The concept of heaven has never made much sense to me, though I certainly understand the appeal. It is profoundly comforting to those grieving a loved one to imagine them finally at peace in a celestial utopia, and envisioning the same for ourselves can allay end-of-life fears. One of the primary roles of religion and spirituality is shining a light into the dark unknown of death, giving answers to a question science has never adequately answered: what happens after we die? Personally, I think we come right back.
While reincarnation is most often associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, most world religions include a version of the concept, even if it’s not a central tenet of their beliefs. Indigenous stories abound of people who recall the details of a battle that happened before their birth, of children who inexplicably recognize objects that belonged to their ancestors. Judaism allows for the possibility of reincarnation, sometimes with the claim that one must return until all 613 mitzvot (good deeds) have been completed. The only reason Christianity disavows reincarnation is because it was cut out of their doctrines during the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE, in order to reinforce the powerful social control inherent in a promise of eternal reward or eternal damnation.
According to “Our World in Data,” approximately 109 billion humans have lived and died in the history of human existence. With nearly 8 billion humans alive right now, that’s 101 billion distinct souls occupying the afterlife. And that number only counts humans—never mind every other sentient being we share the planet with. The idea that souls occupy a human body for (generally) less than a hundred years and then spend eternity in a celestial plane sounds to me like an unbalanced, wasteful system. The single-use soul reminds me of a single-use plastic cup tossed into the landfill as soon as it’s emptied.
What if the afterlife isn’t a landfill, but a recycling center? Or, perhaps, think of it like a water cycle. Ocean water evaporates and is held in the clouds, then falls to earth as rain or snow, gathers into a river, and flows back into the ocean. From water to digestion to decomposition, nearly everything in our physical reality works on a cycle like this, transforming and returning to its source to be reborn as something else. The only things that don’t fit this pattern are corruptions of the natural order, like plastic or nuclear waste.
When I ask myself why consciousness would operate outside of these natural cycles, either snuffed out of existence or transported to an overcrowded afterlife, there’s only one answer: humans must be a corruption of the natural order. Thinking of humans as separate from nature tracks with Christian ideas of Original Sin and dominion over animals. It’s also the type of thinking that has led us to a world of widespread fossil fuel usage, deforestation, and concrete, soil-sealed cities. That’s probably why solarpunk spirituality trends toward systems of belief that revere nature, systems of belief that acknowledge our place in nature.
But, of course, no one talks about heaven as a landfill. Heaven is a utopia, the perfect bliss promised after a lifetime of suffering and toil in the imperfect world. It’s much like the myth of retirement under capitalism: sacrifice your prime years to making money and you’ll be free to rest and enjoy life in your old age. Neither is guaranteed, but both provide hope for people during hard times.
Any depiction of utopia runs up against the same problem. It sounds great for a moment… and then what? The NBC show The Good Place grapples brilliantly with this concept in season four. (Spoilers ahead.) Once the characters uncover the fact that no one has been admitted to the Good Place for centuries, because modern society makes it impossible to live an ethical life (i.e., there is no ethical consumption under capitalism), they finally enter heaven and find a culture of historical figures who are bored out of their minds. Their solution is to allow for a secondary death, at the time of a person’s choosing, in which they enter a truly ineffable unknown. Their individual consciousness ceases to exist in a way that resembles the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, when a soul is freed from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Despite often being classified as such, solarpunk is not truly a utopian movement. Most solarpunk literature is quite gritty and realist, even as it presents thought experiments for how we could achieve a world of environmental and social justice. The hope associated with solarpunk is tied to action, specifically collective action. We’re not waiting around for a better world. We’re building it. This is why, for me, the reincarnation of human consciousness fits within solarpunk values. To believe in heaven is to hope for utopia. To believe in reincarnation is to work toward constant improvement.
It will take lifetimes to rectify the damage humanity has wreaked upon the planet. So many climate narratives lament that we’re leaving this damage for unknown future generations to clean up. But what if those future generations are also us? Just us, who have to come back again and again until we’ve set right our ecological karma? That’s the type of restorative justice that should sound right at home within a solarpunk ethos. Let’s do the work, together, for as many lifetimes as it takes to create something a little closer to heaven here on Earth.
Sarena Ulibarri (she/her) lives, writes, and plants trees in the American Southwest. Her novella Another Life (which grapples with the implications of reincarnation within a solarpunk community in Death Valley) was released from Stelliform Press in 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as DreamForge, GigaNotoSaurus, and Solarpunk Magazine, as well as anthologies such as Solar Flare: Solarpunk Stories, Bioluminescent: A Lunarpunk Anthology, and Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction in Extreme Futures. Find more at www.SarenaUlibarri.com or follow her on Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @sarenaulibarriauthor.
Note: I discuss in broad strokes how Christianity as an organized religion has been used to shape the U.S. in negative and harmful ways. This essay is not meant to dismiss Christian spirituality but to demonstrate how the organized religion has been used to harm people and shape a certain future.
As an exvangelical who grew up in a low-level cult, my relationship with spirituality remains difficult, as remains my relationship with so many things—from my gender identity to my idea of rest. Even so, like so many of the writers for this series, when I first heard of solarpunk in 2015 on Tumblr, part of the attraction was that it didn’t toss away spirituality in favor of science.
Another part of the attraction was the commitment to social justice, which I often felt was missing from the environmental texts I was reading. In those early days in 2015, it felt as if environmental issues and social justice issues were equalized under solarpunk, just as the name combines the environmental through “solar” with the radical anti-authoritarianism and anti-capitalism of -punk.
While my definition of solarpunk has evolved over my time spent with the genre, since 2018, I’ve been working off the following definition, which is explored more fully in Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures:
Solarpunk literature imagines new futures in the midst of and in opposition to environmental collapse, then works to create those futures.
Solarpunk stories must recognize the climate crisis and environmental collapse as entangled issues that include all oppressive systems.
There is no environmental justice without racial and decolonial justice.
Technology is a tool—use the right tool in the right moment.
When approaching the spiritual side of solarpunk, we must remember that anti-racism and decolonization are also a practice, active. As a white person raised in a Pentecostal Christian religion, I recognize how Christianity was and is an active part of building and supporting oppressive systems. As a child, I was taught how to be an active participant and believer in those acts of oppression, from harassing people online to attending anti-abortion events, including a protest in DC.
While my childhood is somewhat unique, the evangelical tradition of Christianity has been shaping the U.S. for well over a century (my church claimed connection to the Azusa Street Revival of 1906). While beyond the scope of this essay, people in the U.S., especially white people, need to engage with how the organized religion of Christianity has been used to shape ideas of the future. As adrienne maree brown, alongside Walidah Imarisha, has said, we are in an “imagination battle.” Therefore, brown continues in Pleasure Activism: “Our radical imagination is a tool for decolonization, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality.”
In the U.S., our conception of the past, present, and future has been shaped by the three Cs of Christianity, Colonialism, and Capitalism. From the very conception of solarpunk, the genre has set out to present an alternate set of imaginaries, futures, and knowledge systems. Solarpunk spirituality is, and should be, no different. In our spiritual practices, there will be easy cultural pitfalls that come from being shaped by living in the U.S.—and I imagine, elsewhere, but I’m speaking from my experience in the U.S. Two aspects that I’m always pushing back against in my solarpunk thinking are my conception of the end of the world and a green version of being holier-than-thou.
The End of the World
In 2016, I took an environmental literature course in my MFA, and the professor assigned the introduction to Matthew Gross’s book The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. I never heard of it again, but one line has haunted me since then because I recognized my own pattern of thinking: “In America, everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first” (9). Had I just traded in the Book of Revelation for the IPCC report?
I was told as a young child that the world would most likely end during my lifetime, but that it would be a good thing because Jesus wouldn’t return until the world had become a better place. A similar style of apocalyptic thinking is prevalent in government and nonprofit spaces—a concept that climate change is “coming” or that the year 2050 will be a new type of 2012. The reality that climate change is impacting people here and now becomes buried under government timelines and reports. Indeed, in the part of Pennsylvania where I currently live, there is a different intensity to the impact of climate change than when I lived in Nevada and Iowa where the impacts changed people’s livelihoods or burned down their homes.
This obscuring of climate change—turning it into a future apocalypse—also helps obscure the genocides and world-destruction already committed against Native Americans and Black communities in the U.S. Science fiction and fantasy broadly have contributed to this concept of the apocalypse, as Kyle P. Whyte’s “Indigenous Science (fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises” demonstrates. Of course, the genre has been shifting, as shown by N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which begins with the end of the world and shows apocalypses or world-endings at varying scales from the personal to the planetary.
As a genre, solarpunk has responded to this issue by including stories set in the very near future to the far future, all of which is needed to fully imagine alternatives to not just the immediate needs but also restructuring culture.
Here’s where solarpunk spirituality can come into play. The futures and ideas of solarpunk cannot remain on the page. We all know we have outstripped warnings about climate change and environmental collapse. A solarpunk spiritual practice can help us hold the desire for the future—all the stories we are telling ourselves in solarpunk—while acting in the present. Just as the warning of early environmental literature wasn’t enough, imagining is only the first step. We’ve done the imagining. We have a variety of futures with more and more being brought into the world through literature, video games, films, TTRPGs, and more.
Now, we need to aid our communities in the instability of this moment—not just a future apocalypse that culture thinking in the U.S. wants us to focus on. Linear thinking with an apocalyptic climax is the type of storytelling that solarpunk looks to avoid because reproducing that type of thinking only supports the type of thinking that got us here in the first place. As a spiritual practice, we can hold onto these visions of the future while helping our communities adapt today.
For years now, I’ve been calling, alongside others, for solarpunk to make the jump from literature to action, and many people have embraced that already. When making that call, I can’t help but worry that we will fall into another trap so prevalent in environmental thinking—let alone U.S. culture and spirituality. Action cannot become a something that separates us into the good solarpunks and the posers. We cannot center individual action when it comes to solarpunk making the jump off the page but rather community adaptation. One person going vegan means less than one person helping implement food insecurity fallbacks in their community.
