When lockdowns are lifted and we begin to re-emerge, we will do so with a fresh experience of what it’s like to be forced to personally bear the burden of centralized governance systems that have failed.
It is the second time in recent years that this has happened on a global scale. The last time was the global financial crisis. There, failure to regulate financial markets, and the bank bailouts that followed, ended with austerity measures that the poor and middle classes were made to suffer. In the case of COVID-19, the root cause again is insufficient governance, specifically failure to regulate the wildlife farming industry on a national level in China -- which was doomed to happen, as we lack an international governance system to make and enforce decisions on how to mitigate risks with global fallout.
That's our context, that's our world. For now. Because here’s the remarkable thing: most of us have known our current way of organising life has severe weaknesses. Even before the systems at play forced us to sacrifice lifestyles, livelihoods and loved ones this time around. Since Rachel Carson pointed out that if you listen to nature's increasingly silent, vigil-like springs, the message you will hear is that the price of treating our ecological and social fundamentals as external, rather than as the core of our societies, is higher than any global market can ever be worth. And already in 2019, a majority stated they did not believe that the previously favoured system of state capitalism can deliver on its promise of a better world.
The silence this spring was different -- amplified, lonely and often desperate -- but it was also vast enough to give us space: to let what we knew all along sink in. As a result, in every unemployment claim, in every riot, in every renegotiation of what and who we ought to view as essential, we’re not seeing just how belief in old systems is crumbling further. We’re also hearing the sound of a call, of an invitation to believe in something new. The emerging system will be presented with many labels in the years to come. For now, however, one name stands out. We’re witnessing the dawn of solarpunk.
The core principles of this budding movement are displayed in the kind of posts that are raking in the likes and spotlight right now in social media. We can witness them in accounts of neighbours helping one another, in scientists joining forces over borders, in momentum for emergent economic models, in robots taking over dangerous and inconvenient tasks. Not to mention all those magical pictures of nature blossoming, of marine life coming back to bays and rivers, of mountains suddenly appearing after years of hiding in polluted skies.
To put these seemingly diverse signals into solarpunk systematics, we can group what’s starting to take shape under six core elements, the pillars of this new belief.
Solar power is more than electricity without pollution. It’s the freedom stemming from self-sufficiency. If you want to control a person or a population, make them have to go through you to access what they need or love. With energy, food, water and healthcare, we see that kind of control-enabling scarcity. But this is challenged by 3D printers, recycling apparatus for raw materials, tech-enabled communal farming as well as a more automated healthcare system, with the distributed models for supply that they make possible. To power these technologies, nothing is more widely accessible than the sun. Sustainability just happens to work on a model that also brings independence from the systems designed for, or at least capable, of oppression. So, the broken supply chains, and shortages to follow, are not only making self-sufficiency more acutely attractive: they also open up a path towards greater freedom.
Commonification over commodification
Growing your own food, getting your own water, printing your own products: how tedious that all could be. So how about robots do the sowing, reaping and associated labour for you? This, like most things solarpunk, is not blue-sky thinking. Those robots and that alternative of automation already exist -- although currently scarce and expensive. Why should it be that way? Why should we accept that? The robots that could make sure a self-sufficient reality doesn’t result in back-breaking toil are, at the end of the day, simply pieces of plastic and metal. Put together according to designs that, in many cases, have already been engineered. And there are people willing and able to make those blueprints better, for the sheer sake of the process, and contributing to human development.
The issue to resolve is the legal status of those designs: this must be renegotiated, so they can be broadly shared. Jeremy Rifkin laid out a road map in his Zero Marginal Cost Society, emphasizing that in many instances, the innovations we need for a more abundant reality are already here. Instead of turning them into commodities, where legal protocols artificially produce scarcity, we can turn replicable resources, like software and ideas, into commons. Recently in Italy, volunteers started 3D-printing ventilator valves after reverse-engineering them from the patented original, since the manufacturer could not release the proprietary blueprints.
The more stories like this make more people question the current economical model’s blanket strategy of turning ideas into proprietary products, the more momentum for innovators who choose to share their designs more freely. Whether the legal result will be social conditionalities in patents, or fewer entities seeking patterns and trademarks altogether remains to be seen. But this is certain: a shift is underway, where the understanding of that people create, not just for the sake of personal gain, but because we like to help each other, and we like to see what we create being put to good use. As for how to govern these emerging commons, Elinor Ostrom’s work continues to gain influence by the day, with her design principles putting healthy nails in the coffin where the narrative of private ownership as the only way to prosperity and innovation is rotting away, long overdue for burial.
Universal basic income
Is it necessary, is it reasonable that most of us individually still have to spend the best and sharpest hours of our lives in the pursuit of survival? Given there is already enough wealth to go around. The idea of changing the economic model by transferring the basic costs of staying alive from the individual to the collective was discussed and even trialled before COVID-19. Now it’s being fast-tracked by necessity and even championed by the Pope. It would take only 7% of global GDP to give a global UBI of 30€ a month, effectively ending global poverty. National schemes could bring that figure up to suit higher standards of living.
Whether the funding would come from a so-called robot tax, land rent, replacement of welfare systems, a Tobin tax on financial transactions, a global price on carbon, or combinations, will determine just how substantial the shift of how we distribute the resources within our world will be. And if the equalitarian, post-Westphalian orientation of many solarpunks gets their way, solidarity and abundance could change the way we look at the borders, both for allegiance and for compassion.
