10 Ways to Thoroughly “Solarpunk” Society

In my previous article, I tried to lay out the argument for solarpunk as a deeply liberal, participatory movement for ecological sustainability / resilience / regenerativity. With its aesthetics, its design patterns, its budding architectural visions, its spirit of reconciliation between nature and tech, the solarpunk movement bears massive transformative potential. If we want societies that go beyond what we have known as modern, capitalist, liberal democracies (without sacrificing the freedoms and standard of living of these), visions of solarpunk societies may in fact be our best bet.

This is why I have called solarpunk a “gateway drug” into metamodernism, i.e., into the kinds of society that go beyond modern life as we know it.

Solarpunk can do what merely intellectual arguments of better governance, of democracy, even of ecological collapse and the natural sciences, cannot: entice the average person, in particular, the established and new middle classes from across the world. If this potential is not tapped into in liberal and democratic societies, wide swathes of global populations will likely begin to look towards the paternalist and authoritarian powers that are already beginning to cast themselves as furnishers of solarpunk spaces and lifestyles (see previous article).

As authoritarianism will seem more appealing, democracy will continue to recede across the world and islands of “gated community” solarpunk-ish cities like Singapore and Dubai will win the hearts and minds of the world’s population.

But, if solarpunk is employed in tandem with processes of deepening democracy, more in line with its original ethos, it can scaffold and guide the steps of transformations that are not just aesthetically superficial, but ones that will reshape the social structure, human relations, and even our minds and emotions.

When solarpunk entices us within a democratic setting, it also draws us into a certain social logic that flows from attempts to manifest its visions: If we are to recreate public spaces through the participatory design of the many, we are compelled to find answers to how this is to be done, and issues that have hitherto appeared cumbersome and irrelevant can begin to engage citizens and lead to a development of governance that I have called democratization politics. And if we build more decentralized power grids, these become increasingly rooted in local communities, which highlights issues of what I have called Gemeinschaft politics. When people begin to reimagine their urban environments, this leads not only to Protopian ideas of what can be improved or be made more sustainable, but just as importantly to an ongoing renegotiations of social relations in society.

As I argued in the last article, there is a “good slippery slope” inherent in solarpunk that leads from more superficial concerns and aesthetic lure towards issues of civic engagement and social innovation—which aligns with what I call Protopian or metamodern design patterns of society. My hypothesis is that solarpunk is a gateway drug or trojan horse for metamodernism to take hold in mainstream society. And I don’t seem to be alone with this instinct. My friends, Dr Jason Fox and Joe Lightfoot have crafted a Metamodernist Solarpunk Manifesto that outlines an ethos for communities to gather around and start from.

Let us then trace some crucial aspects of how free and democratic societies can be “solarpunked”. (Yes, I’m doing the “it’s a verb” cliché. Sue me.)

Solarpunk cities—a space for reimagining that leads towards deeper questions that concern the social fabric of society, its economy, and governance.

The Four Levels of Solarpunk Co-Development

Let’s first get a sense of where solarpunk design can be located. Is it grassroots, city-level, or even a national project and beyond? I believe that there is a true both-and way to answer this question, and that all answers that focus on one level to the detriment of others are likely to either fail or backfire.

1. Transcendent design

In this first category, we have such solarpunk projects that almost certainly require national investments (large infrastructure projects, the founding or new cities and networks of eco-villages, stimulus packages, the creation of university level educations) and even transnational or supranational commitments (Green New Deal, European New Bauhaus). Without state level actors, flagships of solarpunk design that set the tone for the rest of society are hardly possibly, nor are major infrastructure investments in railways, hyperloops, secure power grids, and the like.

It is important not to fall too much in love with the “small is beautiful” ethos— a few very large projects corresponding to medieval cathedrals are also required for solarpunk to truly shine through to people’s hopes, aspirations, and sense of purpose. As such, at least some symbolic or transcendent “cathedrals” can capture the world’s public imagination, much like Singapore and Saudi Arabia’s The Line have been doing thus far. Democratic societies must link this transcendence to their values of freedom and inclusion.

2. Grand design

Likewise, city-level agents may need to muster resources at a municipal level and link them to specifically solarpunk design and urban ecology projects. This is also “solarpunk from above”, and while it cannot include such projects as key national airports, railways between cities, etc., it may include such things as:

  • Art and event-filled parks
  • Green roofs, collective planning for use of spaces for energy and other social, economic, or eco-services
  • Solar and wind power grid-friendly planning and infrastructure
  • Design guidelines for differently themed areas (night districts are more likely to follow the (bio-)luminescent lunarpunkthemes appropriate for after-dark activities, etc.)
  • Stimulation of the establishment of post-automobile, post-carbon, and sharing economy frameworks and innovation hubs
  • Use of feedback by mobiles etc. for quick reparations and adaptations of spaces and services

3. Inclusive design (also: design justice)

But beyond and below the municipal administration of urban planning there is always-already a living mycelium of communities, of real people with real roots and relationships. Without activating and establishing solarpunk movements and transitions to sustainability in these basic communities, and simultaneously stimulating these for greater social coherence and mutual trust, solarpunk cannot truly function. It loses its soul (again, think Singapore, the typical paternalist let’s-mind-our-own-business-leave-each-other-alone society).

