Solarpunk: Diverging Paths And Where We Go From Here
Solarpunk as a concept has many ideas, some will lead to liberatory egalitarian societies, others will copy the old ideas and create a stratified technofudalist world. What will we choose?
Solarpunk as an idea, a literary genre, an aesthetic, and a movement is relatively still small, new, and still starting to build out a cohesive idea of what exactly it is. But as things grow so do the ideas and ideals that flock to the ideas of a greener, more hopeful future. From being involved with the community and looking out and observing the landscape, we are starting to see distinct approaches and ideas revolving around what solarpunk is, and different approaches and tactics to build a better world. But what does building a better world really mean? One person's utopia, take for instance billionaire Peter Theil’s utopia would look like absolute hell to most people. We have to look at the means, the ends, the goals of what people want to achieve, and if those goals and methods are detrimental to - or counter to - the ideas central to solarpunk.
In general, there are two large paths growing in the community at the moment.
People who view solarpunk as a fundamental questioning of our current systems of capitalism, hierarchy, domination, and exploitation - who seek to live in a world where we face climate change head on. By stopping the use of fossil fuels and moving to renewable energy. While also questioning methods of growth, and the exploitation that would require a perpetually growing renewable energy society, instead focusing on justice for all people. In general, building an egalitarian, horizontal society that moves away from old systems of oppression and attempts to live in symbiosis with the planet.
People who view solarpunk as an aesthetic vehicle to move away from the current monetary system and to attempt to create markets and systems that are detached from nation-states. To use alternative currencies and markets to directly fund projects, those funds never being able to be stopped by state regulation or interference. Some with more socialist views may use cryptocurrencies as a method of exchange, and create a universal basic income based in these tokens. With the goal of decoupling society from current monetary systems and either using a market to address needs, or using tokens as a means of exchange between people.
One of these will lead to a fundamentally different world. Power and social dynamics, gender norms, and how we interact with each other and the planet being at the center of the social change needed to reach a post-capitalist future. Moving away from market based economies to a post-scarcity world based in mutual aid, and symbiosis with nature.
The other will continue the baseline structure that capitalism uses as a method of exploitation. That is markets and currency exchange. Those with already existing money entering into these markets can manipulate their way into controlling them. The actions of the economy only replacing fiat currency with cryptocurrency. The social inequity and issues we face now not addressed, but managed by market forces. Greener futures may be built by those who control the supply of tokens, which will lead to a stratified society of those who have the means, and those who are able to build better places for themselves, at the exclusion of others. The economic system requiring massively inefficient systems to run blockchain technology, even if they run off renewables, there is always a price for constant growth. And a social cost that will more than likely be ignored by market forces like it is today.
You may be thinking that assertion is harsh but I want to show how, cryptocurrencies are counterintuitive to building a better world. At best they might lead to a green growth neoliberal society where renewables are used, and climate change is met with economic forces. At worst, it will lead to a technofudalist society, where those who accumulate wealth are able to make kingdoms of their own, becoming defacto states, while also not changing the foundations of the social and political inequities we have in our world today.
Why a future based on cryptocurrencies will not be equal
There are inequities that are ingrained in currencies and monetary markets that carry over into cryptocurrencies. In an article I wrote for Solarpunk Magazine about NFT’s and solarpunk, I go into some detail about this, but I want to go deeper into those arguments. My core argument is this:
Cryptocurrencies (and fiat currencies and markets) will always create inequity and will always create negative hierarchical systems.
That is because the way that money and market systems function necessitate people to accumulate wealth, to exploit labor, to exploit resources, and to create power imbalances for the markets to work. Capitalist markets rely on central state intervention to work by interrupting changes in the markets, or ensuring that the capital system can never be exploited or stopped. There also needs to be some kind of enforcement of regulatory laws and a system to make sure that the markets keep operating. Where you see money, you see states, and where you see states you see police and law systems, in order for capital systems to keep running, violence has to be used.
Using an example, let’s look at a group operating in capitalist systems but entirely outside of the law. Drug dealers, narco traffickers, and the people who buy and sell drugs and chemicals deal in an essentially free capitalist market. In order to ensure their business transactions continue - the organizations need to maintain their production, distribution, and sale of their goods to the market of people who want to buy what they are selling. Drug gangs fight over territory, which is determined between the gangs and agreed upon. If one gang enters the territory of another, then violence will be used. Men with guns will show up, and do harm to someone because of these boundaries. With the main goal being profit, the lives of the users of the drugs they sell are not taken into account. The destruction of addiction does not matter, the death that the substances cause does not matter. Because the goal is to accrue profit, for the organization investors who took a risk in starting and maintaining the operation, and who act as shareholders require a return on their investment. At every level, the operation is maintained by the threat of death, and that men with guns will show up and kill anyone threatening shareholder value and the profits that the organization worked so hard to create.
