It is with immense shame that I introduce the world to a miniature employee who lives and works in a little control room in the upper regions of my brain, from which he cheerfully executes a single job: to watch for doom-and-gloom news about global warming and, when he sees it, to throw a giant switch that redirects the entire engine of my consciousness to the nearest available happy thought and/or bright colour.
Say hello to Coping Mechanism No. 9,512. He’s a professional.
You all know exactly the kind of news I mean: drowning polar bears, sick trees, the latest extinction rates and temperature predictions, tweets from Greta Thunberg. In this day and age, we can all spot it a mile off.
My aim is not to live in a fantasy. I’m interested neither in “escapism” nor in undervaluing the existential severity of our planetary situation. Rather, in the moment before CM 9,512 can throw the switch, I always think: whatever’s inside that news story cannot be worse than what I expect, because what I expect is further evidence of the death of the planet.
And, on a daily emotional speed, I just can’t handle the end of the world.
Turns out, however, I’m diagnosable: I’ve got a chronic fear of environmental doom, the American Psychological Association’s precise definition of “ecoanxiety”. Indeed, even if CM 9,512 is doing a terrific job, the mere fact that he gets so much work is proof of my own serious case.
The antidote that isn’t
A natural counterweight to such funereal news, some would say, would be the coverage of everything being done to fix (or at least ameliorate) the situation. To this end, the “circular economy” is a beloved buzzterm in Luxembourg, with corporations and academics and startups and politicians all invoking it constantly, while events like the COP26 reliably spew out wonderfully affirming pledges and promises. Actually, you see more of this kind of reportage than the dire stuff—at least I do, courtesy of CM 9,512—and yet it doesn’t quite make me feel any better.
Why not? In a word, greenwashing. Companies and government initiatives insist on wearing a smiling face as they advertise carbon-neutral this and sustainable that. They bring “solutions” and hope and progress. Juxtaposed with Greta Thunberg’s tweets, however, something is obviously off. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I know I’m being lied to. Companies are especially hard to trust because, by definition, they don’t have the good of humankind at heart; if they did, they’d be NGOs. Microsoft needs to worry about Microsoft’s future, which must involve profits and market share and a paradoxically permanent state of growth (all of it linked, on a deeper level, to resource extraction). Politicians’ livelihoods also often depend on a suspiciously positive outlook: just ask the mayor of Mamer.
The dynamic between honest-but-nauseating activism and misleading-but-palatable corporate messaging is ultimately frustrating, demoralising and way too complex for little old me to reconcile while I’m doing my weekly shop at Cactus—let alone hopped up on coffee and trying to write intelligently about it.
An excursion to Example Town
Consider a pair of experiences from last week. I heard (against my will) about an exhibit at the Rotondes, a sound installation depicting what underwater environments actually sound like. Often romanticised as silent and pristine, the reality—of course—is summed up in the event’s tagline: “destruction of a silent world”. The very next day, I learned that Microsoft is going to build datacentres in the ocean in a bid to be eco-friendly. “By putting datacenters underwater near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel, leading to fast and smooth web surfing, video streaming and game playing,” says an article on the company’s website.
And just like that, I’m slammed on both sides. Heartbreak at the reminder that marine wildlife is beyond help; “the answer” being sold to me by copywriters whom I patently disbelieve. (Because I can only reasonably see Microsoft’s proposal for what it is: a public-favour-currying promise to fuck up yet another ecosystem in an entirely novel way. Innovation, indeed.)
Can art legitimise technology?
But in these horrible rock-and-hard-place doldrums comes a strange new thing: solarpunk. The solarpunk movement takes a sustainable civilisation as its endpoint and embraces technology as a means of getting there. But it doesn’t concern itself with Ted Talks or Web Summits. Instead, it turns to aesthetics, speculative fiction, fashion, art and activism.
The very first tenet of the solarpunk manifesto tunes into the precise key of despair that I’ve been describing:
“We are solarpunks because optimism has been taken away from us and we are trying to take it back.”
Could this mean something for my ecoanxiety? Or even for our capacity to create liveable and equitable futures?
My first worry about solarpunk, admittedly, is that its salvatory treatment of technology makes an immediate parallel with the usual greenwashed marketing spiel of which I’m dutybound to be sceptical. (All the happy fish absolutely love our new underwater datacentres!) But Justine Norton-Kertson, co-editor-in-chief of a new literary mag called Solarpunk Magazine, disentangles this concern neatly: “People create technology, not corporations,” they point out. “Corporations abuse technology, and they use it to dominate not only the planet, but people and our society.”
