We’ve all heard of Steampunk and Cyberpunk. Their iconic styles and bold images have always distinguished those who choose to stand apart from the status quo. In fact, Cyberpunk has become one of the most popular subcultures ever with the release of blockbuster movies like Blade Runner 2047 and the recent blockbuster video game Cyberpunk 2077. Both these movements grew in prominence in the 1980s and their presence is felt to this day. However, with the turn of the century, it’s time for a new subculture to emerge: Solarpunk.
Like any punk culture, Solarpunk was born out of anti-establishment sentiment. The movement, at its heart, is centered around the environment and sustainability. Its name is quite literally derived from the potential of solar power as a form of renewable and sustainable energy. Solar energy has become the most widely used form of renewable energy, and the optimism of a new world where we live in harmony with nature instead of destroying it drives what Solarpunk is truly about. Instead of doom and gloom, the movement chooses to envision a utopian society. Despite the horrors we see on the news everyday, Solarpunks choose to believe in hope, hope for a better future for all.
Solarpunk.net writes, “We are starved for visions of the future that will sustain us, and give us something to hope for, ideas of life beyond the rusted chrome of yestermorrow or nightmare realms of radiated men eating the flesh of other radiated men”.
And so, the main ethos of this movement lies in finding solutions to achieve consistent and sustainable progress as opposed to painting terrifying pictures of the future we may inherit. How Solarpunk hopes to find solutions for a healthier planet diverges from how we live today – but perhaps not in the ways you may think. Rather than fixating on the potential doom and gloom of the future – which only leads to unproductive panic – Solarpunk has a clear emphasis on solutions. As seen in New York, a clock was reprogrammed to countdown the time until climate change effects hit a point of no return for humanity. While this may not have led to direct change, it did make headlines. Its reveal led to uproar for and against the need for such a blatant display of the inevitable. Perhaps all that energy may have brought about change had it been geared towards environmental progress.
Solarpunk has given rise to a community that seeks to redirect all that negative energy into solutions for a better world. This beautiful, new, sustainable, and egalitarian vision for the world is reflected in all things Solarpunk, from clothes, architecture, and music to politics, technology, and community.
Ask anyone who knows punk culture and they’ll tell you its defining trait is always the distinctive imagery. Where ideology may get lost within the constant buzz of the internet community, aesthetics help to attract and hold the attention of the masses. Arguably, visuals have never been more important than they are today, with our attention spans only getting shorter as technology gets faster.
When one thinks of Cyberpunk, the image that comes to mind is a dystopic concrete jungle with dark and bleak coloring, whereas steampunk has a reputation for Victorian styles and visible machinery. So then, what makes up Solarpunk aesthetic? Well, picture a green future, where plants grow freely, coexisting with human architecture of natural colors and stained-glass windows. It is a society that isn’t trying to tear down what we have already built – but rather incorporates sustainability into the world we already have.
The Solarpunk aesthetic is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau visually. Art Nouveau is a form of art that was characterized by its use of organic and sinuous lines. It was meant to break away from historic imitation, and hence create a new style. In the same way, Solarpunk attempts to break away from popular dystopic themes that have informed punk culture for the past century. While Solarpunk does not shy away from colors in the style of Art Noveau, it does drift towards muted tones. The inspiration comes from, you guessed it, nature’s colors. Thus, earthy tones and soft colors outline the aesthetic of Solarpunk visuals. From architecture to fashion, the color palate strays towards gentle shades that work along with the natural setting.
When you look at images reflecting Solarpunk aesthetics, it is not unheard of to feel a sense of balance and calm overtake you. What else would you expect from a movement grounded in optimism? The images convey a world that “could be” – that is, if we worked in tandem with nature instead of exploiting it.
Ah, fashion. Cyberpunk had trench coats and shiny black leather while steampunk became synonymous with waistcoats and visible gears and screws. The punk movement fashion is what makes it stand out within a sea of ideas. Though the ideology of past movements is not as commonplace anymore, their fashion lives on in pop culture and continues to influence styles of the general population.
True to its organic and free-living message, Solarpunk seeks to incorporate comfort and functional style into its fashion aesthetic. Though light and loose-fitting garments form the image of Solarpunk fashion, the main takeaway is responsible sourcing. It is encouraged to repair and repurpose items instead of the constant cycle of disposing and replacing them.
The simplest way to partake in Solarpunk fashion? Thrifting. Which is a simple, inexpensive way for anyone to integrate Solarpunk fashion into their lives. The idea is simple: think about the sustainability of your garments before you make a purchase.
Fast fashion may be trendy, but peek behind the fashionable curtains and you’ll find a whole mess of hidden skeletons. The rampant exploitation of humans and nature to stay ahead of the curve is not only wrong but unsustainable. The cost of production appears low today because no one is paying attention to how much it’ll cost to clean up climate change – if any cleanup happens at all.
This is everything Solarpunk stands against. Fashion can be expressive yet sustainable. Though Solarpunk fashion has come to be associated with more earthy or floral tones to reflect nature’s colors, its core message lies in sustainability. It is not restricted by any set rule; you can still be expressive in your sense of style as long as you consider its cost.