Growing up as a white kid on food stamps in Northern Appalachia, my family desperately needed assistance from the church. While there are certainly churches that do provide for families, the church I grew up in was not one of them but was rather shaped by cultural thinking around poverty in the U.S.: if you’re poor, it’s your fault for being lazy. Or, in the case of the church, for living in sin.
I’m always fascinated when I see environmental groups use the same talking points as my abusive church. Rather than getting closer to God, it’s about doing your part to stop climate change—as if an individual can “stop” it. At my church, sinning was not tithing money; for the environmental movement, it’s not bringing reusable bags to the grocery story.
As the spiritual dimension of solarpunk continues to grow, we must be vigilant to not fall into individual actions and patting ourselves on the back for being more environmentally friendly. Rather, solarpunk spirituality can be a tool to help us connect with the rest of the living world and be healthy community members. The spiritual side cannot be entirely focused on going vegan, growing a garden, or taking long walks outside but rather can be a well to help work through climate grief, despair, and doom in our communities.
In the U.S., we worship the individual. The type of Christianity I grew up in was about the “personal” relationship with Jesus, the individual understanding of getting closer to God. A lot of environmentally friendly practices mirror this idea—the “you” developing better habits, a cleaner world, a less polluted space. Instead, solarpunk spirituality opens up a path to focus on hope for the community, that the individual practice leads toward being able to better attend to community needs.
Just like the response and adaptation to the climate crisis will vary by region, so, too, should the spiritual aspect. For me, my personal spiritual practice is focused on healing from my religious trauma. As I work on that healing, I find myself better able to be present for my community as we deal with threats against our LGBTQ+ members, as we deal with racism, as we deal with flooding and drought.
Since the early conceptions of solarpunk, the genre has accepted spirituality as a necessary part of imagining more equitable futures. As solarpunk continues to grow and that necessary spiritual aspect becomes more necessary to help us deal with climate grief and despair, we must also remember to push back against the dominant cultures that cause harm. The spiritual side of solarpunk is not only about personal development but recognizing the interconnectedness of the rest of the living world and being present in our adapting communities.
brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.
Gross, Matthew Barrett. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Prometheus Books, 2012.
Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing at the intersection of speculative fiction and climate change. Their debut novel A Shot of Gin is forthcoming from Parliament House Press (2023), and their novella When We Hold Each Other Up is from Android Press (2023). She is the editor of three solarpunk anthologies, including Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation. They blog about speculative literature at the Hugo-winning Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. Wagner holds a PhD in literature, and she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. Follow them at phoebe-wagner.com.
Here in this series about spirituality, I’m going to talk about science. That might seem an odd choice. Typically, we think of science and spirituality as opposites, at best complimentary and at worst mutually hostile enemies. Navarre’s introduction put it this way:
“Science without spirituality becomes the fuel for cold, capitalistic domination of nature, and spirituality without science can lead to superstition and bigotry.”
Given the way science works in the modern world this makes a lot of sense. I am an ecologist by training, and I’ve certainly participated in my own moments of cold capitalist science (and on the flip side I’ve also seen some fairly wacky spirituality too). Some of the commonplace ideas about science are pretty bleak: science is a tool for imperial domination, science reveals the universe to be a cold dead machine, scientists are emotionless calculators heedless of the consequences of their actions, etc, etc. Today, science is the binary opposite of the spiritual.
Here I want to suggest that this view of science might one day go away.
I want to suggest that this view has little to do with science per se, and a lot to do with culture, economics, institutions, and metaphor. We might be looking at an historical artefact of one brief moment in time.
If the role of Solarpunk is to re-imagine the world, then we need to ask: “What does science look like in that world?” I’d like to suggest that in a better world, the harsh divide between science and spirituality might soften or even disappear.
This is an enormous subject, so I’ll just share a couple of ideas as food for thought.
Two Visions of Science: an example
I have on occasion done professional looking scientific ecology things. Most people haven’t had this kind of experience, so I want to give an example of what science looks like in practice. I will describe one scene in two ways, to highlight the basic problem with how we understand science.
The basic scientific setup was this:
A forest contained a set of “permanent plots”. These are marked survey areas where every tree has an ID tag. The job of the survey team is to go in and measure every tree. The forest had dozens of these plots, set up decades ago. From all this data we can answer all sorts of questions.
Now here’s two versions what it actually feels like to do this research. Both versions are true.
I catch my breath while I can. The work is hard, all this bashing through rainforest and mud and rain. I’m exhausted. To be honest I’m stressed out too. It’s a low wage precarious job. I’ve been flown in here for this gig, and when it’s done I’ll be yanked back out and off to something else. I barely know where I am. The lead scientist has gone AWOL to another project, overworked and underfunded. The rest of the team are consultants I’ve never met, the scientific equivalent of mercenaries.
In my hands I hold a clipboard full of numbers. A team member halfway down the muddy slope shouts out codes: “KNI-EXC, 21.5! CYA-DEA, 10.1! COP-ROB, 3.3!” I look around me, up at the tawa trees, the supplejack vines, the climbing ratas and epiphytic ferns, this overflowing mass, and I ask myself, “Do I understand this place? Do I really know this forest?” I can only answer, “No. Not by doing this.”
We are reducing this abundance of green life into a statistical abstraction. Life made into numbers. Later we’ll put out some graphs, maybe someone somewhere will argue about carbon credits, and this forest will be reduced again down into the one true number to rule all numbers: money. The forest will become an economic ecosystem service, entirely interchangeable with any other lump of biomass anywhere in the world, for the right price.
Don’t get excited about science, kids. It’s just a job. Get in, get out, go home. Become a plumber, you’ll get paid better.
The leader of this group spent seven years before he could take the robes and receive the title of Doctor, in accordance with the ancient traditions and customs of his forebears.
Each member of the team has their chosen dedication. The Doctor dedicated himself to the land and soil, to the growing of food. A young woman has dedicated herself to a single species of insect, another to endangered bats, another to the moths that eat seeds on the forest floor. For my part, I chose the subtle flows of those elemental substances of life that pass between land, ocean, and sky.
We do this for love, not money.
Each of us has spent long years in detailed study of the infinite mysteries of the universe, as consumed by nature’s secrets as much as any monk or mystic. I know the balance between the forces of Earth and Sky. The Doctor knows what makes the fields lush and green.
We are inheritors of monasteries, of the temples of the world’s first cities, of those ancient priest astronomers who told their people when to reap and when to sow. We still use their techniques on occasion. We still share their quest. We live to make sense of our world, to give our knowledge, our guidance, to our people. If they will listen.
We see visions others cannot.
As I stand in the forest I perceive the hidden mysteries of worlds hidden in the curl of a leaf. I know the cosmic stories, the unfolding, the unfathomable reaches of space and time, the forces which unfurl these myriad forms and flows in which I stand, in which I live, in which we are.
To us the rainforest is an open book.
As we move through the forest we know each species we pass. We know their ways. We take joy in each familiar friend we see. We note the welfare and the stories of the trees.
Human eyes and mortal minds are prone to deceptions. We lie. We trick ourselves. We care more for human things than the ways of trees. Therefore we do all we can to overcome ourselves.
Most would think us mad, doing what we are doing. The process is painful, as gruelling as any penance. This is our sacrifice to know the way of trees. Even with all our efforts, we will never truly know this forest.
Those depths are too deep.
For those who have been here before, the visit is a reunion, checking in on the family of green. We see new children have been born, the middle aged have gotten fatter, and drama of tree-life is continuing along. These trees will outlive us all, as we outlive ants, and each visit made these decades apart is our reminder.
I have only been here twice.
I look up at a vast kahikatea, centuries old and still young. Her top reaches up beyond the canopy. With the feeble methods we humans have available I make my best attempt to understand her life on her own terms. Around her trunk I wrap a tape measure, and yell out: “DAC-DAC, 41.6!”
Two Visions of Science: a dichotomy
Both of the above are true. The first speaks to the conditions of science in the modern world. Cold, calculating, and commercial. Science is a tool for product development, market research, and government policy.
The second speaks true to the deep social origins of what scientists are doing, and to the deep motivations in their hearts. Science reveals to us the mysteries of the universe, shaping our fundamental beliefs about who and what we are.
We have an odd dichotomy here.
Science in the modern world is simultaneously a cold materialistic tool AND a borderline religious experience.
Now, when it comes to Solarpunk, as we reach out into those possible futures and imagine new worlds, the first of these visions mostly goes away.
Science might retain some amount of coldness – it does tend towards pragmatism and abstraction over lived emotional experience. Science might still clash with spirituality – data has no pity on claims that can’t be verified. But other than that, much of what remains is transcendent.
The Machine World
Now I want to move in very different direction, but one which Solarpunk, as an artistic movement, is also well placed to address. This is a question of a bad metaphor, the vision of the universe as a machine.
This is the core teaching of science (according to the metaphor):
Existence is cold dead mechanism. Cogs and gears. Automatons and objects. An infernal contraption. Every measurement made strips away the mystery and reduces another part of the universe to mere machinery.
This metaphor turns up all over the place.
A recent example I stumbled across is the Kurzgesagt’s “You Are an Impossible Machine” video. Cells are protein robots. DNA is computer programming. You are an impossible machine. While the facts are great the metaphor is wrong, because…
YOU ARE NOT A MACHINE!
This metaphor needs to die.
Let’s explore why.
The Clockwork Universe
The idea that the universe is some kind of machine is associated with Newton, as if this metaphor is some triumphant shift away from religion to a cold rationalist science. Weirdly enough the actual history might be the exact opposite.
Think it through, and it makes a lot of sense. Really, this is the “Intelligent Design” argument, which persists to this day. If the world was designed by God then the universe really can be compared to a machine.