Disassociating technology from corporations is, indeed, our first imaginative challenge. It’s hard. “Technology” has been synonymous with “gadgetry for sale” for so long that I struggle to see it any other way.
Brianna Castagnozzi, Solarpunk Magazine’s other co-EIC, goes on to slip solarpunk into that newly broken space: “Solarpunk rides on the notion of science and art existing independently from industry,” she says. “It is an artistic, literary, architectural and science-adjacent movement; it has no need to make false promises, to tout empty pledges. The consequences for its failure are transparent: people will suffer from climate change exacerbated by corporate greed.”
The accountability that Castagnozzi describes is an essential part of all this. Solarpunk’s strength, if it has any, will come from its being not merely an activist movement but also an artistic one. Activism must, by definition, remain embroiled in local and global politics. But art is about truth. It pursues itself. And the accountability art offers may actually have the power to soothe my ecoanxiety. Not by telling me that things are under control, but by offering me a community without an ulterior motive (even a wholesome one like recruiting me in the fight for the environment). No shareholders or profits; just an aesthetic engagement with expressions of a better future. A community that creates a new space in which to think, in which I can synthesise for myself.
But solarpunk, by all means, also has an activist side to it. So how can it help us realise a future where technology isn’t centred on profits? Where technology actually—a phrase forever ruined by copywriters—makes life better?
Beats me… let’s ask Francesco
Francesco Verso, a science fiction writer who chaired a panel on solarpunk at last year’s LuxCon, speaks about the concrete elements of the movement. He calls solarpunk “a toolbox of practical and perfectible exit strategies to the current mainstream dystopia that late-stage capitalism is desperately trying to sell us: the idea of an Anthropocene built on the assumption that we humans are a destructive species.”
These exit strategies hinge, Verso continues, on various types of shifts: from competition to cooperation; exclusivity to inclusivity; centralised distribution to native innovation; cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation.
But the most interesting of his suggested shifts, in my opinion, is that of “sustainability”—itself a greenwashed term, he says—to “degrowth”.
Now we’re really in science fiction country, which I don’t mean pejoratively. Just the opposite: I mean we’re thinking with the entire brain now, we’re challenging the fundamentals of what we know in an attempt to envision, and eventually to sow, new kinds of futures. Degrowth will sound like sacrilege to any capitalist, but its only prerequisite is that humanity care more about its own survival than about its corporations. Nothing wild about that.
A cheeky taste
The big question, of course, is what can be made with the tools in Verso’s toolbox. We can start with his own short story “The Green Ship” (available in his book Futurespotting). It’s an immigration narrative where the immigrants never immigrate: instead of making it across the Mediterranean to Italy, they’re picked up by a massive floating humanitarian project where drones pollinate flowers and where sequoias rise out of eucalyptus groves. This green ship floats in international waters until an underwater volcano erupts, creating new rock and the chance for its passengers to establish an entirely new micronation.
The story, blissfully, takes a third option. The immigrants don’t progress or regress—they don’t go forwards to Europe, they don’t go backwards to Africa. They go somewhere else. It’s a rejection of the very systems hosting the debate in the first place, the seeking of a place outside of Thunbergian emotion-bombs and specious corporate verbiage.
(For more, try Solarpunk Magazine or, on Verso’s recommendation, the Lately the Sun anthology or the Imagine 2200 story contest. For visuals, see the winners of the Atomhawk solarpunk art competition, the solarpunk tag on Deviant Art or even Vincent Callebaut’s “Paris 2050” project.)
The psyche, the mood, etc.
Obviously my mental state is of no consequence compared to the realities of environmental doom, but it still deserves treatment. Things like learning about Luxembourg’s repair café movement have helped, but the emotional value there is mostly the news that other people are as freaked out as I am.
So, solarpunk. I’m not trying to suggest that it’s an “answer” to anything, but its rise in the last several years is a welcome element to our present zeitgeist. Most and perhaps all science fiction isn’t really about the future, but about the now (a commonly misconstrued fact), and solarpunk is right there: a response to the despondency we feel today, a call to envision futures that are urgent to consider.
As an activist movement, it engages with the destructive tendencies of capitalism (“grabitalism” is how Verso terms it, as in grabbing resources) and hopes to challenge tired modes of thinking. As an artistic movement, its powers of synthesis redeploy science and technology as agents of good, and does so through visions and dreams—such things that work on the psyche, the mood and the nerves.
So maybe CM 9,512 can get some rest now and then.