Solarpunk—Ideas for a Brighter Future
The origins of solarpunk trace back to 2008 with a post on a blog called Republic of the Bees. The idea of the post was to create a subgenre of speculative fiction similar to steampunk, but rather than the alternative realities of steampunk where steam power and Victorian technologies remained prevalent, it would be based on renewable technologies like wind and solar power. Unlike steampunk as well, the concept of solarpunk was meant to be something that could be achieved in real life.
Solarpunk has since evolved into a genre and movement with recognizable aesthetics and goals. When looking up solarpunk, you’re bound to find anything from green buildings like those in Singapore and Italy, and concepts for art nouveau inspired cities glistening with stained glass, to resources for gardening on a tight budget and repairing your own technology. There is also no shortage of wikis, articles, forums and even books expressing the different ideas on solarpunk and how such a future could be achieved. However, it is generally accepted that a solarpunk future would be optimistic, if not yet perfect, where humanity has a better care, understanding and appreciation for nature and the environment.
One resource you might also find while delving into the realm of solarpunk is Optopia, a small magazine that focuses on exploring art, prose, poetry, and ideas inspired by solarpunk.
I had the opportunity to interview Rifka, Optopia’s layout director, to learn more about what they do, as well as Rifka’s thoughts on the solarpunk movement. You can read Optopia’s first two issues at https://issuu.com/optopia. You can also support them on Patreon.
What first drew you to the concept of solarpunk?
Rifka: What initially drew me was seeing people on the internet share the parts of their lives that are solarpunk. Solarpunk is partially an aesthetic movement, but it also finds beauty in the imperfections. People sharing photos of their gardens, but also their art, their upcycling, and just that it was a movement full of normal people, really made me really interested. I’ve always been interested in environmentalism, and solarpunk is a very concrete way of connecting with nature in an individual way, but also not losing sight of the world at large.
What do you consider to be solarpunk? Why?
Rifka: I’m honestly not sure. I could talk about the aesthetic, with things like green architecture, nature, and gardening and greenhouses, but solarpunk is also very much about activism, like antifascism, antiracism, and climate justice, and connecting with your community. It’s also a sci-fi movement, and so I’d say sci-fi with those themes is solarpunk too. I guess it really isn’t one thing, and that’s why I like it so much.
What made you want to join the Optopia team?
Rifka: I love solarpunk art. I’m a fan of bright colors and nature and seeing Issue 1 (which had already been made when I joined the team) made me see a real opportunity to use beautiful art in page design. I love page design—it’s about celebrating art, laying it out, bringing out its themes, and making a cohesive whole out of a bunch of different parts. To me, that’s part of collectivism and coming together of solarpunk.
What does the team at Optopia hope to achieve through its publications?
Rifka: We want to uplift the solarpunk artists in the community, to give them a platform and a way to connect. We’d also like to give solarpunk a wider audience—it’s pretty niche right now—and art is a great way to attract people into the movement and show them our message.
Can anyone submit to Optopia/When does Optopia generally accept submissions?
Rifka: Yes, anyone can submit! We accept submissions on a rotating basis, so your piece, provided we accept it, will just go into whatever the next issue is.
What do you personally believe is the most achievable aspect of solarpunk/which aspect do you most hope is achieved?
Rifka: I’m not sure how to answer this, because solarpunk is so disparate. There are a lot of different ideas, opinions, and political affiliations under solarpunk. I’d say the aspect I’d hope to achieve most is averting the climate crisis. I’m not sure how achievable that is, and solarpunk definitely won’t be the only key—stuff like a Green New Deal, and massive action on the part of governments is also required. From solarpunk specifically, I think we can get more of a respect for nature. Solarpunk doesn’t view humans as inherently evil or destructive, and it instead takes the idea that nature has a right to exist alongside humanity as a given, focusing on the beauty that can come from that.
Are there any parts of solarpunk that you try to incorporate into your everyday life/would you consider yourself “solarpunk?”
Rifka: I’m not sure I would consider myself solarpunk, but you could also argue that just believing in the ideas and doing your best to implement them makes you solarpunk. I do the normal, eco-friendly things that a lot of people do: eschew fast fashion, try to moderate my own consumption, go to climate protests, etc. I currently live at home, so I don’t have a lot of space, but I hope to grow plants in the future, like perhaps a small indoor herb garden, for starters. When I go to college next year (assuming I *can* go) I’m also hoping to get involved with climate activism on campus.
Where would you suggest people start if they want to learn more about solarpunk on their own/what resources have been helpful to you?
Rifka: If you’re really new to it, I’d start with the online communities on places like Tumblr, or the small one on TikTok. Mastodon (a social media similar to Twitter, but it’s what’s called “federated”—look it up if you’re interested) has a community called Sunbeam City that is pretty cool. If you’re new to leftism or don’t consider yourself a leftist, I’d start with looking at the aesthetic/sci-fi side. You definitely don’t have to be a leftist to be solarpunk, but some of the most vocal solarpunks are also anarchists, or other niche left movements, and it can be a little scary to join a community you’re unfamiliar with. Sunbeam City (https://wiki.sunbeam.city/doku.php?id=solarpunk) has a reading/watching list—one of my favorites on there is The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers! You can also always read Optopia 😀
At Open Range Construction, our focus is to build and introduce sustainable and energy efficient homes to the construction industry. How do you think the themes of solarpunk could be incorporated into what we do?
Rifka: A lot of the solarpunk aesthetic that comes up when you search it is green buildings, with green walls or roofs. I believe that living near nature (whether that looks like a houseplant in a big city or living in a rural area near a national park) can help people appreciate and want to protect nature and the environment. You’ve already made energy efficient homes which is important and can help people on an individual level. Part of the activism of solarpunk is also focusing on the large-scale change that has to happen, so continuing to normalize energy efficiency and sustainability is important. Making these things more accessible—less expensive, easier to implement, and available to more people, is also really important.
What we’ve found during our time in business is that it’s very difficult for anything to be 100% sustainable—for example while the homes we build are sustainable, the manufacturing processes for the materials we use is less so (ex: EPS foam is generally derived from oil, although the foam in the ICF block we use is made from recycled material). Even the manufacturing and disposal processes for tools that create clean energy, like solar panels, can have negative environmental impacts. What are your thoughts on these downsides/what are your ideas on how we might work around them as a society?
Rifka: This is one big question solarpunk wrestles with, as does any futuristic model. To me, the point is not to be perfect, but better. While solarpunk does have this ethereal, aesthetic, mood board-able component, it also celebrates ugly and imperfect things, so it has this understanding that 100% sustainable is unachievable and that’s okay. The home-DIY and upcycling parts of solarpunk feel very welcoming to someone who does worry that we can’t prevent all negative environmental impacts. Solarpunk also has a lot of faith in humanity. While solarpunk focuses a lot on connecting with nature, it recognizes that humans have the ability to be kind and smart and to work together and make cool stuff. A lot of the solarpunk sci-fi I’ve read focuses around a domestic futuristic tech—not weapons, but photosynthetic abilities, or bioremediation. As a human race, we have the ability to keep thinking about our problems and fixing them. You’ve found a way to make recycled foam, and people are finding new ways to make solar panels better, more efficient, and longer-lasting. We can’t fix all our problems at once, but we can keep thinking about them as they come up.