Now let’s look at a corporation working within the laws in a capitalist system. Corporations, business owners, and the people who buy and sell goods deal in an essentially free market. In order to ensure their business transactions continue - the organizations need to maintain their production, distribution, and sale of their goods to the market of people who want to buy what they are selling. Corporations fight over market territory, which is determined by corporations and the government through regulation. If one corporation entered the territory of another then lawsuits will be filed, and if found guilty, the guilty party will be met by men with guns (the police). With the main goal being profit, the lives that are destroyed by polluting the planet, and enforcing legal contracts through the police, the lives of people are not taken into account. The destruction of capitalism does not matter, the death that capitalism creates does not matter. Because the goal is to accrue profit, for the organization investors who took a risk in starting and maintaining the operation, who act as shareholders require a return on their investment. At every level, the operation is maintained by the threat of legal retaliation, which is just a fancier way to say that men with guns will show up and imprison or murder anyone threatening shareholder value and the profits that the organization worked so hard to create.
At all levels of capitalism, both illlegal and legal, is the explicit threat of violence. Either from a legal state apparatus, or by the people directly involved. The entire system hinges on the threat of violence.
With that being said, if we want to live in a better future, do we really want to copy these systems of violence, and use them as a basis of building a better world?
Dissecting how money works we can look into the ways that it relies on exploitation, hierarchy and domination, even in so called “free markets”. Let’s start from two starting points, one that starts with us moving from fiat currency into cryptocurrency, and another that abolishes fiat currency and starts everyone with a flat rate of cryptocurrency.
Transitioning from fiat to crypto economies but never addressing core problems
In this scenario, we have defeated central banking by making cryptocurrencies the dominant currency mechanism. You wake up and say “gm” while payment processors fold under their inability to turn a profit because people are just exchanging their tokens with each other. Rapid inflation ceases because the money supply is kept stable by artificially changing the amount of currency in the market, because digital currencies don’t have to work like fiat money. We now have people, businesses, and DAOs exchanging freely with various tokens and chains. Smart contracts on various blockchains now hold private information and laws. Any interactions in the economy are automatically cross-referenced with the smart contracts & the chains and determined to be valid or invalid. Artists can sell their one-of-a-kind art, which can be traded and the artists can profit each time that art is traded. You can buy and sell anything you want!
But how do people move from fiat currency into crypto? Well it was gradual, the people who were smart and moved their investments into crypto early on, now see exponential growth in their earnings. They bought low and bought early. Meanwhile, the other population didn’t do that, they didn’t buy early and are not trying to get in while the market is hot, while crypto is on top. They were NGMI from the start because they made the wrong decision not to invest. It was their fault.
In order to make sure fraud doesn’t take place, we need authorities who watch the markets and also manage trades. These trading DAOs buy and sell on the market with exchanges, and everyone who invested in tokens who get bought and sold makes a profit. But what if someone physically steals an authentication USB or the physical card that people use to authenticate to the market? Well, security DAOs are created to ensure that investors can maintain security and physically retrieve their stolen yubi keys. Once you pay a security subscription, you get access to the security DAO, and with proof of liquidity, the more $SECUR tokens you have, the more of a vote you have with the DAO!
Looking at this situation, you can see the same inequities in today’s capitalism as you might see in a (slightly exaggerated) example. The individualistic idea that it’s peoples own fault for not interacting with the system, for not investing, for not having the money to invest. That’s the reason why they failed. The stock exchanges and hedge funds just renamed something else. The police and state violence is instead of being a police union, is a DAO where police officers can vote how the union runs by determining how many tokens each one of them has.
This future would fundamentally ignore the fact that only those with existing wealth, or who took loans to get the wealth, would have an advantage in the market. Because they had money upfront, they then could liquidate their assets and move things over from fiat to crypto. Sure proof of work was phased out because of environmental issues, now with proof of stake you have a pay-to-play system where those at the top of the economic ladder now have a giant advantage. Their token values call the shots, they determine how the market goes, they determine what laws are made, they determine how the society runs because they have the most liquidity. Because their holdings can buy the factories, the businesses, the means to make more tokens. To trade for more tokens or buy the raw computing power needed to mine digital tokens. What difference would this be from how the systems currently run?
