Solarpunk is an emerging genre of science fiction and the arts, inspired by dreams of a greener and hopeful future for all. Solarpunk futures and the associated politics value cooperation, community, ingenuity, connectedness, decentralisation, and the use of renewables alongside minimal government.
The overall goal is of equity and justice for all, irrespective of gender, social or economic status with an added focus on the involvement and roles of humans and non-humans in multispecies connections.
A recent anthology, Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures, edited by Christoph Rupprecht, Deborah Cleland, Norie Tamura, Sarena Ulibarri and Rajat Chaudhuri, brings together solarpunk fiction mostly from the Asia-Pacific region, an underrepresented zone in the solarpunk movement. As a solarpunk researcher I was immediately interested, more so by the diversity of voices and the fact that the book – now on Grist’s definitive climate fiction reading list – presents a multispecies urban futures theme.
I interviewed two of the editors, Christoph Rupprecht, a German academician based in Japan with agriculture, solarpunk and sustainability among his research interests, and Rajat Chaudhuri, a bilingual author from Calcutta, who is also an environment columnist and climate activist. Besides the two editors, I also interviewed four writers who have stories in this anthology. They are award-winning author and poet, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, speculative fiction writers Natalka Roshak and DA Xiaolin Spires, and noted solarpunk author and sustainability researcher, Andrew Dana Hudson.
Their stories deal with a wondrous variety of themes, from kinship and multispecies connection in Hudson’s The Mammoth Steps, through the language of nature in Chabria’s Listen: A Memoir, to light pollution in Roshak’s By the Light of the Stars. In Xiaolin Spires’s The Exuberant Vitality of Hatchling Habitats, ingenuity and caring are evinced through a science fair project to help seabirds.
Andrew Dana Hudson
The Mammoth Steps is all about a beautiful friendship. Why are kinship and multispecies connections so important to you?
Five or so years ago, I stopped eating meat. I made that decision not out of a strong ethical or visceral objection, but mostly for climate reasons – every scenario in which we stabilise the planet requires us to dramatically scale back meat consumption, and like a good futurist I wanted to get a jump on that trend. Once I changed my lifestyle, however, a whole vast landscape of moral thinking opened up to me. I no longer needed to dull my horror at how we treat animals to justify my own behaviour. I was soon able to see non-human animals as subjects instead of objects, as beings with their own feelings, experiences, opinions, preferences, and inner lives.
But I also realised that even when we think of other species as subjects deserving of justice, our ideas about just multispecies connections felt anemic at best. Mostly they amounted to “leave animals alone.” Few people were talking about sharing our civilisation with other species. I wondered if, with a little negotiation, some species might be just as good as humans at peacefully sharing urban space and contributing to society. This seemed like very fruitful tranche of speculation to explore, and The Mammoth Steps was an early step in this direction.
How do you deal with the tension between storytelling and the politics or theme when writing a story like the one in the book.
I don’t see a tension there. For me politics is the most interesting story going, and pretty much all the stories I enjoy have something political to say. The idea that fiction should not be too political is, frankly, bourgeois nonsense made popular by the CIA. It’s a way of thinking about writing that I’m constantly trying to unlearn.
Plus, most of my speculative ideas are political more than technological: what if we implemented a global carbon accounting programme that paid people to maintain carbon-rich landscapes, as apparently supports Kaskil’s family? What if we distributed basic necessities like food for free from provision houses, as supports Roomba and Kaskil on their journey? What if we invested as much computational power into animal communication as we do mining Bitcoin or targeting social media ads?
What role can solarpunk in fiction and politics play in getting us to a more equitable and greener wonderland?
I like to think of solarpunk as redefining what “high tech” means. High tech doesn’t just have to mean more power or more data or more computation all in the hands of a few big companies. High tech can mean more thoughtful, more equitable, more useful, more elegant, move diverse, more sustainable, more beautiful.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria
You have painted a vivid image of a child’s engagement with the natural world in your story Listen: A Memoir. How does the more-than-human world motivate you every day, especially if you live in a city?
Though the story is set in a future world which has preserved pockets of natural reserves, I drew largely from my own life. As a child I lived, for a few years, in a small house with a huge and rather wild garden. I spent dazzling afternoons in a wonderous daze, absorbed in the buzz of bright dragonflies hovering over flowers, gazing at squirrels leading their busy lives with birds lifting off and settling into trees that throbbed with insects, fruit and fragrances.
Human time seemed to stop in this brimming and harmonious world, and with it, the “I”, the centrality of the self, also seemed to disappear into these other than human lives. This was not a space of transcendental divinity, but primal, loving immanence. The garden mapped itself into my consciousness in an elemental and animated way. In a sense, perhaps I never left it. Increasingly I find its echoes in the city, in the rip of sky between towers, damp petals on the pavement; light that changes tar roads into glistening rivers, in the sleep of stray dogs. Once felt, the pulse of the other than human cannot be denied, wherever one lives.