God is a clockmaker. People and animals are machines designed by God. Causal power rests ultimately with God, as it would for a machine, and God himself holds the universe together, winding the mechanism back up when it runs down. The metaphor makes perfect sense. Indeed, it’s kind of cool to think of yourself as a soul riding around in a robot suit made by God.
That’s the origin.
The machine metaphor then went on to do something very un-machine-like. It started evolving.
From a clock metaphor in which God is active, winding up the clock so it keeps going, we shifted to a metaphor of a clock as perpetual motion machine. This is the Deistic universe. God set up the gears, pressed the ON button, and now the machine just keeps running forever. Like a machine every bolt and screw can be accounted for, and once humanity completes the task of measuring every mechanism we will understand the full design of God.
Later still we dropped God himself. We had no need for that hypothesis. The universe became pure machine. But now the mechanical metaphor becomes something horrifying and monstrous.
What does it even mean to be a machine without a maker? The universe is a purposeless machine. Mere mechanism for the sake of mechanism. Stripped of God and souls, the metaphor reduces the world to mere nuts and bolts. We are impossible machines caught in the cosmic gears, being ground to dust without reason. Science reveals a universe which is cold, meaningless, and dead. Like a machine.
At least, that’s according to the metaphor.
New Metaphors for New Science
The machine metaphor makes very little sense with modern science. Sure, the human body has joints and levers, and machines can have joints and levers too, but that’s about as far as it goes.
In biology, evolution and complex systems make a mockery of any attempt to think of the world as a piece of static industrial machinery. Quantum physics and General Relativity take us about as far from clockwork as you can get.
Once we strip out this defunct machine metaphor that harsh divide between science and spirituality begins to soften. Modern science confronts us with both profound mystery and a deep interconnection with the universe. That sounds fairly spiritual to me.
As an artistic movement, Solarpunk would be well advised to look for new metaphors when talking about science and nature. So, to that aim, here is my attempt:
You are not a machine.
YOU ARE A RIVER.
Rivers have been used as a metaphor for life for a long time (think “You can’t step into the same river twice” etc etc). I want to go a little deeper than the usual idea of life being like floating down a river. When I say, “You are a river”, I mean that you and a river are fundamentally in the same category of thing.
We live in a world of complex systems. Societies, economies, ecosystems, even our own bodies are complex systems. While it is possible to build complex systems (we do it all the time), the behaviour of these systems is vastly different from that of a simple mechanical clock.
So, if we want a metaphor that works, we need something which is also a complex system.
As a way to get this metaphor down into your intuitions, here is a simple exercise for people who are into that…
1) Find yourself a river. If you don’t have one, try online. Here’s one.
2) Get comfortable, and observe. (If you’ve done mindfulness meditation, bring those skills into it).
3) Watch the flow of water. Pay careful attention.
4) As you observe, let the patterns of what you are seeing get into you. A river is neither random nor an orderly mechanism. The river is a complex system.
Note things like the following:
– A standing wave that is constantly changing and yet always there.
– Repetitions in the pattern e.g. a big splash that comes after every seventh wave.
– Overlaid patterns. Maybe the wind is blowing, creating ripples across the flow. Maybe ripples bounce off one rock and intersect with ripples from another.
– Evolution over time and space. Notice how the water begins upstream, and changes speed and position as it flows. Throw a leaf into the flow and watch the twisting journey it takes.
Put all this together and you are getting an intuitive feel for how all complex systems behave.
5) Now extend your awareness beyond the river. The river is connected to the landscape, to the sky, to the sea. All these are complex systems too, forming one super-system. They share a family resemblance with the river, only in forms and on timescales of their own. The sky, the soil, the stones, the plants, the animals are all flowing like rivers in their own ways. Extend your “river-sense” up from the river and out to all the world around you. Feel it flowing as one vast river.
6) Extend this awareness to yourself. Pay attention to your own body and mind. You are also a complex system. You are a river too.
7) Extend this awareness to the invisible. Down to microscopic cells and DNA. Up to the entire planet, the Solar System, even the galaxy. All this too flows like a river.
8) Hold this awareness of yourself and the world, flowing, evolving over endless time and space.
9) Afterwards, as a bonus extra consider spending some time watching footage of Earth from space (here’s one). Patterns you saw in that river can be seen playing out over the whole surface of our world.
This is the universe that modern science reveals, metaphorically speaking. If that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is.
I’ve only scratched the surface here. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe that our modern view of science and spirituality as being opposites is an historical artefact unique to our moment in time, rather than anything natural and enduring. Throughout history the questions, “How does the universe work?” and, “How should we live in this universe?” have almost always been united. As we re-imagine better futures, our answers may inevitably join together once more.
Jack Waro is either a climate change expert and/or hobo and/or prone to exaggeration. He can be found in the Land of the Long White Cloud, under the trees, having conversations with the fantails. For more check out Jack Waro Writes Bad Ecology.
Have you ever had that funny feeling where you have the shape of an idea in your head? A notion, or maybe the thread of an idea. Not yet fully formed, but it’s there. You know the rough shape of it in your brain, but don’t have the words to describe it to others.
That’s how I felt for a long time around what animism is really about.
When reading articles describing it, it’s often as the belief or idea of ascribing sentience or personhood to inanimate objects. Whenever I would read that, it felt fundamentally wrong. That’s not really what it was in my head. That didn’t fit the shape and my experiences held in my brain. It’s not viewing everything as another kind of human. I don’t think trees and rocks are human minds in tree and rock suits. Rocks don’t have feelings, trees don’t get anxiety about the future. But I couldn’t put words as to why. What was the big missing description, the missing words I was needing?
The answer was given when I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book is a dive into Kimmerer’s experiences as a member of the Potawatomi Nation in the field of biology. Comparing, contrasting, and marrying the traditional teachings and philosophy of the Potawatomi people with scientific attitudes and methods.
And an ongoing theme of the book finally put words around the idea of animism in my head I lacked: Relationships.
Animism is about Relationships.
It is about gaining the understanding that the world is built on relationships, and all other things are entities deserving of consideration and respect. They are not just objects to be used or rejected. They are not resources to be consumed without reciprocity.
And I think this is an important concept to be held within Solarpunk when we talk of building the futures we wish to see, both in fictions and in the world. It becomes a lot harder to mistreat the environment and damage it when you see it for what it really is: a web of relationships you are part of. Things are not just resources to be extracted, they are things deserving of consideration. And if you mistreat the surrounding entities, be they animal, vegetable, or mineral, you are hurting the web of relationships upon which you rely.
In Brading Sweetgrass, there is a particular chapter on the author’s difficulty trying to learn the Potawatomi language as an adult. A large difference from English is how things are not talked about or described in an object action format. Instead, much of the language is describing entities in states. The example given in the book is instead of saying “I’m going to the creek” you would say “I’m going to where the water is being the creek”.
It’s built into the language that everything is talked about as an entity in a state.
When conceptualizing a solarpunk world, be it for fiction or a future we want to see, we rarely consider how language will change to reflect changing attitudes to the world around us. In what terms will we talk about our environment, embed how we see it. How we consider it, and so how we treat it.
There are already real world examples of this mindset being used to enshrine ecological protection. Two rivers, the Mutuhekau Shipu river in Canada and the Whanganui in New Zealand, have made headlines after being granted personhood as part of efforts to protect them through legal systems. There are many other efforts like this across the globe to challenge the object and ownership model embedded in current legal systems and to introduce a rights based viewpoint of the environment being made up of entities with fundamental rights just like humans have.
Now, so far I have talked about this in terms that are relatively material, and that may surprise those of you who were here to read an essay on the spiritual side of Solarpunk.
This isn’t a contradiction of terms. For me, the spiritual dimensions of things are an emergent property of the material world. The profound sense of connectedness being an animist has brought me is deeply spiritual in nature.
Learning to perceive the connections and cycles of reciprocity between human, plant, animal, and land led to me feeling more connected to all of them in a way that is hard to articulate, and my behaviour changed along with it.
I can no longer go for a walk round my local woods without actively picking up all the litter, because after all the woods have given me, it would be rude and unneighbourly to not actively help out with the issues affecting the wood in turn.
I do wonder: if we once again started to collectively take a more animist mindset, how much would naturally change from simply how we would inherently think of how our actions affect others?
In today’s fast-paced and tumultuous world, finding a sense of meaning and purpose can be a challenge, especially for those who identify as atheists. While many religious and spiritual traditions offer guidance and support to believers, atheists may struggle to find a philosophical foundation on which to ground their values and ideals. Solarpunk, an emerging cultural, aesthetic, literary, artistic, and political movement, can provide a unique and inspiring spiritual framework for those seeking a sustainable and community-driven way of life that is not rooted in theism and other common religious beliefs.
Solarpunk envisions a world that thrives on renewable energy, sustainable practices, and an ethos of community building and interconnectedness. It combines elements of science fiction, utopian ideals, and a focus on environmentalism to create a vision of a brighter, more equitable future. With its emphasis on sustainability, creativity, and hopeful future, the solarpunk framework is not only compatible with atheism, but also provides a solid foundation for exploring and embracing a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
The desire for a spiritual framework among atheists, while by no means universal, is not a new concept. Many individuals who identify as atheist or agnostic still crave a sense of connection, meaning, and personal growth. We seek a guiding philosophy that can help us navigate life’s challenges and contribute positively to the world. Solarpunk, with its forward-looking and action-oriented approach, has the potential to fill this void by fostering a sense of belonging and purpose that transcends religious boundaries.
In this article, we’ll briefly review the core principles of solarpunk, explore its spiritual significance for atheists, and examine the practices and rituals that can be integrated into daily life to help foster a sense of meaning of purpose. In addition, we’ll touch on the impact a solarpunk spiritual framework can have on mental and emotional well-being.