Universal Basic Cryptocurrency Income
I personally see UBI as a transitionary path away from capitalism, into a more socialist system albeit, more of a social democratic system. But again, if we want to fundamentally change our social and political relations, just relying on UBI won’t get us there. UBI must be coupled with universal and free public services. Housing, healthcare, access to food and clean drinking water, communications, power, etc must be included alongside.
One thing that UBI does not address is the relationship between production & consumption, and the mechanisms of wage labor. Because the assumption is that people will still be working for a wage, supplemented with UBI. People will still be in the same market relations of those who work and produce capital, and those who own the means of production. Even if the means of production is owned by a worker’s state, there still is the core issue of wage labor, exploitation, and power dynamics that are inherent in capital systems. UBI is fine for a transitory path, but UBI should not mean the continuation of wage labor. All things should be universal basic rights, not just income.
So let’s continue with this situation of a UBI based in cryptocurrencies. There are some actual ways it would be useful. But we also have to ask some key questions. Why would we use cryptocurrencies over fiat currencies in a case where UBI was set?
Assuming it is a transition, there will be plenty of people who already have the cryptocurrencies, or the methods to produce more. So the same inequities are there. If we are talking about a complete restart of the financial system, expropriating cryptocurrencies and redistributing them, why would we want to deal with crypto over fiat currencies at that point, or currencies at all? If there is a push to redistribute wealth, why continue using the methods that lead to wealth inequality in the first place? Even if this wealth was redistributed by a “workers state” who cares if my new bosses are the “peoples party” if I still have to work to have access to meet my basic needs? Only the terms have changed at that point, when we are talking about these changes, we need real change, not shifts in definitions and terms.
My point here is even in say a socialist system that used cryptocurrencies as a means of exchange, there still would be the negative issues of markets involved with wage labor and inequities of exchange. If we did get rid of wage labor and market forces, there would be no need for cryptocurrencies or any currencies at all to be used. If the goal is to eliminate class, to eliminate domination, and unjust methods of hierarchy, then using money will not get us to that.
Green growth economies, inequitable climate transitions, and the burning amazon.
Another path would be what could be called “green growth” a term from The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism where a society acknowledges climate change, and the need to switch to an energy system based on renewable energy. But still keeps many of the market forces (currency, GDP as a measure of prosperity, market mechanisms). A green growth economy is one that many people advocate for, but don’t really think deeply into the underlying issues that are still present even though it might lead to a better world (for some but not all).
A green growth economy would still use GDP as a central measure of economic success, and would attempt to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies. At the core however would be the maintaining or growth of the economic system to maintain a status quo and still maintain all of the power and social dynamics, just with cleaner infrastructure. We can still see here, that a capitalist green growth scheme would make a positive impact in reducing emissions, but it would not address core social, economic, and political issues. It also would ignore a key component to sustaining growth: raw materials.
The global south would be plundered for the rare earth materials needed to sustain a green growth transition if capitalist mechanisms were still kept. That’s because capital doesn’t care about the people affected, only that there is a seemingly “fair” exchange of goods for currency. The global north countries may institute a crypto based UBI, and move to renewables to run blockchains and the technology we are used to, while the global south is extracted for more minerals and resources to fund this growth. Solar panels with silicon and aluminum, lithium batteries for storage that need to be mined in poor countries and extracted, all of these things have an impact that has been ignored in the name of “progress” and a movement toward a capitalist green economy.
There are others who propose using cryptocurrencies to fund transitions, like using cryptocurrency for permaculture farming and regenerative agriculture. At the moment, most crypto infrastructure is run off fossil fuels with a very small percentage being run off renewable energy. And so we are talking about using a very inefficient and resource-heavy method of currency exchange to fund ecological projects, while ignoring the fact that producing the currency and keeping the markets operating is destroying the planet. This starts to look like the carbon credit model, where people and corporations buy carbon credits so they can say they did something good, while still polluting the earth and using fossil fuels, adding to climate change that will eventually make regenerative ag useless in the face of total ecological destruction.
Any capitalist economy (either run off fiat or crypto-currencies) cannot be both green and equitable. Because the economic forces of currency and growth require constant expansion and constant extraction of not only minerals and raw materials from the earth, causing more ecological destruction. But also extracting labor from poor people, to make the system keep running efficiently. The problem is that capital forces a system to only care about extraction and growth rather than the real needs and concerns of people.
