I recently introduced the concept of solarpunk to a colleague of mine at Schumacher College, and his interest was immediately piqued. I knew he was a fan of steampunk, and I illustrated the differences between the two by making reference to steampunk’s primarily nostalgic, mechanical aesthetic/ethos, contrasted with solarpunk’s primarily optimistic, organic aesthetic/ethos.
Previously, I had suggested in my research that:
… whereas steampunk asks, "hey, what if the Industrial Revolution never happened, thereby not disrupting Victorian society / culture in the midst of Enlightenment-era ideological politics", solarpunk asks "hey, what if a whole bunch of today's post-industrial activists, anarchists and general proponents of decentralized, autonomous systems all really loved Miyazaki films, rewilding, and the 'jugaad' mindset of frugal innovation, and decided to collectively integrate nature back into our most advanced technological superstructures through engaged, long-term acts of (trojan mouse-style) civic imagination?"
I still have faith in this description—always a working one—but when my colleague interrupted me shortly after I began to say that “it sounds great, but what about lunapunk?”, I paused.
Admittedly, I had also rebelled. “Pedanticism,” my mind retorted. But then I remembered an article by Charles Eisenstein on what he called the “Age of Water”; specifically, a quote describing a new kind of sustainability:
The unsustainability of our present system derives at bottom from its linearity, its assumption of an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. A fitting metaphor for such a system is fire, which involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy—heat and light—in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so also does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for a while, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash, gunk, and pollution, whether the ash-heap of wasted human lives or the strip-mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.
Fire is natural; in fact it takes biological form in any aerobic being as the liberation of stored energy through oxidation. Nature only lasts because there are other steps, powered by sunlight, by which the ash is reincorporated into forms of stored energy. An economy that is sustainable must do the same; it cannot be based on fire alone, in either its literal or metaphoric form. The restorative economy, then, will have a technological infrastructure that is not based on the technologies of fire.
Although I haven’t yet seen a similar formalization from those in the solarpunk movement, the above two paragraphs feel like a near-perfect articulation of solarpunk’s nascent “energy policy”. What the term "lunapunk" suggests is a gentle, but firm reminder that solarpunk cannot continue to endorse—whether actually or tacitly—the underlying frame of industrial growth, with its metaphorical and literal foundations in an ancient “technological infrastructure… based on the [linear] technologies of fire”.
Compare Eisenstein's formulation to the excellently-told "Story of Energy" by Tim Urban, of Wait But Why. In it, Urban describes human beings as the inventors of joule-stealing technology, joules being the primary unit of energy in scientific terms.
The story relates that humans—having first established ourselves as major contenders in the food chain, itself a system of joule-stealing from other creatures, who stole them originally from plants, "the only innocent ones who who actually follow the Golden Rule... because they have the privilege of having the sun as their sugar daddy"—started to play around with ways of retaining their joules.
Rather than using them up (through exercise or physical labour), the human race realized that there were ways of keeping joules in our bodies. And so, technology was invented. Crucially, its effect was not limited to enabling joule retention, but also drastically speeding up the time it took to capture and use energy. Urban recognizes, as did Eisenstein, that the most important technological revolution—perhaps in the history of the human race—was the discovery of fire.
The most exciting joule-stealing technology humans came up with was figuring out how to burn something. With wind or water, you can only capture moving joules as they go by—but when you burn something, you can take an object that has been soaking up joules for years and release them all at once. A joule explosion.
They called this explosion fire, and because the joules that emerged were in the useful-to-humans formats of heat energy and light energy, burning things became a popular activity.
Of course, the problem with fire is combustion itself—a linear process that creates a desired exothermic reaction, with consequent waste products. As Eisenstein reminds us, "nature only lasts because there are other steps, powered by sunlight, by which the ash is reincorporated into forms of stored energy". What could the future bring, if exothermic technologies were balanced by endothermic ones?
This is what sustainability means. Sustainability is simply the ability of planetary life to structure a homeostatic relationship within the context of cosmic forces—particularly the sun—long understood mythically as the axis between heaven and earth. Solarpunk must recognize this if it is to translate its visionary world(s) into this one, thereby correcting a long-misunderstood relationship between human beings and fire: a relationship nearly as old as we are. A relationship whose fundamental inequity has festered in our collective psyches for two hundred thousand years, manifesting today as the guilt of the parasite. Now, instead of extortionists, we are asked to become stewards. No small task.
To Be Continued...