As we embark on this exploration together, I invite you to stay open and consider how solarpunk’s principles and practices can provide a spiritual framework for your life as an atheist (or as a theist, for that matter). By embracing solarpunk’s radically hopeful and eco-conscious vision, you may discover a newfound sense of purpose and a deeper connection to the world around you, leading to a more fulfilling and meaningful life.
Solarpunk: A Brief Overview
Solarpunk Origins and History
Solarpunk emerged in the early 2010s as a response to growing pessimism regarding the future, and the flood of dystopian narratives that dominated popular culture and science fiction. It was born out of a desire to imagine a brighter future that prioritized environmentalism, social justice, and sustainable technology. The term “solarpunk” itself is (prepare to be shocked) a combination of “solar,” referring to the movement’s focus on renewable energy, and “punk,” a nod to the DIY ethos and rebellious, counterculture, even anarchist spirit that infuses the movement.
Over the years, Solarpunk has evolved from a niche subgenre of speculative fiction and art to a broader cultural movement encompassing fashion, architecture, and present day, real world activism. It has inspired a growing number of individuals and communities to adopt its principles and work towards creating a more sustainable and harmonious world.
Solarpunk’s Core Principles and Values
Let’s take a moment to review four of solarpunk’s core principles and values. This list is not necessarily exhaustive, but it’s sufficient for our purposes here.
SUSTAINABILITY: Solarpunk emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with the environment, advocating for renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and eco-friendly technologies. It envisions a technology-driven future where human societies have a minimal ecological footprint and are able to meet their needs without compromising the well-being of future generations.
COMMUNITY BUILDING: Solarpunk promotes the idea of strong, interconnected communities that support one another and work together to address local and global challenges. It values cooperation, mutual aid, and inclusive decision-making processes, encouraging people to actively participate in their communities and take responsibility for the collective well-being.
RADICAL HOPE: In contrast to the dystopian narratives that often dominate popular culture, solarpunk is inherently optimistic. It embraces the belief that humanity has the ability to overcome current challenges and create a more sustainable and equitable future, and that by working together, we can bring about positive change in the world. This is not a naive optimism, but rather hope born out of struggle, out of the realization that if we want to survive and thrive, that we have no other choice but to hope, to fight, and build a new world.
CREATIVITY: Solarpunk celebrates the power of imagination, creativity, and innovation to reshape our world for the better. It encourages individuals to explore new ideas, experiment with alternative solutions, and engage in artistic expression as a means of challenging the status quo and inspiring others to do the same.
Aesthetic and Cultural Elements of Solarpunk
Solarpunk’s aesthetic is characterized by a fusion of futuristic technology, traditional craftsmanship, and lush greenery. It draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including Art Nouveau, Afrofuturism, and biophilic design. Common themes in solarpunk art, fashion, and architecture that are relevant to our discussion in this article include:
NATURE-INSPIRED MOTIFS: Solarpunk aesthetics often incorporate organic shapes and patterns, mirroring the movement’s reverence for the natural world. This can be seen in architectural designs that incorporate living walls, rooftop gardens, and biomimicry principles, sleek curves, as well as in clothing and accessories made from natural, sustainable materials.
RENEWABLE ENERGY AND TECHNOLOGY: Solarpunk envisions a world powered by clean, renewable energy sources. Art and design within the movement frequently incorporate solar panels, wind turbines, and other non-fossil fuel technologies that are more eco-friendly, emphasizing the harmony between nature and human innovation.
DIY AND MAKER CULTURE: Reflecting its punk roots, solarpunk embraces a do-it-yourself ethos and a focus on local, decentralized decision making and production. This can be seen in the movement’s support for community workshops, makerspaces, and upcycled fashion, as well as in the encouragement of self-sufficiency and skill-sharing.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIVITY: Solarpunk is an inherently inclusive movement that celebrates cultural, racial, and gender diversity. Its aesthetics and narratives often feature a wide range of perspectives and experiences, highlighting the importance of collaboration and unity in the pursuit of a sustainable future. Rather than being a tokenized diversity, solarpunk is about justice and lifting up the voices and leadership of those from communities that are marginalized and oppressed under capitalism.
It might already be apparent from this brief review that taken together, combining the aesthetic and cultural elements with its core principles and values, solarpunk offers a holistic vision of a future that’s not only sustainable and equitable, but also beautiful, inspiring, and infused with both meaning and purpose.
The Spiritual Significance of Solarpunk for Atheists
The Need for Meaning and Purpose
Finding meaning and purpose in life is a fundamental human desire, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. Atheists, like anyone else, seek a guiding philosophy that can help us navigate life’s challenges and contribute positively to the world. Many atheists have found this through humanism, a philosophy that places humanity, rather than a divine being, at the center of moral and ethical concern. Solarpunk, with its focus on sustainability, community, and optimism, offers an alternative framework that is less human-centric for atheists to explore their values and aspirations.
Building a Sense of Interconnectedness
One of the core tenets of solarpunk is the emphasis on interconnectedness within human communities, between individuals, and between humans and the natural world. This sense of interconnectedness can foster a deep feeling of belonging and connectedness for atheists, both to other people and to the natural world. In this way solarpunk provides a spiritual foundation that promotes empathy, compassion, and a sense of responsibility towards others and the environment. By embracing solarpunk’s community-driven values, atheists can cultivate a worldview that acknowledges the profound interconnectedness of all life on Earth, and find spiritual fulfillment through meaningful connections with others and the planet.
Reverence for the Natural World
Solarpunk’s focus on environmentalism and reverence for the natural world provides atheists with a spiritual framework that celebrates the awe and wonder of the Earth’s diverse ecosystems. This reverence for nature can inspire a profound sense of gratitude and humility, fostering an appreciation for the complex web of life that sustains us. By nurturing a deep connection to nature, atheists can find spiritual solace in the beauty and harmony of the natural world, experiencing a sense of wonder that is both rooted in the real, physical world and transcends the need for religious beliefs.
Emphasis on Personal and Collective Growth
Solarpunk encourages individuals to engage in personal and collective growth, emphasizing the importance of learning, self-reflection, and self-improvement. This focus on growth and self-discovery can provide a spiritual foundation for atheists, helping us develop a sense of purpose and meaning in life. By embracing solarpunk’s principles and practices, atheists can embark on a journey of personal growth that not only benefits themselves, but also contributes to the betterment of their communities and the wider world.
Solarpunk Practices and Rituals for Atheists
Developing Eco-Friendly Habits
Adopting eco-friendly habits is a cornerstone of the solarpunk lifestyle, and serves as a practical way for atheists to engage with the movement’s principles through a spiritual lens grounded in deeper (even if symbolic and allegorical) meaning. These practices not only have a positive impact on the environment but can also provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Some eco-friendly habits to consider include:
Embracing a zero-waste lifestyle (or as close to it as possible)
Choosing sustainable and ethically-sourced products (or making your own when possible)
Conserving energy and water in daily life (even if using renewable, non-fossil fuel based energy sources)
Utilizing public transportation, biking, or walking instead of driving
Supporting local, organic, and plant-based food options
Participating in Community Gardening and Environmental Projects
Community gardening and environmental projects are excellent ways for atheists to connect with others who are more likely to share solarpunk values, while also making a tangible impact on the world around them. These activities can provide a sense of accomplishment and foster a deeper connection with nature and the community. Some examples of community-based initiatives include:
Joining or starting a community garden
Participating in local clean-up efforts or tree-planting events
Engaging in habitat restoration or conservation projects
Supporting community-driven renewable energy initiatives
Practicing Mindfulness and Meditation
While there’s no “Secret” or spiritual magic bullet, mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools for personal growth and self-discovery. When practiced with consistency, they can enhance one’s connection to the natural world as well as the present moment. By incorporating these practices into our daily lives, atheists can cultivate a greater sense of calm and inner peace, resilience, and awareness of our interconnectedness with the world around us. Some mindfulness and meditation practices to explore include:
Gratitude journaling to foster appreciation for the beauty and abundance of the natural world
Celebrating Seasonal Festivals and Events
Seasonal festivals and events can provide a meaningful way for atheists to connect with the natural world and their community while celebrating solarpunk values. A common practice in paganism and witchcraft spiritualities, these gatherings can easily be secular and free of theism, focusing on the changing seasons, the Earth’s cycles, and the importance of community and environmental stewardship. Four obvious examples of seasonal celebrations include:
Spring Equinox celebrations focused on renewal and growth
Summer Solstice events honoring the sun and its role in supporting life on Earth
Autumn Equinox harvest festivals, emphasizing gratitude and the abundance of nature
Winter Solstice gatherings, celebrating the dark time, self-reflection and growth, as well as the return of light and the importance of resilience
By engaging in these solarpunk practices and rituals, atheists can deepen our connection to nature, to each other, and to the solarpunk movement’s core principles. In this way, we can cultivate a spiritual framework that aligns with our principles and values.
Solarpunk’s Impact on Mental and Emotional Well-being
Embracing solarpunk principles and practices can have a significant impact on one’s mental and emotional well-being, particularly in terms of building resilience and adaptability. By focusing on sustainability, interconnectedness, and personal growth, Solarpunk encourages individuals to develop the skills and mindset needed to navigate life’s challenges with at least something approximating grace and perseverance. This resilience, in turn, can lead to greater overall well-being and a more fulfilling life.
Solarpunk’s inherent optimism and hopeful outlook serves as a powerful antidote to the pessimism and cynicism that can often pervade modern society. While healthy doses of skepticism and negativity by all means have their place, by envisioning a brighter, more sustainable future and actively working towards it, we can cultivate an outlook on life that is both more positive while at the same being rooted in realism. This realistic optimism, or radical hope, can contribute to improved mental health, increased motivation, and a greater sense of hope and purpose in the midst of the rather dystopian reality we live in.
