Adam Boffa | Longreads | December 2018 | 9 minutes (2,324 words)
The oil industry in the U.S. has had a busy few years. In North Dakota alone, barrel production increased more than tenfold between 2005 and 2015. The state’s daily oil barrel output surged from a low of 90,000, and within a decade it was consistently producing over one million barrels of oil per day. A majority of this oil was extracted via fracking, a controversial practice linked to a litany of harmful health and environmental effects. But if there were to be a public reckoning with fracking’s dangers in North Dakota, it would have to overcome steep challenges. A recent collection of research on the oil boom includes Sebastian Braun’s account of how pro-fracking sentiment, propped up by corporate lobbyists (like the American Legislative Exchange Council) and others who stand to gain, is so strong in the state that, during a speech at an energy conference, the audience didn’t bat an eye when a presenter likened EPA regulation to terrorism. Braun, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, alleges that this lobbyist-generated atmosphere of consensus is hostile to local researchers investigating topics including air and water quality. Another study in the collection by Ann Reed, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at ISU, points to the oil industry’s spending on “community outreach initiatives” within the state, funds which it disperses in order to establish a positive reputation for itself (and, as a side effect, make some citizens feel pressured to stay quiet about their apprehensions regarding the industry’s practices). As of 2018, the state continues to set daily oil production records.
It’s not just North Dakota, of course. Similar efforts helped silence debates around fracking, pollution, and renewable resources in the lead-up to this year’s elections in Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, eventually helping defeat reform initiatives in those states. But these are only regional instances of the broader, global trend of the suppression of research and stifling of public discussion on the impacts of fossil fuel extraction. The most significant example probably involves Shell and ExxonMobil, who studied and documented the catastrophic effects of climate change decades ago but kept their findings confidential and, in ExxonMobil’s case, funded denialist campaigns and anti-regulatory efforts based on false information. While the public spent years fruitlessly debating the legitimacy of climate science, oil giants obscured evidence, promoted research amenable to their interests, and kept drilling, happy to make hay while the warming sun shone.
Those associated with it tend to hold out hope that solarpunk could be a starting point for something bigger, something that could help propel a shift away from our contemporary sense of defeatism.
Mainstream media coverage of climate change is not as dependable as needed, given the stakes. Chris Hayes revealed some of the reasoning for this in a tweet this past July: it’s a “palpable ratings killer,” which means “the incentives [for coverage] are not great.” Other environmental reporters rebutted his claim, noting the popularity of their own coverage of climate change. Though this is an important correction, these journalists also noted that justifying environmental reportage with ratings and click-through numbers is evidence of a structural failure (or foundational error) in for-profit media.
As recent reports from institutions like the IPCC have made apparent, we have entered an era in which climate change will affect life on earth in profound and transformational ways. For many, it already has. But political and corporate interests restrict our ability to even conceive of climate change in the terms necessary to respond to it. Denialism is a farce, proposed liberal reforms are too mild, and mainstream media is insufficiently engaged. In short, things are not looking up. There is a genuine desire within the public to address the climate crisis, but our levers of political accountability, if they ever existed, have failed us spectacularly.
Any potential good news from here on out will have a hard time outrunning the bad news. It’s difficult to imagine what the future will be like, but one thing seems certain: it won’t be better than the present.
Unless you happen to be a reader or writer of solarpunk. For fans of the genre and members of its online communities, the future can look surprisingly — well, sunny.
A new type of science fiction, solarpunk takes as its premise the idea that climate change is unavoidable and probably will be severe, but demands optimism of its writers. A 2015 essay on the genre’s political ideals and inspirations by Andrew Dana Hudson refers to solarpunk as a “speculative movement, a collaborative effort to imagine and design a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability and beauty, achievable with what we have from where we are.” In practice, so far this has meant a bunch of short fiction and visual art, numerous explanatory essays, and a lot of enthusiastic conversation on social media and in online communities. But those associated with it tend to hold out hope that solarpunk could be a starting point for something bigger, something that could help propel a shift away from our contemporary sense of defeatism.
