive attitude we need to transform society.
The solarpunk aesthetic
Solarpunk incorporates the sinewy lines and earthy colours of plants, just like Art Nouveau
The #solarpunk hashtag on Instagram is flooded with futuristic visions of sustainable cities—glass domes and white curvaceous skyscrapers rise out of vertiginous cityscapes, while wind turbines and solar panels abound next to earthships and vertical gardens.
But as solarpunk thinker Olivia Louise points out in a Tumblr post, solarpunk is about more than imagining buildings that resemble an iPod. Taking inspiration from steampunk, she imagines a return to Victorian aesthetics with “an Art Nouveau veneer”.
"Like Art Nouveau, solarpunk draws from the same sinewy lines that plants and flowers make"
Like Art Nouveau, solarpunk draws from the same sinewy lines that plants and flowers make, and relies on an earthy colour palette (known as the “greenery yallery” by Art Nouveau artists).
Louise calls for a return to the celebration of artisans and craftspeople—in the same vein as environmental socialist William Morris—as well as skills like food gardening.
Embedded among all this, of course, are the solar panels, electric cars, smart streets and other technological advancements that pave the way to a more environmentally-friendly future for tech.
Solarpunk as a political movement
Courtesy of Vincent Callebaut. Callebaut's Lilypad design models a floating ecopolis solution for climate refugees displaced by rising sea levels
Let’s return to the “Dear Alice” video. Although it is a compelling demonstration of the solarpunk aesthetic, it was in fact originally created as a commercial for Chobani—a yoghurt company.
It was the YouTube channel, Waffle To The Left, that first removed the Chobani branding from the commercial and posted it online, which is the version that then took the internet by storm.
But on the r/solarpunk forum, many solarpunks struggled to get past its origin as a green mask for the dairy industry, which famously contributes to deforestation, methane emissions and poor animal welfare. One Redditor branded the phenomenon “Chobani Futurism”.
Solarpunk is about more than pretty pictures of an eco utopia. It is a political art movement, which takes an anti-capitalist, decolonising, anti-racist and feminist stance on the world. For solarpunks, these ideologies are inseparable from environmentalism.
"Solarpunk thinking centres climate justice in the ongoing fight for a more sustainable planet"
This principle is visible in the wider climate movement. Sustainability is increasingly seen as incompatible with capitalism—Greta Thunberg famously called out the continued dominance of of market economics in The Climate Book last year—because capitalism encourages unmoderated consumption of resources.
On the decolonising front, members of the It Takes Roots delegation—which included Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous Climate Action and the Climate Justice Alliance—demanded at COP27 that reparations be paid to indigenous peoples and other vulnerable communities, whose homes are being devastated by the unsustainable practices that have historically benefited the Western world.
Meanwhile, eco-feminism highlights the disproportionate impact that climate change has on women and girls, who frequently shoulder the burden of securing water, food and wood for their families in areas where those resources are rapidly depleting.
These are all practical examples that fit with solarpunk thinking, which centres climate justice in the ongoing fight for a more sustainable planet.
How can I get into solarpunk?
As an online art movement, there are lots of points of entry for the budding solarpunk. The r/solarpunk subreddit is a good place to start, as is Solarpunk Magazine, which publishes new solarpunk literature and art.
Some other examples of media that could be viewed as solarpunk include:
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