One of the most significant aspects of solarpunk’s potential impact on mental and emotional well-being is its emphasis on community building and interconnectedness. By engaging in solarpunk practices and rituals, individuals can develop a strong sense of belonging and connectedness, both to their local communities and the larger global community. This sense of belonging can provide a powerful source of emotional support, reducing feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness while promoting overall mental health and well-being.
As an emerging cultural, aesthetic, and political movement, Solarpunk has the potential to inspire significant change on both a local and global scale. By envisioning a future that prioritizes environmentalism, social justice, and sustainable technology, solarpunk empowers individuals and communities to work together towards a more sustainable and harmonious world. The movement’s optimistic and action-oriented approach can serve as a catalyst for innovation, creativity, and collaboration, fostering a sense of hope and determination in the face of today’s challenges.
Similarly, solarpunk offers a unique and inspiring spiritual framework for atheists, providing a foundation for meaning, purpose, and interconnectedness that transcends theistic and religious boundaries. Through its focus on sustainability, community building, optimism, and personal growth, solarpunk encourages us to develop a deeper connection with the natural world and our fellow humans. By engaging in solarpunk practices and rituals as atheists, we can cultivate a spiritual framework that aligns with our beliefs and values and has a tangible impact on the world around us, while positively impacting our mental and emotional well-being.
For all the atheists out there, I invite you to explore and embrace the principles and practices of solarpunk as a means of enriching your life. By delving into the world of solarpunk, you may discover a newfound sense of meaning and purpose, a deeper connection to the natural world, and a greater sense of belonging and interconnectedness. As you embark on this journey, remember that every step you take towards living a more sustainable, community-driven, and hopeful life contributes not only to your own well-being, but also to the creation of a brighter, more equitable future for us all.
Living in rural Oregon with their partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives, Justine can often be found out in the garden or floating down the creek in a kayak. They’re the editor-in-chief of Android Press and Solarpunk Magazine, and they compose and record music as Ashera. A long-time community organizer, Justine has helped organize labor unions, worked with tenants and houseless communities to defend against eviction, and was campaign manager for Oregon’s $15 minimum wage fight. Her work has appeared in Utopia Science Fiction Magazine, Solarpunk Magazine, and Jupiter Review, among others. Their debut nonfiction book, Solarpunk Witchcraft, is forthcoming from Microcosm Publishing in 2024. They’re on Twitter and Instagram @jankwrites.
The exploration of ancient cultures and their wisdom can help us develop a deeper understanding of our environment and our lives. These cultures often had a close relationship with nature and understood how to manage natural resources in order to preserve them for the long term. Additionally, they grappled with the big questions of life and often developed spiritual and philosophical answers to them.
This knowledge and understanding can be used today to create a sustainable and friendly future. If we learn to treat our environment with respect and mindfulness and engage with the fundamental questions of life, we can build a harmonious relationship with our environment and initiate a positive change.
The Solarpunk/Lunarpunk movement embraces this idea and promotes renewable energy and responsible use of our resources. They strive for a harmonious coexistence of humans and nature and develop creative and innovative approaches to realize this vision.
In daily life, we can contribute practically to achieving these goals. For example, we can switch to renewable energy by obtaining our electricity from a green energy supplier or generating solar or wind energy ourselves. Also, a conscious consumption of regional and seasonal food can help to conserve our environment and strengthen the local economy.
Moreover, we can connect with nature by spending time outdoors and engaging in nature conservation projects. The contemplation of spiritual and philosophical questions can also help us better understand ourselves and our relationship to the world, and provide a foundation for a more sustainable life.
Overall, it’s about developing a holistic and respectful relationship with nature and ourselves. By combining ancient wisdom and modern approaches like the Solarpunk/Lunarpunk movement, we can create a positive future based on sustainability and community.
Here are three small practical exercises that fit with the above text and can help contribute to saving the world more relaxed:
Date your breath: A simple breathing exercise can help us relax and strengthen our connection to nature. Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and consciously inhale and exhale deeply. With each inhale, welcome in fresh and new air and with each exhale, release all the old and used-up air.
Sustainable consumption: Another exercise is conscious consumption. Take the time to select local and sustainable products when shopping. Avoid unnecessary plastic waste and opt for reusable alternatives. By consuming mindfully, you can help conserve the environment and strengthen the local economy.
Spend time in nature: Another way to connect with nature and do something good is to spend time outdoors. Go for walks, have picnics, or explore new nature reserves in your area. By spending time in nature, you can relax and strengthen your connection to nature. This is also a great opportunity to pick up the trash that you come across on your way.
Luca Sumitra is currently living out of his backpack traveling the world. He works as a consciousness mediator and teaches mainly at festivals and events, but also works with educational institutions, with a focus on children and young people.
As genres of speculative fiction—fiction which aims to imaginatively influence the manifestation of our collective future—solarpunk and lunarpunk hold a promise that their ancestral foil (cyberpunk) does not. Whereas cyberpunk exercises a predominately negative, or critical, purpose by presenting a dystopian future we ought to avoid realizing, solar and lunarpunk both aim to envision positive alternatives inspired by a renewed cosmic spirituality. This may seem like an idiosyncratic characterization, but in what follows I will try to make clear why the recontextualization of humanity ina meaningful cosmos is what essentially distinguishes solar and lunar from cyberpunk. And, in accord with the pluralistic ethos Navarre opened this series with, I want to acknowledge from the outset that my characterizations may not resonate with everyone—and that’s okay. While it’s true that—in relation to the Earth—the Sun and Moon communicate distinct, archetypal characteristics, it’s also true that archetypes are polysemous: they manifest themselves in a range of meanings. And yet, if we are to discern what actually is archetypally lunar or solar, we must refer to realities that are not reducible to human social construction alone. Cyberpunk also partakes of the archetypal and might arguably be seen as a contemporary form of mythology conveying the dangers of hubris (think of Prometheus or Icarus). The major difference between these ancient myths and cyberpunk, however, is that between then and now has stretched a period of radical industrialization and its corresponding ecological devastation. Human hubris is writ large in the last century’s capitalist delusion of endless extraction and technological innovation cued to selfish ends. Solar and lunarpunk speculatively intervene to renew humanity’s sense of proportion (etymologically, the word “cosmos” arises from the Pythagorean-inflected κόσμος, which once denoted the universe as a harmonic order). Such speculative interventions are crucial given how pervasive the cyberpunk imaginary is today. The oft quoted saying (attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek)—“it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”—exemplifies this pervasiveness, for cyberpunk stories are typically characterized by a form of capitalism pushed to its most inhuman extreme. We need only call to mind Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, or Akira and we can see this possible future in vivid detail:
The Earth has become a wasteland; cities provide the remainder of humanity refuge from the larger swaths of the planet that are now uninhabitable zones of nuclear fallout. Megacorporations have taken over the function of the state and exercise control over the cultural sphere, ensuring citizens are kept pacified by rituals of escapism (digital, chemical, etc.). The unfeeling, yet self-indulgent elites live high above the clustered and polluted chaos of the urban population, ruling over them through an authoritarian surveillance apparatus that records everyone’s activity. Nietzsche’s Übermensch is translated into a crude form of technological “enhancement” that only wealthy individuals can afford (unless you happen to be a test-subject); radically hybridized human-cyborg forms emerge and prompt one of the major questions of science fiction: What is the human being?
The punk in cyberpunk often manifests through unlikely protagonists who represent the last bastions of higher values by raging against the machine—against a “society” that cybernetically reproduces inhumanity like a cancer. Whether they be actual humans or synthetic imitations who choose to honor such values, these misfits work against the “high tech, low life” character of their surroundings and shine as beacons of hope for a more humane world. A consistent archetype is the anarchist hacker who deploys their skills to throw a wrench in the system or divulge emancipatory information to the public. Sadly, their struggles usually amount to little given how pervasively the cancer has metastasized. Civilization—in these stories—seems beyond saving. Rather than presenting salutary visions of collective human flourishing, the cyberpunk genre has generally served to warn us of what we could become. These warnings are still relevant given that our world has grown to resemble the cyberpunk imaginary ever-more as the years go by. The ongoing incarceration and persecution of whistleblowers like Julian Assange exemplifies the extent to which cyber rebels pose a threat to the corporation-state juggernaut. This is despicably hypocritical given that social media and search engine companies openly track all user activity that transpires through their platforms. Our daily digital habits feed machines designed to enslave our attention and, increasingly, to shape our desires in ways that perpetuate the ravenous hunger of the monster that is neoliberal capitalism. How do we escape this capture?
Enter solarpunk, the great potential of which is the return of the central, though unresolvable, question raised above—“What is the human being?”—to its cosmic context. Unlike cyberpunk, which, as a genre, broods over the dangers that arise from technologies borne of human alienation, solarpunk takes its inspiration from the more-than-human world—specifically, the giver of life on Earth: the Sun. Both genres reflect the Anthropocene—the name for our current geological age (cene) during which the human species (anthropos) has become a planetary force. But because the cyberpunk imagination is (typically) constrained to a mechanical vision of the cosmos, it perpetuates the worst kind of anthropocentrism—the kind which mistakes our theoretical models for reality. This mechanistic model—ranging from quantum physics, to biology, all the way to macroscopic cosmology—is defined exclusively by the inorganic laws of nature and can thus only amount to a vision of death. The mysteries of life and human consciousness—in this imaginary—are reduced to sophisticated computational processes that will soon be both explained and rendered obsolete by the rapidly evolving machinations of artificial intelligence. According to adherents of this mythos, technoscience will one day realize its ultimate goal: material immortality.
