Solarpunk: Growing the Hope We Deserve

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson

So began William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and so began what is now known as the Cyberpunk genre. So began countless other generation-defining books, films, works of art, technology inspired by the ideas the genre explored. So began me – 1984 was the year I was born. Cyberpunk is my generation.

Cyberpunk is a world of crushing dystopia. Tortured air and acid rains bleach the life and soul out of polluted cities. There is no society or community here. An individual is one against millions, toiling thanklessly to meet a quota set by an uncaring human if you’re lucky; an equally uncaring AI if you’re not. This is a world where Megacorporations rule to the point that even Governments can do little to prevent them sucking the last dregs of the world’s resources into their ever growing, ever insatiable maws. Technology can provide you with the kinds of miracles that once founded religions but only at a terrible cost. And yet there are those who still work at the edges of this world, or beneath it, or hidden within it, who still fight for what hope remains in the world. Cyberpunk is often about celebrating the rebels fighting against crushing authority. Those who refuse to accept that which others tell them is “inevitable”. Victories are sometimes fleeting, sometimes they are indeed entirely futile, but victories are still possible. Hope can still be found in the “desert of the real”, even if it is a grimy, flawed and compromised kind of hope.

But in Gibson’s opening it is a curiously analogue metaphor that defines the digital frontier of cyberpunk. A sky as grey as analogue static. You don’t have to be much younger than me to be someone who doesn’t understand that metaphor in the same way that I can. The UK – by far not the frontrunner in this particular technological race – completed its television digital switchover a decade ago. For generations now and those to come the dead channel of television will be a brilliant sky blue.

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(Source: Wallpaper Cave)

In the last few years, two replies to Cyberpunk has emerged. The first is the not so imaginatively named “Post-Cyberpunk”. This says that the neon, the concrete jungles and the technology will remain but the pollution won’t be so bad (or magic future tech will fix it) and the Megacorps can be tamed into not destroying us or the planet. Governments might not be dominated by the Corps but they’re certainly still compliant with them. It’s a world with the “Cyber” and just enough less of the dystopia to prevent the “punk” from becoming a “problem”. It’s the world of “Net Zero”,ScotWind and “Sustainable Growth”.

 The other vision is altogether more radical. Instead of cyclopean gothic or Art Deco monoliths and rain-soaked neon, Solarpunk leans into the sweeping curves and cornucopias of Art Nouveau as well as influences from non-Eurocentric genres such as Afrofuturism which Solarpunk either adopts or is at least a close ally of – there’s little point in saving the world if we don’t save it for all of us.

It is with no small amount of irony then that one of the best, recent illustrations of that world has come from a commercial advert for yoghurt.

I’m sure this company itself is acting with the best of intentions so what I say here is not a slur against them directly but a warning against the tide of greenwashing we’re already seeing where Governments promise to solve the problem of the climate emergency but refuse to take the actions they must to actually do so and meanwhile the corporations who knowingly caused the problem are selling themselves to us as the solution. The concrete skyscraper of a corporate HQ does not become green by covering it in plants nor does their pollution “go away” if it is “offset” by not cutting down a forest that later burns to the ground.

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(Source: Unsplash)

A truly Solarpunk world is one where our civilisation has finally grown into its place within the ecosystem rather than trying to batter the world into some kind of shape around us. Technology permeates everything but in a much more invisible or complementary way – this isn’t a world where we retreat into a fantastic, ad-sponsored “metaverse” while the seas rise above us. This is a world where instead our cities almost disappear into seas of green and are built to be walked in rather than driven through. Where everything from community amenities, local food production, local work and the goods and services we need are much closer to us both physically and metaphorically through the direct control we have over their production and distribution. This is a world where Government isn’t a vast eye above us, but it is us– decisions are made locally by those affected by them.

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(Source: Unsplash)

It’s a world not of concrete, plastic and an extractive economy but of wood, glass and a Circular Economy. It’s one where instead of worrying about where your gas and electricity supply is coming from and how much it will cost, you never need to worry about your heating bill at all ever again. It is a de-commercialised world – you simply won’t need to buy the next shiny gadgets and nor will you have to work half your week away just to afford them (the other half paying for the roof over your head). In short, the Solarpunk world sounds a lot like a Green New Deal fulfilled.

And in that realisation we find that it is a world that is eminently achievable. I’m not talking about magitech bits like the holographic displays or micro-rainmakers of the advert but the systems and infrastructure of a Solarpunk could be built now. One thing stopping us is political will or, at least, the fact that political will is currently being driven by the voices of the Megacorps who are crowding out our voices. It’ll be hard but victories are possible and everything in politics appears to be impossible until the moment that it becomes inevitable.

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(Source: Wallpaper Cave)

The only other thing stopping us is our ability to hope for a better tomorrow but that is something that we can grow ourselves. My generation of corporate grey and neon skies can give way to the demands from next generation who are dreaming of a bright blue future. The Green New Deal is possible. Solarpunk shows us what we’ll win when we decide that it should become inevitable.

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