One of the major conflicts that has arisen with modern developments is the current architecture versus nature argument. Currently, civilization exists at the expense of the environment. Forest reserves are being disestablished to make way for the skyscrapers that now dominate our skylines. So much so that “concrete jungle” has taken on a more literal meaning.
However, this conflict is not a thing in Solarpunk’s utopic vision. Instead, Solarpunk architecture makes a point to incorporate nature into our existing structures. This movement has no intention of tearing down the walls of skyscrapers and returning to days of extreme labor and modest living, but rather to focus on the art of modern architecture working symbiotically with nature.
One of the simplest ways homeowners can do this is by installing solar panels on their rooftops. One might even argue that skyscrapers are the best-suited architecture for this initiative seeing as they receive a large amount of sun exposure. Plus, such a large building is bound to be consuming a lot of power, which could and should be coming from a sustainable source.
Now, what if solar panels are a little out of your price range right now? Don’t worry, Solarpunk is a large community with spaces for people from all walks of life. Unsurprisingly, nature motifs play a part in Solarpunk architecture. You could incorporate hanging gardens or nature-inspired structures into your living, as so many buildings have started to do recently. The green and grey don’t have to be separated. For example, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore and the Golden Bridge in Vietnam both exhibit the Solarpunk vision.
In a world dominated by shades of grey, Solarpunk reimagines the future where colors and architecture are amalgamated to be in balance with nature. Since Art Nouveau is the inspiration at heart, glass and metal are the go-to materials to form bold and elaborate architecture. Think of stained-glass windows that direct sunlight to light up interiors with beautiful colors. It is nature made even more beautiful by the hands of humans, which is exactly what Solarpunk visualizes when painting the future.
When we think of anti-establishment, it’s easy to think of technology as inherently evil or detrimental to the environment. Yet, if it is a future utopia we are chasing, then there has to be space for technology. Solarpunk’s vision of moving to renewable energy cannot happen without the technological advances of this age. And as technology continues to advance, humanity will be able to conceptualize more ways to harness energy.
Modernization is not the enemy in Solarpunk culture. There is an understanding that one cannot exist without the other. The Solarpunk motto of “doing” rather than “watching” effectively pushes and advocates for the use of technology to ensure sustainable sourcing.
So let’s have a look at some ways technology has come in line with what Solarpunk envisions for us. Solar grids, wind turbines, hydroelectricity and other renewable energy are just a few. With Norway producing 98% of its energy from renewable sources and renewable energy surpassing traditional sources in electricity production in Germany, the Solarpunk ideology is not radical and far-fetched. In fact, these countries show us that the vision is attainable if we choose to pursue it.
On a micro-scale, technology has become one of the more wasteful aspects of modern society. The rise in usage and production of smart gadgets and handphones could not have been predicted just two decades ago. Uncontrolled capitalism has led to rife competition between companies to produce the next big thing. Products are being released and replaced at an unprecedented pace. Everyday items are no longer made to be long-lasting, forcing consumers to keep purchasing new ones as companies chase their bottom line. This is one of the reasons Solarpunk has adopted an anti-capitalist stance.
If we are to overcome this new consumerism and save our future, the world is going to have to practice some mindful buying. More than that, companies will need to start producing products that last longer and are ethically sourced. Technology is an integral part of our future and Solarpunk does not want you to give up your smartphones. The choices made with the technology that we have is what will form the kind of utopia that Solarpunk envisions – not an iPhone in the bin.
This piece wouldn’t be complete without a politics section, would it? Like any punk movement, political thought plays a role in securing Solarpunk’s vision for the future. The envisioned future may be bright and shiny, but to get there, radical progress is necessary. Arguably, a not so pretty path to a utopian future.
In the current political climate, it is safe to say that Solarpunk ideology leans heavily towards leftist beliefs. Where else would you find a community that actively opposes fascism and capitalist culture while emphasizing the fight for equality? In Trump’s America, Solarpunk firmly pushed back against his fascist remarks. It is a movement that believes in active engagement in politics. Solarpunks employ diverse tactics including but not limited to voting and demonstrating.
While Solarpunk does not advocate the use of violence, it doesn’t shy away from it when needed for self-defense and against enemies with extreme intentions. The thought of more aggressive actions to achieve environmental justice is starting to gain traction. Recent political movements have demonstrated that even though peaceful protests help, sometimes harsher measures are necessary for a better future. With frustrations mounting against governments who continue to cater to oil producers and logging companies, environmentalists are primed to take a more aggressive approach to push forward an agenda that might just save us all.
In comparison to other punk communities that prefer to adopt more fictional narratives – such as Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and especially Dreampunk – The Solarpunk community errs on the side of reality. The very real looming threat of climate change has played a role in this. A blog post from 2008 put it best: “A major difference between Solarpunk and steampunk is that Solarpunk ideas, and Solarpunk technologies, need not remain imaginary…”
Solarpunk is a symptom of resistance. It exists because the current political order has failed to address a very real threat against humanity. However, what makes the Solarpunk resistance even more special is the way it has influenced traditional protests. Wherein most issues people may not have the power to shape the future they want, in Solarpunk, resistance may come in simple but manageable ways. From refusing to engage in the capitalist culture of instant purchases with a short shelf life to the reuse of existing infrastructures in creative ways, Solarpunk allows progress to take place within the resistance. Though larger powers at play may have bigger impacts on the movement’s vision, people get to make contributions in their own meaningful ways.