Solarpunk arises dialectically as a healthy reaction to the death-drive made conscious by cyberpunk and responds by reinstating the primacy of Life in the rhythmic organism that is our cosmos. Mechanism is subsidiary to organism, the organic; life is not *in* molecules; rather, molecules arise from the symphonic action of the entire cosmos and this music is life. The wish of solarpunk is to let the light of this cosmic Life inspire all of science and invention. What are science and technology for if not the flourishing of humanity and the wider Earth-community on which we depend? As Matt Bluemink writes, “at its core, solarpunk is the ecological antidote to cyberpunk… [an impetus] to imagine a world where human beings live in harmony with nature, but in a way that embraces developments in modern eco-friendly technology.” To live in harmony with nature is to rediscover the spiritual symphony of our living cosmos. Apart from the more obvious association with solar-power and renewable energy, the solar in solarpunk also refers to the salvific fire of optimism. Solarpunks are punk to the extent that their willful optimism goes against the grain of today’s complacent irony, cynicism, and destructive nihilism. And, sharp contrast to the extrinsic individuality that characterizes cyberpunk societies (and today’s neoliberalism), the solarpunk ethos implies a perception of humanityas a whole—a whole organism to which we as individuals belong. As Adam Flynn writes in Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto, “Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually.” The films of Hayao Miyazaki are among the major influences on the solarpunk aesthetic, and this is unsurprising given that Miyazaki’s films are saturated with an environmental ethic that flows from the Japanese Shinto tradition. Indeed, it seems that solarpunk is generally inspired by indigenous wisdom traditions to reintegrate humanity in the great web of life.
Though this characterization is by no means exhaustive, I have tried to distill what seems most essential to the spirit (or spirituality) of solarpunk: the light of optimism, the primacy of Life, and the perception of an underlying wholeness (i.e. the human species, the web of life, etc.). And—importantly—these features are not arbitrary, but issue directly from our actual experience of the genre’s namesake: Sol, the Sun. Those who have spent a substantial amount of time enduring frigid nights will know how natural it is to connect the light of optimism with the promise of sunrise. Anyone who pays attention to the flora and fauna of their local environs will know what praises Life sings to the break of dawn. And many will have heard the saying, “For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike.” We do not make these things up; we either attend to such features or blind ourselves to them. The spirituality of solarpunk consists in choosing to recognize that an essential part of our humanity is connected with the Sun, that we are partially constituted by it, and that, just as it inspired our ancestors for thousands of years, it can likewise guide our own aspirations for the Anthropocene. This light-filled renewal of cosmic spirituality is one possible future; a darker future, presented by cyberpunk, consists in the further intensification of alienated anthropocentrism and its ironic apotheosis in the subhuman automaton. We have reached a fork in the road.
Astrologically speaking, we are on the cusp of Pluto’s ingress into the sign of Aquarius (a 20 year transit in total) which many astrologers predict will usher in a form of surveillance more oppressive than we have yet to experience. Many astrologers also anticipate the boundary between machines and (some) humans to increasingly blur. The pervasiveness of the cyberpunk imaginary certainly facilitates our passive entry into this Brave New World, but have the hopeful tales and practical initiatives of solarpunk done enough to prepare us to face the panoptic beast of mass surveillance? Rachel-Rose O’Leary doesn’t think so, and in her widely circulated essay “Lunarpunk and the Dark Side of the Cycle,” she furthers the dialectic of cyber and solar by positioning lunarpunk as a kind of higher synthesis of the two. According to O’Leary’s genealogy, lunarpunk flows from the lineage of cypherpunk—a movement of coder-activists who anticipated the coming dangers of mass surveillance already in the early 1990s. Cypherpunks—including Julian Assange—advocated for and innovated encryption techniques to protect user privacy. Unlike the anonymity enjoyed in the analog world of cash exchange, digital transactions are vulnerable to prying eyes. As Eric Hughs writes in “A Cypherpunks Manifesto,” “when my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.” It is this freedom to selectively reveal oneself that cypherpunks aim to protect. Why? As Hughs writes, “we cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak.” The parasitic collaboration between advertisers and social media companies to farm our attention is an obvious example of what happens when we allow such entities to “speak of us.” China’s inhumane, authoritarian public health measures are another example of what can happen when citizens lack the negative freedom (protection) of privacy. As early resistors to mass surveillance, cypherpunks resemble the rebellious (because humane) protagonists of cyberpunk stories. And indeed, as O’Leary characterizes the subgenre, lunarpunk continues this resistance, reminding solarpunks that utopia will only ever be elsewhere, while dystopia is nigh.
But, significantly, O’Leary isn’t writing speculative fiction, rather, she seems to be going a step further by attempting a more direct intervention into history itself, engaging in what might be called mythospeculation. But she doesn’t claim to be any kind of messiah, rather, she points to the advent of crypto as containing its own speculative, sci-fi potential. As she writes, “crypto is an extreme kind of sci-fi because as well as offering a vision of the future it also provides the tools to make that future possible.” She goes on to describe how the future of crypto is predominately envisioned through the idealism of solarpunk. Now there are many in the solarpunk movement who reject the whole world of crypto as merely a transposition of neoliberal capitalism into the digital sphere. A thread in the solarpunk subreddit titled “Crypto is not (solar)punk” provides a snapshot of the various perspectives involved in the debate. As one user writes,
“Regardless of the environmental impacts, which are sus at best, creating an unregulated currency that is already controlled by the rich and powerful and literally siphoning production and wealth out of the labor force of the country with get-rich-quick schemes, pump and dump, and pyramid schemes is not my idea of solarpunk. Currency as we know it wouldn’t even be needed in a truly post-scarcity solarpunk world. Cryptocurrency is just capitalism turned up to 11.”
With the recent downfall of FTX we know that this is indeed an accurate characterization of some developments in the world of crypto, but others argue that this just proves the true potentials of blockchain technology have yet to be tapped. Another user in the subreddit debate conveys this with respect to the capabilities of NFTs:
“an NFT is really just any data stored on a blockchain that isn’t interchangeable with the other items on it (in the way that one bitcoin can be interchanged with any other bitcoin, because they’re all the same as each other). That means that NFTs could conceivably be used not just for securely keeping track of ownership, but generally for issuing records that can’t be forged or modified, or (along with smart contracts) exchanging data between two parties when the terms of an agreement are fulfilled. We can do those things without trusting a third party – or really, trusting anything except math – and without centralizing authority in the hands of a bureaucracy which might become inefficient, abusive of its power, or corrupt. A large part of solarpunk is the smart and responsible application of technology to improve our lives, and if blockchains were applied properly, they have the potential to legitimize and strengthen the sort of bottom-up social relations that, to me, are vital to the successful implementation of solarpunk ideals.” It is presumably this capacity to cut out third parties (i.e. banks, governments, etc.) and the centralizing power such entities currently enjoy that makes crypto, as O’Leary suggests, an “extreme form of sci-fi” by providing the “tools to make that future possible.”
Blockchain technology, as this user points out, enables peer-to-peer transactions that could provide bottom-up, grassroots movements an economic alternative to the state-mediated systems currently in place. This potential of decentralization is presumably what O’Leary means when she describes crypto as an extreme form of sci-fi, one that provides a vision and the tools to realize it. Unfortunately this potential is hampered by another widely celebrated feature of the blockchain—transparency, the expectation being that public access to transactions will mitigate corruption, or at least make it easy to spot when it does take place. But if we recall the central concern of cypherpunks—privacy—then we might rightly hesitate to celebrate a technology that exposes our transactions to prying eyes. Indeed, this is O’Leary’s main concern, for while many in the Global North might look upon the insistence for privacy with suspicion, those who have faced state-sanctioned oppression know better. That O’Leary knows better becomes evident in another article in which she compares the lunarpunk insistence on encryption with the guerilla style warfare of the Irish during their recent revolutionary period:
“Fighters lacked weapons, but the people and rugged landscape protected them. The new warfare favored hit-and-run tactics and disrupting enemy intelligence. It was the dawn of modern guerrilla tactics – and it won Ireland its independence. These guerilla tactics are no longer feasible today. Modern surveillance technologies and automated weaponry have turned the world that we inhabit into a desert with no protective cover. Resistance fighters are easy targets.”
Transparency, for O’Leary, is like the first iteration of the Irish revolution—when Irish fighters tried to overcome colonial rule by occupying the most public outposts of their territory. But being so conspicuous backfired when the British army arrived and closed-in, catalyzing the recourse to guerilla tactics. Today’s mass surveillance is a similar development. Those solarpunks who, having recognized the emancipatory potential of crypto, opt to join forces with popular blockchains like Ethereum and Bitcoin, put themselves at risk when—in the near future—state regulation sweeps in and transparency backfires. O’Leary and others in the DarkFi movement refer to the latter development—state-based crypto regulation—as “the coming storm,” and position lunarpunk as a revolutionary countermeasure. As she writes, “lunarpunk is a guerrilla movement committed to establishing a digital forest in cypherspace using tools like encryption that its fighters can recede into.”
“Lunarpunk’s believe freedom can only be found outside the logic of domination. This means lunar society must completely decouple itself from the current paradigm. As such the lunarpunk future is born from a conflict that solarpunks seek to avoid.
This solarpunk repression is its weakest point. Solarpunk cannot build the vision it projects if it has already integrated the oppression that it hopes to break away from. By favoring transparency in its systems, solarpunk is tragically engineering its fate. Surveillance – the mechanism of authoritarianism – is bound to the solarpunk destiny.
For solarpunk to succeed it must integrate the lunarpunk unconscious. The only hope for solarpunk is to go dark.”
Just as many in the solarpunk movement reject crypto altogether, many might also take issue with the claim that solarpunk has “integrated the oppression it hopes to break away from.” This may not be true of the movement broadly speaking, but it is an unfortunate fact that the greenwashing powers of capitalism have already made inroads into solarpunk aesthetically. The short film “Dear Alice,” a Miyazaki-inspired animation, is a case in point because it doubles as an advertisement for the Greek yogurt company Chobani. The product placement is truly cringe in an otherwise diverse, utopian vision of a solarpunk future. The presence of a decommodified version of the animation on YouTube and a thread discussing the advertisement on the solarpunk subreddit are enough to show that many in the movement do not wish to capitulate to the powers that be.