Solarpunk cohered into an identifiable thing in the early 2010’s (though the term predates this by a couple of years), so it is still relatively new. A scroll through the solarpunk tag on Tumblr (where the movement gained some of its early momentum) or an image search reveals a distinct style in which nature has reclaimed space in futuristic cities and people incorporate organic material into the design of their buildings, clothing, and infrastructure. It’s a bright color palette: greens, blues, oranges. The aesthetic invites comparisons to predecessors like steampunk or cyberpunk, but solarpunk adds overgrowth and sunlight to its mix.
One writer, Connor Owens, describes solarpunk as “a rebellion against the structural pessimism of how the future will be,” with “hope that perhaps the grounds of an apocalypse…might also contain the seeds of something better.” Later, he calls it a movement of “practical utopianism,” which feels like it gets closer to the genre’s priorities. It has a preference for decentralization, communal collaboration, local engagement, and patchwork technological advancement (and de-vancement). Hypothetical high-tech gear sits alongside cell phones and generators someone could purchase today; people build new devices and dwellings from the ruins of our own civilization. Owens also describes the genre’s “radical inclusiveness,” its “unity-in-diversity.” In an interview about the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, the volume’s editors mention their intent for it “to represent as many perspectives, places, genders, and groups of people as possible.”
Solarpunk asks us to remember that humanity will be just as varied in its approach, its morals, and its imperatives after the apocalypse as it is now.
Solarpunk thrives in collaborative spaces online, with writers and artists sharing stories, concept art, designs, worldbuilding ideas, and political commentary on social media or blogs. There have also been a handful of collections of solarpunk literature published so far, including Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (released earlier this year, with a follow-up planned by editor Sarena Ulibarri for 2019) and Sunvault (released in 2017, edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland), which includes artwork and poems alongside its short stories.
Glass and Gardens tends toward optimism; its stories imagine technologies that allow communities to cope with the realities of a warmer planet in fantastic ways. Characters face narrative tension contrived by the failure of some new technology in an ever harsher climate, either outdoors or bureaucratic: a dome that provides protection from extreme California heat starts to fracture (“Fyrewall” by Stefani Cox); young scientists invent bold solutions for problems in space exploration or agriculture but face institutional obstacles (D.K. Mok’s “The Spider and the Stars”, Gregory Scheckler’s “Grow, Give, Repeat”). In Julia K. Patt’s “Caught Root,” two communes try to overcome a history of distrust in order to share their unique experiences with sustainable farming and energy production. These are not stories in which everyone’s problems have been solved, and their narrative conclusions are not always tidy, but they have an unabashed positivity.
Sunvault’s collection feels somewhat rougher, a little more unpredictable; maybe more somber. These stories often depict ruined global ecosystems that are still wreaking havoc. In some cases, earth has been abandoned entirely in favor of life on a different planet or in space somewhere (“Speechless Love” by Yilun Fan, “Last Chance” by Tyler Young). In other cases, like Lev Mirov’s “The Desert, Blooming,” people use speculative tech to rehabilitate and regrow lands scarred by weather disasters and long-term climate change. Sunvault’s stories, poems, and art present a more muted optimism than seen in Glass and Gardens; much of Sunvault occurs in futures that audiences might label post-apocalyptic. The optimism is, basically, the fact that these stories envision any future at all.
Today, it’s not uncommon to find discussions and news stories about proposals for possible technologies, like carbon capture or sunlight blocking, that allow us to avoid major climate change. Solarpunk, like a gimlet-eyed gambler, doesn’t entertain these odds. Neither collection features stories about breakthrough technologies that prevent climate change entirely.
On the other hand, though they may not do so intentionally, one effect of reports that examine the disastrous climate awaiting us in the year 2100, for example, or the repetition of the “12 years left to save the climate” figure that made the rounds in October, is to forestall any thinking about what might come after those deadlines. Our understanding of humanity’s future flattens after 2030, or 2100, or whenever the date might be. Yet solarpunk maintains its focus on the fact that probably — hopefully — people will still be alive in 2031, and they will need to figure out how to live. “The Call of the Wold,” by Holly Schofield, takes place in a future of small communes scattered throughout western Canada that work to live sustainably outside the influence of the major cities. The story examines the tensions and possibilities that might arise in ecological communities striving for independence and equality. In “Cable Town Delivery” by M. Lopes da Silva, a woman who manages and operates a mobile library — complete with physical books and interactive digital archives — visits a small desert town built in the ruins of older, once-populous cities. By focusing on community, solarpunk’s writers offer alternatives to apocalyptic narratives in which shrinking resources inevitably lead to societal unraveling, mass violence, and the dissolution of trust between peoples.
