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Degrowing Towards a Solarpunk Future

In the movie adaptation of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One,” directed by Steven Spielberg, humans retreat into the virtual world called the ‘The Oasis’ to escape environmental and social decay. In the real world, people live in stacked trailer homes in an urban slum setting as they compete to win ownership of the (virtual) reality— a depiction of a cyberpunk future that is grim and harsh. Interestingly, a company called Futureverse is working with Warner Bros to make a game come to life in the metaverse world. This illustrates how speculative fiction influences the work of our thinkers today.

by: Jaap Buitendijk and Warner Bros. Pictures
by: Jaap Buitendijk and Warner Bros. Pictures

In this data visualization from Dystopia-Utopia, our cinematic landscape is saturated with dystopian films. This significant disparity begs the question: why are dystopian nightmares more prevalent than utopian paradises? Dystopian films reflect the anxieties and realities of our current capitalist society, making them more resonant to the contemporary audience. However, this focus on dystopia underutilizes the potential of filmmaking in showing eco-imaginaries that inspire hope and positivity.

In contrast, the portrayal of Wakanda in “Black Panther” presents a utopian vision where humans coexist with nature and technology harmoniously. Wakanda embodies the ethos of solarpunk—an aesthetic and a movement recognized by artists, ur​​ban theorists, and environmentalists for its optimistic ideas for the future.

What is in a solarpunk future?

In a How We Can Make Solarpunk A Reality video by Andrewism, he looks forward to a solarpunk future with bamboo as strong as steel, medicines in the form of fruits and vegetables, and bioluminescent trees that light up our streets, among many interesting ideas. Personally, my favorite depiction of a solarpunk world is from a yogurt commercial:

In the video, we can see the protagonist living on a high-tech farm. She has renewable energy systems, a robot fruit picker, and even a mechanical scarecrow. The video ends with her sharing the harvest at the table with other people. This scene is the hallmark of the solarpunk movement — communal interdependence. In Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto, Adam Flynn writes:

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. Our future must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.

The Garden City by: Ebenezer Howard
The Garden City by: Ebenezer Howard

Almere: A Solarpunk City

Almere, the youngest city in the Netherlands, is known for its Garden City movement.  The Garden City is one of Ebenezer Howard’s utopian city visions. A distinctive feature of urban planning in Almere is its commitment to giving residents greater freedom to design their own homes. As a relatively new city, this freedom to design homes is important as it disrupts the monotony of cookie-cutter houses in the Netherlands. A garden city, as shown in the map above, contains elements of accessible greenery, particularly parks and farms. This solarpunk aesthetic is something that Almere is attempting to achieve. Moving beyond the traditional ‘garden city’ model, Almere aims to amplify the processes of nature, creating life-supporting urban habitats for people and other living things by becoming a ‘green city’ by 2040.

Solarpunk and Degrowth

Solarpunk, at its core, embraces a degrowth ideology where it carries principles of decentralization and egalitarianism, with a focus on well-being. Degrowth steers away from the GDP-centric economic models:

Profit → Sustainability
Productivity → Well-being

Degrowth is the transition period between growth and a steady-state economy.

In a solarpunk world where community is at the core, degrowth is pursued democratically. To better understand which practices to scale down and abandon, there is an immense necessity for a well-planned contraction of economic activities to foster a truly sustainable and just degrowth transition. This means that policy—how it is defined, implemented, and assessed—is co-created by the communities. Although one might argue that degrowth and solarpunk seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding technology usage, it’s important to recognize that they are not fundamentally opposed to each other; rather, they are two peas in a pod, both striving for sustainable use of technology. While solarpunk indeed embraces advanced technologies to improve ecological and social conditions, it also promotes their use in ways that align with degrowth principles, emphasizing DIY practices for circularity.

The ‘punk’ in solarpunk

The ‘punk’ in solarpunk goes beyond its aesthetic; it is a resistance towards the capitalist reality. From an ‘eco-imaginary’ to an active, participatory movement, common expressions of solarpunk include guerilla gardening (i.e. seed bombing), DIY tech, and autonomous gardening. Solarpunk as a movement creates a practical starting point for degrowth at a grassroots level. Solarpunk as an eco-imaginary, on the other hand, allows for the visualization of the promising possibilities of humanity to create (and degrow into) a sustainable and equitable future.

For many dystopian films, there is a (somehow) persisting formula:

Governments/masses don’t listen to scientists/masses → Chaos ensues → Conflict and struggle

But, what if we change the formula and create a scenic starting point? Although there is value in the dystopian narrative, as it shows the pitfalls of poor planning, how can we shift to more hopeful narratives that illustrate the promising possibilities of (effective) futures planning?

However, as we contemplate transitioning to more hopeful narratives, we’re reminded of Jodi Dean‘s insight in her 2019 essay for the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, because capitalism is the end of the world.’

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

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