As O’Leary understands it, the darkness of lunarpunk refers not only to the cover of anonymity, but also the willingness to look into the dark—to accept uncomfortable truths. For lunarpunks this means embracing the fact that we are living in the midst of a dying empire—a phase of decline which typically features an intensified effort of the state to exert control over citizens—hence the unwillingness to reform. And like fungi in the midst of this decay, the lunarpunks of DarkFi are generating an anonymity-focused layer 1 (foundational) blockchain in hopes of fostering a decentralized economy that could unite a patchwork federation of anarchist communities around the globe. Herein lies another important feature of lunarpunk: the recognition that—out of death—new life can emerge. And whereas solarpunk especially emphasizes a compassionate perception of humanity as a whole (including the future of our species), lunarpunks insist on the integral role each individual plays in the moral drama of history. Up until this point a question may have been hovering in the mind of the reader: “But isn’t anonymity a potential hazard? Won’t it incentivize and facilitate criminal behavior?” Justin Murphy posed this question to O’Leary during a dialogue the two had on the zero-knowledge crypto-anarchy of DarkFi; her response conveys the spirituality that undergirds true anarchy when understood as an ethical form that arises spontaneously from the human heart when we have had the chance to grow into virtue rather than be coerced to imitate it:
“I don’t think anonymity is necessarily a catalyst for bad things, and I also have optimism and faith in people, and I don’t think we need to persecute everyone with this invasive surveillance in order to protect us. No, I believe that people can live ethically and that their ethics should come from themselves and not be imposed on them… let the people do their things, fulfill their destinies—let that arise from them organically, as it should, in the spirit of affirmation.”
By insisting on the negative freedom that cryptography provides (freedom from prying eyes and coercion), it might seem like lunarpunks prize technological fixes over the cultivation of inner freedom and virtue. But the convictions O’Leary expresses above convey the exact opposite. The negative freedom of privacy becomes necessary in our technologically mediated world so as to carve out enclaves where the positive freedom of affirmation can flourish organically. One might discern echoes of Nietzche’s yea-saying here. Cryptography can support the latter, but true virtue can only arise out of individual self-transformation. No technology—no matter how sophisticated—can achieve this for us. Such transformation is the spiritual basis of ethical anarchy. If solarpunk steers science and technology away from the alienated and hubristic ends of cyberpunk, lunarpunk rounds off by reminding us that the key to a future of mutual flourishing ultimately lies within.
“Yet, we should also demand the light, the transparent fullness of solarpunk optimism. This is how I imagine a perfect synthesis of solar- and lunarpunk. A transparent society of utopic quality (demand nothing less) protected by a vigilant darkness. Without the light what is there to protect anyway? We should never give up the sun to the state.”
Amen—we should never give up the Sun to the state, for the transparent light of surveillance is only a counterfeit of the true, life-giving light of our star. Dylan-Ennis’ vision of synthesis and O’Leary’s Jungian call for solarpunk to “integrate the lunarpunk unconscious,” are—in my perspective—contemporary intimations of the ancient Pythagorean understanding of the cosmos as a harmonic order. But this harmonic order is not something that is merely given, rather, it is something human beings must participate in if we wish to keep the music of the universal process going. The bare attempt to discern the distinct archetypal character of Sun and Moon at work in these subgenres and the relation that inheres between them is an exercise in this cosmic participation, this renewal of cosmic spirituality. If, in the constraints of this post, we take the light of optimism, the primacy of Life, and the perception of an underlying wholeness to convey the essence of solarpunk, lunarpunk bodies forth the inverse: a familiarity with darkness that wisely guides the light of optimism, a sober recognition that the mystery of Life is ineluctably bound up with the mystery of Death (including the death of empires), and—alongside the light-filled perception of wholeness—an equal respect for difference, for the multeity at work in this harmonic unity we call our cosmos. Whereas the Sun, shining on all below irrespective of differences, occupies the daytime sky alone, the Moon shares the vault of heaven with other planets and a countless host of starry worlds. Contemplating this great celestial diversity, we are filled with awe, perhaps terror—or maybe even a bit of both. Just as the Sun can shed light on what it means to be human and guide our aspirations for the future, so too can the Moon. Unless (or until!) we discover humanoid beings elsewhere in the universe, we ought to measure our essence in close connection with the planet which hosts us: Earth. We are not just on the Earth, but are brought forth through the dynamism of its being. But the Earth would not be what it is if it were not simultaneously dancing with the Sun and the Moon. The three celestial bodies constitute a whole in the form of a tri-unity, with Earth harmonizing the polar extremes of Sun and Moon. Unlike the irresolvable negation of contradiction—the stasis of binary opposition—the tri-unity is a dynamic, ever-evolving harmony that recapitulates itself at all scales throughout the cosmos. In a similar vein, BrightFlame speaks of the “nonbinary nature” of solar and lunarpunk, describing their connection “as varied and changeable, not fixed like a molecular bond,” that they “don’t just touch one another, they overlap.” Her characterization is reminiscent of how many have described the Chinese yin-yang which features an interpenetration of light and darkness, one that is more suggestive of a dynamic tri-unity than a static, binary opposition.
The same intuition of threefoldness manifests itself in the Celtic triquetra. Indeed, a trinity in some shape or form shows up in the symbol systems of many ancient cultures across the globe, a fact which may be taken to suggest that the harmony of three was an obvious feature of the natural world for our ancestors. But between now and then our thinking—especially when it comes to number—has become woefully abstract. The emergence of lunarpunk in wake of solarpunk bespeaks the potential each imaginary has for overcoming this abstractness through a reattunement the meaningfulness of the more-than-human world. That this is already happening is evident in the sequence of their articulation: given that we are beings of the Earth—cradled between the weaving of Sun and Moon—it was inevitable that a genre inspired by the light of day would be followed by the darkness of night. The two constitute a polarity, a rhythm—a dynamic relationship undergirded unity (i.e. harmony). Aesthetic sensitivity to the natural world expresses itself as a creative continuation of this polar rhythm. We see this in the first characterizations of both genres, but particularly in the effort to articulate the essence of lunarpunk always in relation to solarpunk. As Justine Norton-Kertson writes, “Lunarpunk is to Solarpunk as flowers are to fungi”—a very apt transposition of this polarity, for most flowers do open to greet the daylight, whereas mushrooms tend to thrive in the damp breath of shadows.
If cyberpunk serves to warn us of the destructive potential that human hubris writ large spells for the future, solar and lunarpunk—taken together—enjoin human beings to become capable of comprehending the speaking world once more. This renewal of cosmic spirituality is what we need to offset the damage that has been and will continue to be wrought by technologies concocted by alienated anthropocentrism. Only a spirituality that flows from a recognition of our cosmic context will know how to wield the power of technology responsibly. Though we cannot separate solar and lunarpunk, we can and must distinguish them to better understand the task ahead. Sol ignites the salvific light of optimism, reattunes science and technology to the primacy of Life, and perceives the wholeness of humanity and the Earth community; Luna reminds us that we’re already in the midst of a dystopian cyberpunk story, that we can skillfully negotiate the decay of empire by receding into the dark forest of a parallel cypherspace-economy, and that this technology can help to safeguard the freedoms necessary, though not sufficient for, human actualization. Most of all, Luna reminds us that the latter—the actualization of human potential—can only be achieved at the individual level as we each work inwardly to transform ourselves into ethical beings who are capable of partaking in the spiritual anarchy of the future by striving to live up to it in the present.
Ashton K. Arnoldy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies; his dissertation is focused on the evolution of consciousness as presented by Owen Barfield. Ashton doubles as Aʅʂσ Kɳσɯɳ Aʂ, a multimedia avatar dedicated to fostering anthropogenesis and cosmological orientation. For more, check out the multimedia lunarpunk series Lunar Return, the blog/podcast MicroKosm, and the weekly Calendar of the Soul livestream.
How many genres does it take to change a light bulb . . . from incandescent to LED? That is, from authoritarian, individualistic, power-over, capitalist tropes to regenerative, interconnected, just, collaborative ones. (Pardon the cliché.)
My thoughts about solarpunk and lunarpunk continue to evolve, just like the amorphous container of each vibe/genre/aesthetic/movement (abbreviated as vibe in this essay). Here are my musings of the moment (February 2023).
Jay Springett, a consultant strategist and writer, gave a very interesting presentation about solarpunk. Key takeaways for me: solarpunk is a growing container where gravity pulls some core, mutually understood concepts towards the center, and ideas around the edges are more blurred and in flux—this, by design. It’s an aesthetic of many voices; as such, solarpunks can speak only for themselves, not the movement as a whole.
Jay says in the presentation, “solarpunk asks: What if we together, collectively, create a container that can be used by anyone to place their ideas about the future inside. And what sort of stories would that container with the things it contains, create?”
I love the image Jay creates of the solarpunk container, which he deems a memetic engine that re-futures participants’ imaginations—an engine for producing ideas about the future. In other words, the container holding various inputs becomes an idea-generator, which inspires more inputs to the container and continually reshapes it. Here is my doodle of such a container.
Though the container is more a shapeshifting amoeba than round, and its edges are permeable so ideas flow in and out. Note that the ideas in my graphic are examples to show the form, not an attempt to capture the state of solarpunk or the ideas drifting around the container at the moment.
In his essay “Solarpunk: A Container for More Fertile Futures,” Jay says “solarpunk is defined by the ideas it produces, not by the container itself.” Yet to me, it’s both the mechanics of the container—a shapeshifting, dynamic engine—plus the generated ideas, which become fuel for more ideas.
How does lunarpunk fit?
In early 2022, I wrote that lunarpunk is the way in which we understand the Earth as sacred—how this turns into a lifestyle and a spiritual form. And that lunarpunk expresses its magical and spiritual side more readily than solarpunk.
I also created this graphic early last year:
As I write this essay nearly a year later, the above no longer adequately captures lunarpunk.