Though Solarpunk does not have a defined or outlined genre of music, some artists have been founded on its ideology. Tonzi, a performance artist from Canada, wanted to create a Solarpunk Village. She had a 3-year plan of music projects to solarize said village. There was also a band called Sieudiver that released a track titled “Solarpunk City”.
Though Solarpunk does not have a specific genre of music associated with it, nature sounds and field recordings – with a touch of techno – has been used to describe it. The music leans more towards instrumentals and soothing melodies. Ambient nature samples with an undertone of techno beats combine both aspects of Solarpunk. Nature and technology cooperating to create something new and beautiful.
The Solarpunk community is a creative lot who have compiled playlists of sounds that represent their movement, which can be found on multiple platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. The Solarpunk sound can be described as tranquil trance music. Soft beats on top of a soothing melody make this music easy to listen to while doing any tasks. Literally the perfect background playlist as you fight the system and save the planet.
Most punk movements have left lasting impressions on pop culture. Ahead of its time, Blade Runner is considered the most influential cinematic Cyberpunk film. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, though it may not sound like it, is one of the more recent appraised Steampunk films. Furthermore, the classic ’60s series Wild Wild West was a pioneering example of Steampunk in film/TV (although it’s probably best that we forget about the terrible 1999 movie adaptation that starred Will Smith).
Solarpunk is still new, and so we might not be seeing a notable influence until much later. Though there haven’t been any direct references to Solarpunk in pop culture, there have been movies created where their ideology is apparent.
The most famous recent example would be one of Marvel’s most celebrated releases, Black Panther. The nation of Wakanda is perhaps the closest depiction of what a Solarpunk utopia would look like. When the film was released, there were many discussions surrounding the utopian land it portrayed. People respected each other and valued nature, which created a harmony that we don’t see today. Evidently, a direct contrast to our modern cities. The Solarpunk community hailed the movie for showcasing what the future could look like if progress was made instead of talked about. Traditional living existed side by side with the most innovative technological advancement. It is no surprise that Blank Panther has managed to transcend through multiple communities. Wakanda presents a city where technological advancement can exceed anything we’ve seen before without the destruction of our environment or humanity.
On the other hand, if you enjoy animated films, nothing fits the Solarpunk aesthetic more than Studio Ghibli films. With stories centered around the harmony between humans and nature set in the most idyllic backgrounds, these movies may help bring an understanding to the conversation around Solarpunk. Inspired by true stories and literature, these movies have strong messages that are subtly shown and easy to digest by any audience. It is a studio that has managed to insert life lessons into a carefully curated story wrapped in enchanting visuals. The colors of Studio Ghibli movies are vibrant and soft. Moreover, these stories almost always wrap up in a neat and satisfying ending, reflecting of the warm and utopic vision of the Solarpunk community. Among these movies, the ones that truly stand out and represent the Solarpunk ethos are Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
Perhaps the richest source of Solarpunk material can be found in literature, which has always consistently expanded the boundaries of any punk movement. Like all movements before it, the Solarpunk theme and universe are mainly explored through fiction. A genre that allows the imagination to run through endless possibilities, it is the platform that gives birth to new and innovative ideas. Literature is the source of many punk material due to its rich nature. Through literature, Solarpunk ideas have been shared and interpreted into the set of understandings that define the movement today.
Solarpunk literature was born amidst the dystopic movements of steampunk and cyberpunk. It ended up branching out into its own entity due to its optimistic outlook. In line with that, it explores a semi-utopic future with fantastical elements that exaggerate more positive advancements that allow for its ideals to prosper. Within the Solarpunk realm, this of course includes a complete integration of technology and nature. For example, solar-powered air transportation which is made entirely out of biodegradable materials. These ideas may seem outlandish and impossible, and yet, nothing is impossible in fiction. Solarpunk loves reality, but can you blame them for indulging in fiction when the future looks so bleak?
Some of the most popular examples of Solarpunk literature include The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson as well as Orion Shall Rise by Poul Anderson. These stories explore the relationship between man, nature and technology. Though written in different decades, these stories are perhaps more relevant today than they were then.
“We’re Solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”
Solarpunk poses an interesting and new take on the problems we are facing in this century. The beauty of Solarpunk lies in its non-restrictive and varying aesthetics. All parts of this movement aim towards achieving a bright and welcoming future for everyone. From fashion to music, as long as it follows the core values, anyone can be a part of this positive movement. Adam Flynn of ASU’s Hieroglyph writes, “We’re Solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.” The heartbeat of Solarpunk is looking to the future with optimism and people moving towards more conscious consumption. To make a choice. The choice to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle, the choice to resist the current lifestyle and the choice to make a change for a better future. With all the existing troubling topics that we are bombarded with every day, Solarpunk provides solace in its hope for a better future.