Solarpunk comes with aesthetics. Think Wakanda, greenery and shapes softer than any classic sci-fi buff is accustomed to. This draws from the idea to utilise the intelligence of nature’s 3.8 billion years of experimentation and harness it as a design principle in its own right. This includes taking away the parts of nature we assess to be cruel but keeping and replicating that which works and is beautiful and brilliant. Whereas industrial processes favour standardisation, replication and monoculture, biomimicry favours the organic, emergent and ecosystemic. Where the run of the mill cyberpunk brings steel, glass and sharp angles, solarpunk entices with art nouveau and trees whose DNA has been reprogrammed to grow themselves into houses. With biotech now recognised as at least as full of promise as digital technology was in the ’90s, solarpunk invites us to make technologies like CRISPR and Cas9 not precursors for Gattaca-like fascism, but equalisers which, through commonification, could be made available to all.
Revolution by DIY
Don’t ask for permission when you want to change the world, billionaires seldom do. The punk in solarpunk refers to the do-it-yourself mindset, emphasising agency: that if you see something needs to be done, you ought to just go ahead and do it.
This coincidentally offers an answer to the question of how to step up from digital residents to digital citizens, capable of organising and making demands in our online jurisdictions. Figuring out how to demonstrate when we can’t take our concerns and outrage to the streets took us three decades of social internet. But since COVID-19 rearranged us, it’s become quite clear that the way goes through the simple action of digital co-creation.
The act of revolting is straight-forward: You share a link you think is helpful, you contribute to an open-source project, you make a meme and give yourself permission to tell the story of what’s going on in the world, and how to think and feel about it. You upload or follow a tutorial for how to install a vertical garden to move towards self-sufficiency. You circumvent or substitute existing institutions and legal structures by filling in the cracks with peer to peer care. Shared documents are the street-riot of our era.
Street demonstrations always were a way to get our representatives (if we were lucky enough to have any) to work toward legal changes on our behalf. In this way, social movements have tried to make sure the monopoly of violence, which backs all our laws, is made to back their values. In this digital and direct model, authority within a community is not granted on someone’s proximity to violence, but on the basis of your visible record of contribution. As is the case on Wikipedia and the many projects in its spirit, influence is granted on the basis of your utility.
We can’t use Facebook to establish a new order. We can’t use Google either. We can’t accept opaque algorithms, where we have no say, no due process to influence the calculations and observations predicting what will make us tick and click, ultimately steering our behaviours. We can’t let our desire to connect with one another be taken hostage, and our private data requested as a daily ransom. To build a reality based on sharing and principles of resilient decentralisation, we can’t let centralised platforms act as the infrastructure for our most crucial exchanges. As the impressive collaborative effort of the Coronavirus Tech Handbookgrew, it only took days before its contributors chose to move from Google to Joe Docs. Only weeks after the Zoom platform rose to prominence, criticism of its suspicious data collection practices resulted in numerous exits to more transparent alternatives. COVID-19 made so many lives so digital, the critical mass started to see that leaving the oppressive regime of digital platforms doubling up as opaque surveillance machines was not a minor but a central issue. The work of civil liberty trackers and Amnesty’s increasing vigilance helping the cause. Because the brilliance of a solarpunk world requires a form that equals content, that utilises the vastness of what digital platforms actually can do, from prediction markets to systemic consensus voting. Platforms built to make its users better and stronger, instead of what the GAFAM are doing: appropriating the brilliant minds of their employees to figure out how to betray the trust of us, their users, effectively turning us into predictable pawns.
Some say of the established world order, and of the so-called status quo: let it burn. Let’s use this crisis to accelerate the mayhem and let the next, hopefully, better iteration, grow out of its ashes. Belief in such destructive paths can only be held by people who haven’t studied history, who don’t know how hard-earned every crumb of stability and justice has been. This is why we say: don’t celebrate the breakdown of existing systems, but start to plant, engineer and build things in the cracks. With those spaces widening so rapidly in the COVID-19 wake, there certainly is soil to go around. Where solarpunk could have been written off as hippie, as too good to be true and impossible in its courageous embracing of utopias, its principles are now appearing simply as pragmatism and as a path of reason for the risk-averse. Because even for those still infatuated with the promises and premise of state capitalism, it’s a pure matter of resilience to, at this point, also carry a torch for another vision of the future. Hope for the stock market to bounce back all you want, but don’t be so busy crossing your fingers that you don’t invest in independent energy supply as well.
And if you do already dare to believe that a solarpunk future can be upon us, that we can demand it, willing it into existence by creating it ourselves: then why not start today. This vision is one where you’re invited, where you have a place, where your care for your neighbours, your unpaid efforts with your children and your friends, is not a neat detail, but the very core of how society is built and made to function. With UBI and legal standards around patents, it’s still a matter of sharing and articulating demands to pressure our existing institutions to get change. But for everything else, it’s a matter of doing, planting and rerouting our minds. From the antiquated ideals of consumerism to the dream and reality of freedom that never will go out of style. If you have the skillset, work on digital platforms where decent exchanges can happen. If you have an hour, or maybe even weeks or months at home, read Ursula K LeGuin. Read her out loud, invite people to listen in and draw the worlds she is describing. Then use your mind and our beloved internet to figure out how to make the worlds you’ve drawn up into realities for you and your children. Regardless of what the path will look like: we must believe that we deserve a reality that is safe and just and prosperous. We must believe by building, so that one day, sooner than we might have dared imagine, our gardens of belief and technologies will stand there, in all their self-sufficient glory, for us to feed and drink from. And if we need to bear witness to believe in it, let’s grow it for our eyes to see.