The Alternative: Ecological, Political, Social, and Technological Justice
If the goal is to make a better world where we enter into a symbiosis with the earth and ecology, where we survive climate change and possibly reverse some of the negative effects, where we fundamentally change our social and political relations to be more horizontal and equal, we have to walk on a different path.
We have to collectively question our methods and systems and ask hard questions about the realities of these things. Sure we could have a green energy transition, but we also need to ask where the materials will come from. Sure we can change our economic relations, but if we don’t address the social aspects of life, we won’t see real long-lasting change.
It starts with an acknowledgment that we are all equal. That we are also not above nature and the ecology of the world, but part of it. It starts by saying “enough” to systems that perpetuate social ills, and start building systems that can make us all more equal, happy, and together both with each other and the earth.
In a previous article: Solarpunk, Acid Communism, Capitalist Co-opting, and Learning From The Counterculture I talk about some core issues that I see that are central to some of the issues we have in society now.
All of these things are tied into each other, they feed off each other and they are all central to monetary markets, capitalism and market functions in order to survive.
If we want an alternative, our methods need to address these issues along with focusing not just on energy transitions, but system transitions, social transitions, and transitions toward equality.
Solarpunk: Transitions to a just, equal, ecological conception of the world.
There is a large contingent of people who are tired of solarpunk being associated with cryptocurrencies and capital, mainly because we see first hand that these things don’t address core issues, but act as a bandaid or even make things worse. Solarpunk as a genre has been pushing the speculative limits of what we imagine to be a better future. A better future that is free from oppression, domination, and violence towards each other and the earth. We get there with a combination of tactics, philosophies, ideas, and methods from across the world and combining them with art, literature and aesthetics to not just talk about the how, but to show people what a better future really might look like. Some of these ideas come from eco-anarchism, social ecology, communism, the degrowth movement, circular economies and resource-based economies, in general solarpunk has become and started to solidify into the aesthetic and speculative method of a combination of various leftist thoughts.
A society based in mutual aid, cooperation, equality and symbiosis should be our goal to addressing core issues in our lives. This requires us to change our social and economic relations to match those goals, which in turn would require abolishing currency, market mechanisms, and forms of domination. Moving away from constant and insatiable growth, into a model that recognizes symbiosis, limits and an understanding of ourselves and of nature. Everything we do has an impact, every innovation requires an input, so we have to think of everything that goes into our systems. Where do raw materials come from? Who is doing work? What would our lives look like without money? How does this impact the ecology? All of this needs to start being considered.
Starting at the baseline of all people being equal, we can see that everyone needs access to live their life. That means housing, healthcare, food, clean water, communications, energy, and a life of dignity and accessibility should be a basic human right given to all people. We should also balance that with the needs of nature and the ecology, by making sure everything we do is not detrimental to the earth, and wherever possible benefits the ecological landscape.
We ensure that all people have access to have their basic needs met by basing our relations off mutual aid. The understanding that we are all connected and need to rely on each other and the earth to live. It’s not enough to help yourself, we need to help us all. In abolishing money and market mechanisms we can leave the ideas of exchange behind. You don’t have to pay to live somewhere, because you are a fucking human being, and you deserve the right to live. Full stop. Period point blank.
We have to acknowledge that capitalism has robbed us of those rights, and said only those with money can have access. We have everything we need to house all people. So why don’t we? After removing the profit incentive we need a new incentive, a life prosperity incentive, to make sure everything that we do is beneficial, not harmful.
An equitable green transition means not just extracting everything we can to make solar panels, but questioning how we can generate the energy we need without profit being the main concern, and how we can do that in a way that is equitable to people and the earth. This means innovating new ways of power generation and appropriate technology. It means changing our conceptions of technology and innovation away from what will make the most money, and towards what will have the greatest human benefit and the least impact to the natural environment.
This might mean using more passive methods for energy generation, storage, for lighting, and for living, for heating, and cooling. These passive methods would cut down on the amount of rare earth minerals needed to make tech that can make these things run. We can change how we make homes and move away from lumber structures with concrete and sheet rock, all materials made dependent on fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Instead, we build with the earth making super adobe, or cobb homes, rammed earth buildings from the soil beneath us instead of extractive minerals that produce way more emissions. Instead of lighting our homes with electrical lights we could use passive skylights, light tubes to let in sunlight, or even bioluminescent algae or something like that. Heating can be passive by storing the heat from the sun into the thermal mass of earth homes, which emanates heat. Or fireplaces and stoves that use their vent pipes to emanate heat into the walls of homes, keeping them warm. There are ways to live a good life, with the modern comforts that those of us in the global north are used to, that arent based in extraction and exploitation. It takes a move from the cheap economy and lifestyles created by fossil fuel use, and towards methods that work with the earth and nature, that don’t require extraction.