This form of cultural “rooting” includes differentiating solarpunk into different civilizational and aesthetic forms as appropriate—it is unlikely that a future “China town” solarpunk project would have the exact same flavor as an Afrofuturist or Islamic one or as the downtown of Boston or reinventions of its New England suburbia. Such connections to ethnic and cultural communities needs to be cautiously balanced against the cosmopolitan and universalist strivings of an inclusive solarpunk design: on the one hand avoiding the dominance of slick, middleclass, dreamy—and “white”—solarpunk, on the other hand reducing (the unavoidable but undesirable) tendency of solarpunk design to activate ethnic tensions and become an arena for culture wars.

The involvement of communities must itself strive towards social justice (as such, reversing the trend towards privatized and commercialized public spaces, the cultural exclusion of minorities, and of deliberately designing spaces so as to be uninviting for loiterers, the moneyless, the homeless, etc.). This involves, of course, following principles such as those of design justice so that community-led design process itself is as fair and unbiased as possible.

4. Commoning design

There is, of course, a natural alignment between solarpunk urban design and the commons (collective goods and services) and thus the practice of commoning (i.e. reorganizing economies as commons). Solarpunk tries to remedy ecological issues which are always commons of some kind: air, water, power grids, forests, ecosystem services, climate self-regulation, and so on. It also concerns issues that are “commons” of a more abstract or cultural kind: mutual trust in society, the general mood of society, beauty of public spaces, security, the propensity to share, sense of autonomy, connection to nature, mental health, physical health, inventiveness in the face of problems, etc.

The fourth level of solarpunk co-development, even more refined and grassroots-based than the communities themselves, is thus a network of commons and “commoners” that spread solarpunk practices across contexts and help adapt them from city to city. Solarpunks need to be commoners, sharing in open source knowledge, direct action for reclaiming and redesigning spaces, while engaging not only middleclass citizens, but also a wide variety of movements—what Hardt and Negri have called “assemblage” of a “multitude”.

At the basis, solarpunk must empower people to solve their own problems and be genuinely incentivized to share in successes of such self-sovereignty with one another. This requires a strategic—I would say metamodernist—grassroots movement of solarpunks.

Solarpunk a la Metamodernism

Alright, keeping in mind that solarpunk cannot reside on one of these four levels alone if it is to fulfil its promise of a beautiful, ecologically viable, and socially just world, what traits should it have?

Let’s try to sketch it out. A solarpunk that could truly challenge the authoritarian bids to it of today is one that…

