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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Solarpunk moves beyond sci-fi


Who knew the iconic Hills Hoist clothes line could be considered solarpunk? Or water tanks in the backyard? Or a chicken coop? Well, the idea of solarpunk isn’t necessarily all about being high tech. While solarpunk has its roots in speculative fiction (Ed’s note: Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing springs to mind) and sci-fi films, it is now a futurist movement that has since spread to architecture and design. Its practitioners envision a clean, green future built on principles of sustainability, social justice and collective action.

‘Solar’ signals optimism and an association with renewable energy, while ‘punk’ reflects a DIY ethos and an anti-capitalist philosophy.

Jay Springett, a UK writer and podcaster, has been involved in the solarpunk community for the past decade. He describes solarpunk as “a container for ideas about the future . . . whether it’s a picture of a lean-to greenhouse or [street] curb cuts for managing street runoff into basins for trees.”

Despite its futuristic ambitions, solarpunk design can be surprisingly low-tech, with people using everyday objects to make their homes and communities more sustainable. “It’s basins in your garden, it’s water tanks, it’s filters and making biochar [a form of charcoal], it’s keeping chickens,” Springett says.

He offers the ‘micro-example’ of how someone transformed a disused red phone box in their UK village into a seed library, which he saw a blogger post about on a solarpunk forum during the pandemic.

“As the weeks go by, people start leaving pot plants there for [other] people to take and swap,” he says.

Even using a clothesline to dry laundry — a radical idea for North Americans who tend to rely on clothes dryers year-round — can be considered solarpunk. (Ed’s note: Tell that to anyone born pre-1980 in Australia, at least, and they’d be surprised by that.)

And Springett is particularly enthusiastic about the Hills Hoist. “Those things are awesome,” he says. “It seems so silly to say a clothesline is a solarpunk technology, but that’s actually one of those examples.”

A contemporary solarpunk city features vertical forests, rooftop gardens, bio-domes and wind turbines. It’s an aesthetic that melds urban and nature — think Wakanda in the Black Panther films or Disney’s Strange World.

These futurist visions may call to mind advanced technology such as robotics and generative AI. But solarpunk is all about using existing technology to create a brighter future, says Matthew Wizinksy, an associate professor of Practice in Urban Technology at the University of Michigan, who taught a course in solarpunk design for architecture students last year. “[Solarpunk] is viewing design not so much as being responsible for novel or innovative techniques or forms, but really about taking existing knowledge, distributing that knowledge and encouraging broader participation in how we live our everyday lives,” he tells ABC RNs Blueprint for Living.

Wizinksy runs public workshops where he introduces participants to solarpunk ideas before presenting them with a practical task that puts theory into practice. “We would build something like a top-loading updraft stove out of metal scrap to make biochar or we would build a hydroponic system for home use," he says. “[We] then hope we are also planting the seed of a community that would share knowledge and materials — and even maybe share the harvest of whatever they were making in those workshops.”

For Wizinsky, solarpunk offers an opportunity to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems. “What’s great about solarpunk is it’s not closed and dogmatic; it’s open and inviting,” he says. “[Solarpunk is about] not waiting around for someone to tell us how we might make our everyday lives or worlds better.”

And while solarpunk fans don’t necessarily break the law, they are happy to bend the rules in pursuit of a brighter future. Many solarpunk practices hack systems of authority to achieve their aim, Wizinsky says.

And, further, while solarpunk may have its sights set on the future, Springett believes it’s a movement firmly grounded in present-day efforts to reduce our ecological footprint. “We know things are going to be difficult,” he says. “Solarpunk is at its best when it’s about people doing the things that need doing in the face of adversity. The journey en route for me is what solarpunk is all about, rather than [what comes] after the new dawn.”

Wizinsky isn’t surprised the solarpunk movement is gaining traction at a time when people are growing increasingly concerned about social equality and the state of the planet. “For young people who have grown up [against] the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter movement . . . those of us in creative and design professions are really questioning what we’re doing,” he says. “What solarpunk offers is a . . . positive view of the future amidst what otherwise feels like a lot of negativity.”

TOP An example of solarpunk architecture, the Bosco Verticale apartment building in Milan an PHOTO Getty Images: kurmyshov

ABOVE A shot of the city of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther, a city inspired by the closely related movements of solarpunk and Afrofuturism.

What’s great about solarpunk is it’s not closed and dogmatic; it’s open and inviting. Solarpunk is about not waiting around for someone to tell us how we might make our everyday lives or worlds better.

Matthew Wizinksy

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