‘Listen with all your senses; listen: everything speaks.’ Have we forgotten to listen to nature amidst the ‘noise’ of our busy lives or is it changing again because of the pandemic?
The pandemic’s imprisoning seems to have heightened our need, as a species, for the natural world with a longing that equals our desire for interpersonal conviviality. We listen to birdcalls with unforeseen eagerness; while the susurration of trees calls us into a larger landscape of life of which we are a part; not apart.
Will this translate into transformative action to protect the others we share our planet with, and indeed the planet itself? I’m not sure. But there’s no returning to the old normal. One hopes that either through feelings of kinship or fear of climate disasters we reconnect to this parallel and porous universe: a hylozoistic world in which all matter is animated; and speaks to us if only we listen with attention and tenderness.
In your story, the protagonist and her grandma speak in ‘Preserved Tamil, the Language of Choice’. Should we double our efforts in preserving languages that are becoming extinct? How can such efforts strengthen the ecological movement?
Absolutely. When we lose a language, we lose a world: its knowledge systems of medicine, culture and wisdom traditions; we lose its inherent sacred connection to the earth. A friend who works with a forest dwelling indigenous community remarked, “Every adolescent knows the names of over a hundred plants, trees and animal species in the local tongue, and their interrelations. Yet they are termed illiterate and encouraged to cultivate the mainstream version.” We know linguistic diversity promotes preserving biodiversity. By silencing languages, we imperil ourselves and future generations.
DA Xiaolin Spires
What sparked the idea behind The Exuberant Vitality of Hatchling Habitats? What kind of relationship do you share with birds?
I was doing a lot of reading about seabirds and their declining numbers, as well as spending some time watching birds. The Exuberant Vitality of Hatchling Habitats came to me as an extension of those ideas in relation to approaches to environment protection and waste disposal that have global repercussions. I also really like science fairs, where discoveries occur, and imagination runs free!
Do you believe stories can help us think and imagine differently and thus prepare for a better future?
I would say certainly, though I should caution that stories don’t necessarily need to do so. But, it’s great when they do. I’m drawn to stories that present future possibilities. Our homo sapiens species navigates through the world using stories as a means of survival, providing explanation cosmologically and in mundane life and as a way to understand who we are in relation to others. By shaping these stories to be aspirational, we can use these stories as paradigms, allegories or jumping boards to orient ourselves in ways to meet these aspirations going forward. Stories also give us little snippets of (alternate) lives that we can model off of and viscerally feel their impact.
How do you foresee a value-neutral science engage with multispecies approaches and solarpunk politics which lays definite stress on non-human agency and a better future?
I’m not sure how to answer this as I’m not quite sure science is value-neutral. Science is supported through government grants and foundations that have agendas and are conducted within a value-laden time and society. Different societies also have various resources and approaches to science that are not universal and homogeneous.
I think it’s a construct to think science is value-neutral. Some disciplines are already approaching the world around us in ways that are not so silo-ed off and this multi- / transdisciplinary approach (in addition to transnational collaborations) allows for a more holistic and rich understanding of the world.
Solarpunk ideas have influenced various disciplines and there is a growing movement towards understanding what’s around us that includes and transcends human agencies and considers multispecies approaches.
What was your inspiration behind By the Light of the Stars, which is a simple yet poignant story about baby turtles confused by light pollution?
I started researching light pollution for another project, and was appalled to find out how many species light pollution hurts – including people! Light pollution disturbs our circadian rhythms, too. At the same time, I was trying to show my own child the stars, and mourning that we can barely make out Orion’s Belt from our urban home. The two ideas came together into this story.
By the Light of the Stars explores the importance of small steps taken by us, common people. Do you think such efforts by conscientious individuals can generate a momentum that will make the planet a better place for humans and other beings?
Absolutely. Light pollution is one example where individuals can make a big difference. One bright light left on all night in an ocean-facing home can lead an entire clutch of turtles astray. But we need to act together, too. Dimming a city’s lights at night takes the effort of concerned citizens and city council.
For example, the city of Tucson, Arizona, USA, which is near astronomical observatories, has a dark-sky ordinance that has made a substantial difference. In addition to turning out our outdoor lights at night, individuals can educate others about light pollution and join citizen efforts to regulate it.
What does solarpunk mean for you?
Science fiction is said to be a “literature of ideas”. Within science fiction, solarpunk is a literature of solutions. Solarpunk lets us imagine ourselves into a future where we’ve solved today’s grievous ecological / economic problems, lets us imagine ourselves living amidst the solutions. Rather than imagining ourselves into outer space or cyberspace, we project ourselves forward into the future we want to see.
Rajat Chaudhuri, Christoph Rupprecht
The authors in this volume have quite effortlessly blended great writing with aspects of science and nature. Would you say science fiction is better equipped to tell the urgent stories of our time?