  1. Builds around the decentralization of the power grid. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Its about solar power, after all, and that invites a decentralization of power production and thereby of power and resources across society (including a renewed self-reliancethat would make Emerson proud).
  2. Explores decentralization of other systems, like waste, water, and of course, food production. Yes, there it is, the “good slippery slope” of solarpunk. If one thing is decentralized, why not more things? While we all like cheap food, we also like the idea that people close to us that we trust can produce it if need be. This ultimately spreads power in society, as reliance on a few powerful others creates unhealthy power relations. It also means that people can work in these services if they don’t have conventional (modern) jobs.
  3. Uses metamodern aesthetics: implicated authenticity and craftsmanship, but avoids New Age hysteria and direct Fantasy elements.This one could merit its own article, but the idea is that metamodern solarpunk needs to be more implicated, subtle, and sophisticated in its design. It can’t be too “in your face” because it then too easily becomes phony and used to trick people. It needs to master the art of subtly inviting the trained observer, not trying to impress, or even press its own values and aesthetics upon everyone.
  4. Coordinates with the sharing economy. Obviously, solarpunk societies can hardly co-exist with excessive commercialism/consumerism and private ownership. The existing numbers of cars and lawnmowers are wildly exaggerated as compared to the actual need in society—only the lacking logistics (and culture) of sharing hinder a drastic reduction, thereby putting consumption within ecologically reasonable bounds while maintaining a high standard of living. To create genuinely green public spaces, we must share more so that we can burden the space with fewer cars, fewer garages for lawnmowers and cars, and so on.
  5. Builds around material-flow sovereignty. You and your community have very little say and control over how your materials flow around you (from production, to transportation, to waste management) and while we must all work to reduce wasteful and unsustainable flows of material, many different solutions to these issues are possible depending on the contexts of our living conditions. Hence, local community control over material flows coupled with commitments to achieve ecological goals would make sense.
  6. Rewards positive externalities (and reduced/replaced negative ones). A favorite of my commoner friend, Michel Bauwens: today people only get paid for what other people can directly buy, not for e.g. reducing a negative externality of farming, etc. A solarpunk society would give vouchers to reward any innovation or initiative that reaches common goals, even if there is no “product” being sold. So people would be able to make a living by contributing to, for instance, cleaner water, reducing carbon footprints, and so on. This would incentivize innovation in these fields.
  1. Requires a very strong civil sphere (high trust). As discussed above, solarpunk is fundamentally about civil society—even if it must be reflected at all of the four levels discussed above. As a first step to “solarpunking” society you must thereby always build a strong civil society (clubs, associations, communities, congregations, and so on) from which solarpunking can start. The Transition Townsmovement is a lot about gardening, when push comes to shove, but it offers a good civil society backbone for solarpunk.
  2. Requires high average value meme. Controversial as this is (and discussed at length in my books), people must feel, think according to, and embody fairly “progressive” values for solarpunk movements to truly make sense. While there is certainly a role for, say, Christian solarpunk communities, it makes little sense to build a solarpunk movement on the basis of traditionalist fundamentalist evangelists who are against not only any notion of climate change, but even of Darwinian evolution and mainstream science. Nor can the average Wall Street banker be expected to embody values of punk, subtle aesthetics, reconnection to nature, and DIY innovation of postcapitalist solutions.
  3. Connects to redefined metrics of growth/success (and post-growth economics). Solarpunk must be based on other measures than GDP and create a theory-and-practice feedback cycle with heterodox economics that emphasize the reduction of suffering and ecological values.
  4. Connects to reconciliation ecologyand interspecies democracyBasically, solarpunk societies should be cleverly thought-out to sustainably host non-human creatures—like forests, which don’t get invaded by a million rats, but there is still a rich and diverse ecology.
  5. Connects to new municipalismand (digitally enhanced) local council democracy.Basically, solarpunk needs to be punk—building on citizens reclaiming control over their local economies and participating actively in decisions and planning. It’s hard to imagine a truly solarpunked city without a strong element of such renewed municipal autonomy. Solarpunk in a city like Berlin could for instance be introduced through a large fund that will invest in solarpunk projects, but only if the spending of solarpunk transition investments are subject to deep-democratic decision processes of the citizens involved.
  6. Actively nudges towards higher subjective states. However we may view the paternalism of nudging, it cannot be denied that some environments and cues are more likely to make people feel safe, relaxed, and kind rather than aggressive. Whatever design features may nudge in such directions should be included—if, of course, it is an active choice of democratically empowered citizens.
  7. Builds on oscillation between futurism and nature mysticism. Pretty interesting religious currents are likely to emerge in our time, not all of which may have much to do with solarpunk. But solarpunk spirituality would neither align with slick, metallic sci-fi, nor with pulsating, green, fantasy and a longing for the indigenous and animistic; it would try to stretch across this divide, marrying an intimate love of nature to the awe of tech and science.
  8. Connects to digital and cosmolocal economies.The digital realm provides an important space for shared innovations and open source best practices. As such, it invites cosmolocalism: share much of the intellectual goods globally online (and sell some of them) and produce a greater proportion locally. This not only helps optimize for ecological footprints (what to produce where, at what scale, versus the costs of transportation… locally produced is not always better for the environment but it’s a case-to-case calculation), but equally builds resilience into the global system (otherwise, a few bottlenecks in the world’s transport system can paralyze the entire world, cause starvation, fuel poverty, etc.).
  9. Is coordinated with urban crime prevention. Of course, issues of crime, gang violence, ethnic tensions, and so on, don’t magically go away because you “solarpunk” a city. But rather than viewing progressive and idealistic solarpunk visions as antithetical to crime prevention, it can be used for such purposes: dramatically upgrading shanty towns and ghettos, lighting up public spaces, creating greater self-reliance so that fewer people need to resort to criminality, defocusing on material prestige goods which drive inequalities and criminal behaviors, etc.
  10. Builds on critical urban studies. An obvious point, perhaps, but real-world deep-democratic solarpunk should be less based on sci-fi writers and painters and more on urban sociology and urban ecology, understanding such issues as “who the living space is really for” and “how its spaces are used in unexpected ways by whom” and “who gets included/excluded from spaces, on what grounds”, etc.
  11. Has eco-villages as its base (cottagepunk). Last but not least, solarpunk is not just about metropolises envisioned in green: it’s just as relevant in suburbia, in small town life, in villages, on the country side, even in wildlife restoration. A key element of solarpunk are eco-villages based around local communities where people can access things like a plot of own land, own electricity, and control over a local water supply—many such villages would be able to build up a new kind of economy where people can make decisions together, have at least some limited backup self-reliance if the economy goes badly, and have alternative identities and roles than just their jobs. Jobs would in turn often be digital distance jobs. This can allow for sustainable, attractive, close-to-nature living combined with participation in a global economy. This may include living concepts such as the ReGen villages. Thus far it hasn’t been successful, but imagine what such projects could do with the proper backing of state actors.

And that, my dear planners, leaders, philanthropists, investors, designers, innovators, activists, and fellow citizens, is how we should thoroughly solarpunk society. And turn a city like Berlin into a solarpunk Mecca.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.