Starting at the baseline of all people being equal, we change our social arrangements and our concepts of who we are and our relations with each other. Unjust hierarchies replaced with egalitarianism, where everyone has an equitable voice in everything. That does not mean that some ‘hierarchies’ may not exist, as an example of someone who has extensive construction knowledge leading construction projects. But these people would have to be democratically voted to lead, not just assumed because they are better than everyone else, but because their talents show they can handle the job, and that the people around them, agree to listen. Consent is the core of this, that all people consent to the lives they lead, and consent to all things. Sociocracy is a system that is a good starting point for this idea of a direct democracy. A social arrangement where all people must consent to changes, and any delegates are not strongmen or tyrants, but directly electable and recallable by the people. We find new and old ways of governing that don’t rely on domination, patriarchy, violence or hierarchy.
Starting at the baseline of all people being equal, and that we are also part of nature, we have to fundamentally rethink our interactions with waste streams, extraction, and production. Closed loop systems are used, with circular economies, and economies of reuse. Because profit is removed and human thriving is centered we can instead of focusing on what will make the most profit, choose what will have the biggest impact on people with the least ecological impact. We can create circular economies where everything is recyclable, repairable, and can be reused. We can agree democratically to use common standards of production so all parts can work with each other. When something breaks, it isn’t thrown away but fixed, reused or reworked into something else. We can understand extraction to not be based in extracting from the earth, but extracting from our own previous waste. We mine the landfills, the e-waste dumps, we mine the plastic floating in the ocean and use them as raw materials to make goods that can be used and reused, constantly stopping more waste from entering our environment. We can work with nature and come up with things like bioplastics, that work like plastics but are entirely natural and can breakdown or be reused. All of this attacks the notion of profit. Instead of what can make the most money, it should be what can be reused almost infinitely so the most amount of use is the central drive.
Starting at the baseline of all people being equal, we can transition now to a more equitable world by balancing the global north and the global south. By removing international loan debt. By fostering solidarity with the indigenous people who are fighting capitalist extraction that destroys their homelands. We can work together to stop capitalism and give alternative methods to living. We can make sure that the global south and those in poverty get wealth first, the extracted wealth returned to where they originally came from and those in poverty can live in dignity, with lives closer to the privilege we in the global north take for granted. That doesn’t mean that we rapidly industrialize countries, but we give power to the people to decide what they do with their lives. We focus on improving the wellbeing of all people, instead of improving GDP. We make sure that technological advances make their way to all people, especially those in poverty first, and specifically appropriate technologies that people consent to having, and not having it pushed on them. We can rebalance the inequity and give power back to all people.
How do we get a solarpunk future?
We do it by building our alternative systems within the existing system. Dual power and prefiguration are key, building the world you want to see now within the systems we currently have. But we can’t just stop at making everything a worker co-op and calling it a day. The real social and political changes need to happen to address actual issues. We need to make democratic, horizontal and equitable systems now, if we want to see them in the future.
Dual power and prefiguration means that we act now to build anticapitalist, egalitarian, equitable and ecological systems now, as an alternative. Instead of focusing on destroying capitalism only, we should work to build the systems we want, while also destroying capitalist frameworks. Instead of people fighting capitalism and having no clue what to do when it comes to food, housing, governance, or ecology. We make the systems ahead of time that sit not just in capitalist systems but in opposition to them. We make earth homes, we make permaculture gardens, we build alternative passive energy systems, we build the people’s free communication networks, we build free schools and educational structures, we do all of this now, so we have an alternative. We also need to make sure we don’t have one size fits all solutions but appropriate solutions based on the people who are living with those solutions. When people look out, downtrodden by the capitalist system where they have to pay money to live, eat, drink, to exist - and they look out to people making an alternative. They see people building mutual aid networks, living in symbiosis with nature, they see people existing as equals and consenting to the lives they want to live. They see a world built with disabled people’s needs first where accessibility is the default instead of a second thought. They see a world where extraction stops, where people say they have everything they need from each other and the earth. They see an alternative and want to help build that better world. They see that their life matters, that they aren’t expendable, that they are part of humanity and nature. They see their own power, not just as an individual but as a collective.
They see the alternative, it’s up to us all to build it.
Such an engaging and powerful article. Originally, I was turned off to the solar punk concept as I thought crypto was integral to it but this really opened my mind to new possibilities.