Rajat Chaudhuri (RC): Science fiction does enjoy an advantage and we were lucky to have some of the finest imaginative voices contributing stories. But giving it a label like “science fiction” or “speculative fiction” somewhat complicates matters as it leaves out realist-hybrids and other types. “Speculative” is a good umbrella word or “what-if” stories, or, even better, “wonder tales”.
I think this blended writing works and has endured because it’s the most obvious means to engage with human and other-than-human realities while also imagining possibilities. We tend to forget that we don’t stand apart from our surroundings and other-beings but are entangled in a web of interrelations that hinge on anything from the value of the physical constants to gut microbe activity in our bellies.
Right now, SF as solarpunk in its creativity and politics is a useful vehicle for anticipating, imagining and working towards possible futures rooted in equity, rights and justice for nature, the earth and all beings.
Christoph Rupprecht (CR): Science fiction has two strengths that make it an invaluable genre today. First, it reminds us that there are many possible worlds: not just many pasts and presents, but many futures, too. SF stories teach us to see things as they are not – what Castoriadis calls the radical imaginary.
Instead of simply abandoning reality, much of SF engages playfully with physics, biology, ecology and (more-than) human natures as both inspiration and boundaries in stories. This tendency to experiment with grounded, future-oriented worldbuilding encourages us to think what future we might live in, how we would like that future to look like, and to actively join the fray.
Yet science fiction is not alone: speculative fiction such as fantasy or magical realism may be just as powerful, and I would love similar movements to solarpunk spring up that share its commitment: to facing the ecological crises, to all life, and to better futures.
How can indigeneity and indigenous wisdom enrich the solarpunk movement?
RC: Solarpunk politics and aesthetics hold traditional knowledge and ingenuity in high regard. The materialistic philosophies that are dominant in the world today run on the engine of exploitation of resources, people and other beings, offering an illusory freedom or empty happiness in return.
Contrary to this, first nation peoples and indigenous communities have from early times demonstrated a deeper understanding of our connections with the animate and inanimate world – the living and non-living, which is why their interactions with the surroundings have never been exploitative but are one of stewardship or as partners and family-members in timeless narratives of co-existence.
The establishment of the dominant ideas and systems of the day (individualism, capitalism, state socialism) resulted in the suppression and ruthless termination of these other narratives. This continues and so much of it is already lost. However, movements of hope, like solarpunk, are engaging with these suppressed stories in their endeavour to rediscover the wisdom of these muffled voices, worldviews and knowledge systems so they might help repair a broken world and with the support of clean and empowering technologies, imagine new and better ones.
CR: First, solarpunk must learn from the failures of academic research: Indigenous wisdom is not a resource to exploit for storytelling or worldbuilding. That said, there are many Indigenous ideas, concepts, techniques and ways of being in the world that are already inspiring solarpunks in their writing, art and activism, some of them may even be part of the movement’s core values.
Take the simple demonstration that long-term co-flourishing as part of a multispecies community is not just possible – seemingly a radical proposal today! – but something diverse Indigenous communities all over the world have the best track record of practising. The Zapatista idea of a “world in which many worlds fit”, the notion of caring for and being cared for by the land through co-stewardship (one related example being Māori kaitiakitanga), respecting life in its many forms rather than placing humans above non-humans...more than a lifetime of learning for solarpunks out there.
Solarpunk’s commitment to diversity for me includes epistemological diversity. But I believe the question we should also ask is: how can the solarpunk movement play its part in the resistance against colonialism, capitalism and ecological destruction, because Indigenous groups are still disproportionately carrying this burden. To paraphrase Vítor Castelões Gama and Marcelo Velloso Garcia, solarpunk should heed Indigenous futurisms’ call to be critical and transformative (keeping in mind that these two categories of course overlap).
As mentioned in the Introduction, the Asia-Pacific region has been underrepresented in the solarpunk movement, which in any case is quite new. Do you have other projects or plans to involve more creators in similar projects?
RC: I just read an excellent story about jackfruit batteries by Indian author SB Divya in a new solarpunk anthology from ASU; also you find engagement with indigenous cultures in Vandana Singh’s new book though the settings are not Asian. So there is curiosity and growing interest.
I find collaborative projects like this anthology and also a climate change video game (Survive the Century) we recently released to be deeply satisfying as they bring creators, theorists and practitioners closer, in a way reflecting the solarpunk ethos of sharing and participating. For me, collective efforts also help drive away the darkness of the pandemic. Right now, I am working on a project about the climate imagination where I hope to engage with the work of others, and there is some weird fiction happening on the side.
CR: With concept artist Yen Shu Liao and friends I’ve been working on a project called Solarpunk Creatures that we hope to launch soon. Since April my Multispecies Sustainability lab at Ehime University is running, so I’m always open to ideas for projects and collaborations.
Sayantani Sengupta is a PhD student at St Xavier’s University. Her research is on the solarpunk movement and its fictions.