That’s not to say the genre doesn’t come to terms with mass death and ruin. In Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Boltzmann Brain,” earth has suffered a global ecological collapse in the not-so-distant year of 2088, including wildfires, permafrost melt, deforestation and extinction events. The story’s narrators are attempting to locate and contact human survivors, but they have yet to find any. It is a grim scenario — made slightly less so only by the insistence of its narrators on continuing the search. While there is no uplifting conclusion, the story imagines a post-apocalyptic remnant characterized as rescuers, as helpers; not as sealed off, isolated homesteaders. Solarpunk asks us to remember that humanity will be just as varied in its approach, its morals, and its imperatives after the apocalypse as it is now.
“If there’s one thing we hope Sunvault accomplishes,” editors Wagner and Wieland state in their introduction, “it’s that these selections inspire artists to interact with their environments in novel, creative ways while inspiring readers to seek out solutions for social and environmental problems in their communities.” Indeed, Hudson’s essay, mentioned above, suggests solarpunk, as a movement, be “both fictional and practical, aesthetic and political, of design and action.” This theme is common in the online communities that have sprouted on platforms like Reddit, Facebook, and Tumblr, where contributors link to articles and have conversations about climate science, activism, in-development technologies, extreme weather events, and possible solutions to problems in energy or pollution or agriculture. Solarpunks.net, for example, draws its readers’ attention to coverage of disaster relief efforts in New York City, a report on cities facing the likelihood of drinking water shortages, a video about an environmental activist group in Oregon, and an academic paper on the possibility of creating small solar batteries that use bacteria to store energy. Over at Reddit, a community dedicated to solarpunk seeks to embody some of the movement’s ideals. “Fundraising related to solarpunk, open source, environmental, and nonprofit projects are acceptable content,” its moderators state, but “[o]utright sales of objects are not.”
As one Tumblr user puts it: ‘my main criticism of solarpunk is why isn’t it happening.’
Some of these efforts at practical discussion contain a note of frustration. There’s concern that the movement is enjoying its aesthetic development and sci-fi hypothesizing at the expense of furthering political engagement. Comments on posts at Solarpunk Anarchist, a Facebook page with some 15 thousand followers, lead to lively debates about where the movement is going and what its principles are (“On the other hand,” states a comment on a post about the need for utopian fiction, “we could all start supporting a truly Green solution with effective action, instead of just reading, thinking and Fbooking”). On a Tumblr post asking, “What does solarpunk need right now?”, many respondents mention increased engagement at the local level, practical political solutions, and concerns about diversity and accessibility within the movement. Another blogger states that they “don’t need more rich art nouveau amateurs aesthetics,” requesting instead that “we get a bit more practical[.]” Or, as one Tumblr user puts it: “my main criticism of solarpunk is why isn’t it happening.”
Within these debates, there’s an observable tension regarding the focus of the genre, as well as how — or when — it might expand beyond its current boundaries. Those pushing for more immediate practical efforts believe a solarpunk movement could, among other things, help bring attention to communities already experiencing climate change most seriously, reminding audiences of an already-dangerous present. But whatever the preferred tactic, participants view solarpunk as ultimately having the potential to affect meaningful long-term political change.
This is an admittedly ambitious set of expectations to place on a genre of fiction, but the solarpunk community has been candid about its desire to do nothing less than “create the world we want to live in.” In Chloe N. Clark’s poem “Please,” from the opening pages of Sunvault, the poem’s speaker recounts, as if looking back from a future point, the devastation caused by climate change, but ends by imploring its readers to “keep/ moving, seeking, dreaming,/ imagine that there is something/ left that we have to give.”
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Adam Boffa is a writer and musician from New Jersey.
Editor: Dana Snitzky