How they combine in me
I jumped into solarpunk several years back because the vibe describes my path and my life’s work. I write, teach, create, and act for justice and a regenerative world. Thus, solarpunk.
Yet, I also make magic for justice and a regenerative world. As a Witch, I sense and shape energy. I talk with nonhumans like trees and mycorrhizae. I explore the Web of Life. Much of my teaching and writing helps humans feel their connection with the Earth and develop de-centered relationships with Earth kin. I lift different ways of knowing. So, lunarpunk.
Perhaps solarpunk is my activist side and lunarpunk is my magical side and my connection with the Web of Life.
But I don’t like binaries.
The alchemy of solarpunk and lunarpunk
Solarpunk and lunarpunk, to me, are not a binary and not opposites. Besides, binary thinking is a characteristic of authoritarianism, white supremacy, and religious dogma: it doesn’t fit with a solarpunk or lunarpunk vibe. We stay clear of binaries in my spiritual tradition (the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft), recognizing that there are at least three options or paths in any situation.
In any event, I would argue solarpunk and lunarpunk are not separable. Yet I hesitate writing inseparable, which brings to mind an image of two atoms linked in a static way to form a molecule (like CO, carbon monoxide). Since lunarpunk and solarpunk are amorphous, their connection is varied and changeable, not fixed like a molecular bond.
Furthermore, solarpunk and lunarpunk don’t just touch one another, they overlap. But to what extent? Does it depend on the context, the particular example?
Or is lunarpunk totally within solarpunk like a starfish in a tidal pool? Perhaps like mitochondria within a cell, lunarpunk energizes solarpunk. Or is it the reverse, and solarpunk is subsumed in lunarpunk like humans are part of Nature.
Does the vibe change more to lunarpunk or more to solarpunk depending on what is highlighted in the amorphous shape?
Perhaps lunarpunk and solarpunk totally overlap, neither a subset of the other.
Then what about as an art aesthetic, you might ask. Some say that solarpunk displays vivid and bright colors like in daylight, and lunarpunk displays shadow and bioluminescence like nighttime and underwater. To me, these highlight different areas of the form like my spotlit amoeba doodles, above. The aesthetics are connected—we can’t have shadow without light or brightness without dimness.
As a genre, lunarpunk might be an apt term for stories that tend towards fantasy. Yet is any literary work lunarpunk without being solarpunk? What of a story with no technology, yet all about creating just and regenerative culture? To me, that is still solarpunk highlighting a particular part of the amoebic container.
When I include communication between humans and non-human Earth kin, I’m not writing the fantastical, I’m writing of different ways of knowing. When I write of sensing and shaping energy—universal life force that flows through all creatures of Earth—it’s not fantasy. (See my stories “Myco Macro” and “Maybe We Are All Witches” as examples.) My manuscript about a coven thwarting those who harm the Web of Life contains the kind of magic and workings we Reclaiming Witches practice, including working in the astral realm. All of these works might be called lunarpunk. And they are also solarpunk.
What to call the combined vibes
I feel that solarpunk and lunarpunk are not two different vibes—they are one. For example, non-Western/non-dominant ways of knowing are as integral to solarpunk as lunarpunk. Solarpunk is enlivened by the sacred, by spirituality, not separate from it. Lunarpunk is as much about creating a just, regenerative, bright future as solarpunk. As much about cooperative, mutual, fossil-free societies as solarpunk. Interdependence and communication among the Web of Life are central to both.
I admit: I cringe when folx call solarpunk and lunarpunk opposites. I think this is because I want a vibrant, dynamic container. One that is the most pluralistic and feeds the “uncommons,” as Navarre described in his introduction to this blog series.
Just as mycorrhizae and trees combine as a regenerative forest, lunarpunk and solarpunk form a whole. Take either away and you destroy the forest.
If we erect borders in the forest to define lunarpunk versus solarpunk, the forest is less interconnected and dynamic, less able to thrive. Yet, at any given moment we interact with a different part of the forest, thus changing how we express the vibe.
If we separate lunarpunk from the amorphous, pluralistic solarpunk memetic engine, the container becomes less rich, the engine has less fuel.
What would I call lunarpunk and solarpunk combined? Perhaps just solarpunk.
How many genres does it take to change that lightbulb?
One amorphous, evolving genre or vibe.
BrightFlame (she/they) writes, teaches, and makes magic in service to a just, regenerating world. Her short- and long-form speculative fiction tend towards solarpunk/lunarpunk, including in Solarpunk Magazine Issue 6, in Bioluminescent (Android Press, January 2023), and in a forthcoming solarpunk anthology. She’s known for her teaching in the worldwide pagan community and is affiliated with a sustainability education center at Columbia University that features her workshops and nonfiction. She lives on Lenape territory (Turtle Island) with a human, a forest, a labyrinth, hawks, bees, ponds, turtles, monarda, fox, fungi, rocks, and many other nonhumans. Find her writing and doodles at http://brightflame.com, @BrtFlame on Twitter (if it’s still there), and @BrightFlame@wandering.shop.
Seeds for the Swarm by Sim Kern takes us on a journey of the near future where warming has continued and much of the United States is now barely habitable. People from the “Dust States” try to emigrate through a tightly-controlled border to the “Lush States” or muddle through with that rugged individualism we take so much pride in here in the United States.
This feels like a very likely future with continued exploitation of oil and corporate/government collusion leading to huge sacrifice zones where people work hard in polluting industries that are choking their communities so they can put food on the table for their families. Rylla, our protagonist, wants desperately to go to college, but doesn’t have much hope of getting out of the Dust States even though she’s in the top of her nationwide virtual high school.
When she finds out the oil company in her hometown plans to destroy the watershed that provides what meager water is available to her region and is the last thing to give her hope, she gets a ride to speak to the state legislature committee in charge. Despite an impassioned speech, her entreaties fall on distracted ears beholden to corporate overlords and gadget addictions. One viral, embarrassing remix of her speech later, she gets recruited as a scholarship student at a university in the Lush States.
Starting with her interaction with the elected representatives, Rylla does a lot of growing up in the course of this book. It felt like Kern took everything I learned during the course of my twenties and made Rylla face these hard truths all in the course of a single year. During her many misadventures, I identified with Rylla’s tendency to get swept up in the ideology of the groups she would spend time with before becoming disillusioned when she found they didn’t have the answers she needed.
This future has glimmers of hope, but the carcass of our current world is still the dominant society. While there are a variety of themes explored, I think the most important is how the protagonists push against eco-fascism being the only solution to solving the climate crisis regardless of who is promoting it. I think it really fits into what Andrew Dana Hudson said when he was interviewed by Solarpunk Magazine:
a solarpunk future is one in which the climate crisis is escalating, institutions are failing, late capitalism is getting even more precarious and putrid, and while technologies of sustainability might be becoming ubiquitous, we haven’t yet managed to fully phase out the toxic old for the green new. It’s a future (slash present!!) in which we need a movement of solarpunks to shove us onto a better path
Our Shared Storm: An Interview with Andrew Dana Hudson
As someone who is an engineer, I really love the interactions between Rylla, a humanities major, and all of her engineering/scientist friends. They’re preoccupied with how to get their projects to work the way they want them to without necessarily thinking about what secondary or tertiary effects the technology might have on the world. They are often dismissive of Rylla’s legitimate concerns and only later realize that she was right in being worried. The Ian Malcolm quote from Jurassic Park comes to mind of “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Rylla’s other main companions are her fellow humanities majors including her previous public school rival from another Dust State and her nonbinary roommate who literally smashes the patriarchy. As one might expect, it’s up to Rylla to join the forces of science and the humanities to defeat the eco-fascist Big Bad at the end of the book. I do feel like this book is a little better about explaining why the kids have to be so instrumental in saving the day compared to most other YA novels where it seems the adults just really needed to go on vacation that week.
There are plenty of mishaps, victories, death, and embarrassments to go around in this story, making it a solid entry into the YA genre. I could’ve done without the love triangle, but I know that’s a hard trope to kill. Rylla and the other characters feel like real, messy humans who are doing their best to make it in an imperfectly hopeful world.
We’ve talked about solarpunk, lunarpunk, and tidalpunk a great deal here, and one question I hear repeated is whether we need three different subgenres or if there are sharp distinctions between them at all. For me, solarpunk, lunarpunk, and tidalpunk each embody the same values of ecology and equity while expressing them in their own way. They are parts of an ecosystem and reliant on each other.
When I found solarpunk, I loved how the movement embraced both the scientific and the spiritual. Neither one was superior. They both informed the other to come to a greater understanding of the world around us and how to make it a better place. Science without spirituality* becomes the fuel for cold, capitalistic domination of nature, and spirituality without science can lead to superstition and bigotry. When we combine both, we get something that’s better than the sum of its parts.
Lunarpunk foregrounds spirituality and the inner work we do to build a better world. Solarpunk focuses on the application of societal arrangements and appropriate technology to approach the climate crisis. Tidalpunk reminds us that while we might inhabit every corner of the land, three quarters of the Earth’s surface is simultaneously alien and the home we left behind.
Because one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, solarpunk is sometimes described as optopia: “the best possible place we can create given the circumstances.” One way we do this is by working together to cover for each other’s weaknesses and to enhance each other’s strengths. Pluralism, or everyone having their own perspective respected even when in contradiction, is something I feel is critical for solarpunks. Marisol de la Cadena goes further with the concept of uncommons, wherein “participant entities may become into commonality without becoming the same.”
In the spirit of uncommons, this year we’ll have several contributors presenting their own experiences with solarpunk/lunarpunk and the spiritual. As we present this series, keep in mind that we will not be encompassing all possible ways of how spirituality interacts with solarpunk, lunarpunk, and tidalpunk, but rather our own small facets of a greater whole.
* I’m defining spirituality here as all the squishy and difficult to define things that make us human. This includes the paths followed by atheists, pagans, Abrahamists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and everybody else.