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Creating a solarpunk future?

Kate Swade

At Shared Assets, we do a lot of things – from tech innovation projects to supporting common good land users, to exploring the power of networks. This can sometimes feel like a bunch of quite disparate threads. Our director Kate explains why, as well as trying to achieve our vision of making land work for everyone, our work is really all about creating a solarpunk future…

Being on maternity leave, I was lucky to be able to spend a substantial amount of the winter breastfeeding on the sofa watching a serious amount of telly, and more specifically lots of science fiction (including all 176 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 #90sTVlifegoals). This all got me thinking about how the future is created – sci fi can offer us visions of utopias and dystopias but rarely deals with the question of how the worlds on our screens or pages actually evolved from where we are now.

The Star Trek universe is in many ways a lovely one, at least from the point of view of humans and Earth. Money is now obsolete, technology is used for the common good, racial, sexual and class divisions seem to have have disappeared and Earth is flourishing. A strong and respectful moral code (more or less) governs the actions of the “Federation”. Humanity has at some point previous to the 24th century, got its act together and stopped polluting, exploiting and fighting (at least each other).

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The Expanse, on the other hand, offered me a maybe more realistic – and far more dystopian – view of what the future might look like if our present ways of organising ourselves and allocating our resources continue. A human-colonised solar system, with the asteroid belt being voraciously mined for minerals by an underclass of “belters” who can no longer survive in the higher gravity levels on Earth. Ice-mining providing much needed water. Space stations and ships owned by corporations that control citizens’ access to clean water and air – and can turn both off at will. A corrupt world government on Earth; a now-independent and belligerent colony on Mars.  

Resource allocation as drama – it’s great. It’s also a profoundly depressing vision of the future, but one that feels far more likely to play out than the gloriously egalitarian Star Trek universe.  

Art by Imperial Boy: http://www.iamag.co/features/the-art-of-imperial-boy; http://tksn.sakura.ne.jp/

Luckily, I had Tumblr to scroll through when watching dystopian telly got a bit much, and it’s here I first came across the term Solarpunk. Solarpunk, like steampunk or cyberpunk, is a vision of the future with a vibrant online community creating speculative fiction, art and poetry around it. Solarpunkpress.com neatly describes the genre as “near future science fiction that deals seriously with the major environmental and social problems of the 21st century, and approaches them with optimism.”

There is a huge diversity of worldbuilding, of stories and of approaches in this solarpunk universe but there are a number of common threads. Worlds are conjured up that celebrate diversity and recognise difference. Worlds that embrace technology and use it innovatively but in a sustainable way. Worlds that can imagine different people working together as peers for the common good. Worlds where there is very little central control – where networks hold power. Worlds where art, craft and beauty are valued. William Morris would have been a solarpunk.

what we are doing @shared_assets is helping sow some of the seeds of a #solarpunk future.

And it feels to me that what we are doing at Shared Assets is taking some of the first steps and helping sow some of the seeds of a solarpunk future. We support communities to take more productive and practical control of the land around them. We help people looking to use natural resources like wood and woodlands in a more enterprising way. We think about how people can create sustainable land-based livelihoods, and how community-led approaches to food growing support local economic resilience. We are repurposing existing technology and data to help common good land users innovate and find land. We’ve helped create the Land Justice Network and CtrlShift. And we have spent the past couple of years exploring and learning about peer-to-peer networks and how we can best support non-hierarchical approaches to getting things done (lessons we are looking to integrate into our own organisation).

Sometimes the idea of focussing on land can feel old-fashioned: it’s a very 19th century concern in some ways. But the land question is fundamentally one about how we distribute and make decisions about resources – a key political question in any age. So what we’re doing at Shared Assets has always felt very modern to me: we are exploring the foundations that any future world worth living in will need to be built on. I don’t think the future needs to look like the Expanse – but I fear it will if we don’t work together to create the alternative models, structures and ways of working together that a solarpunk future needs.

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