Christina Figueres, co-host of the Outrage + Optimism podcast and the former UN Climate Chief who successfully ushered the Paris Climate Accord to completion, acknowledges both the climate destruction that we’re already experiencing, as well as the progress we’re making to bend the curve, and calls for us to hold both outrage and optimism as we work for climate action.
“By assuming one reaction or the other—outrage or optimism—we force ourselves into a box. We risk reducing our thinking and acting according to a binary mentality…The complexity of the climate crisis and its solutions mean we need to get used to holding complex emotional reactions, and to pursuing complex solutions. The path ahead will be full of outrage and optimism. We can use both of those to push for the policies we know we need.”
Maybe it’s time to lift up our heads and envision a different future from the death and starvation of Hallam and the apocalypse of Cyberpunk.
Enter the aesthetic and literary movement of Solarpunk. Solarpunk is a response to Cyberpunk. It recognizes that if we spend all of our energy imagining apocalypse, then we won’t have any left to envision the future that we actually want to build.
“Solarpunks ask ‘what kind of world will emerge when we finally transition to renewables?’”, says Jennifer Hamilton of the University of Sydney. Solarpunk recognizes that we aren’t making that transition fast enough, but it imagines what we can create when the transition finally happens.
“Solarpunk begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance,” writes Adam Flynn, author of Solarpunk: Notes toward a Manifesto. So, that protected bike lane is a form of resistance. That streetcar is a form of resistance. The high-speed rail linking cities is resistance. That multifamily Passive House building is resistance.
The Solarpunk Manifesto starts with this: “We are Solarpunks because optimism has been taken away from us and we are trying to take it back.”
Punk owns outrage. What Solarpunk is doing is keeping that outrage, but reclaiming optimism, recognizing that we need both. To create the future we want, we need to hold these two emotions simultaneously.
Though the Solarpunk movement has a distinct post-capitalist, revolutionary vibe, the creative piece that really popularized Solarpunk was an ad for Chobani Yogurt, entitled “Dear Alice”. In a scene that looks like it is straight out of a Studio Ghibli film, we see our hero, connected to the land, sipping her tea. Her bike is on the right. Some sort of high-tech farming operation is going on in that barn. Solar panels are integrated with crops in the distance. Floating wind turbines glide around like kites. A glimmering city sits in the distance.
Solarpunk art explores the coexistence of technology and nature, of cities and rewilding. You see lots of trees on buildings in Solarpunk art, which raises questions of weight, concrete, energy performance, and embodied carbon. Passive House designers and builders have contributions to make to the conception of Solarpunk architecture.
For me, Passive House already is actively Solarpunk. It’s Solarpunk, because Passive House buildings are healthy havens for people, even in the face of climate change. It reduces energy demand, which makes the clean energy transition easier. It also reduces energy load. The superior thermal envelopes of Passive House buildings act like a long-term thermal battery, sipping a bit of energy from the grid, and not stressing it. This means that the future clean grid will require fewer clean energy resources to heat and cool our Passive House buildings, which makes the clean energy transition easier, which makes a Solarpunk future possible.
And, perhaps the most Solarpunk thing about Passive House buildings is their passive resilience. These buildings provide survivable shelters even during power outages, heat domes, intense pollution events, and the other disruptions we are likely to face due to climate change.
We know we’re in a race with the climate crisis, and we should be outraged by its impacts and the efforts by far too many to slow down climate action solution-making.
But, on the climate solutions side we can accelerate virtuous circles to destroy demand for fossil fuels and put the brakes on climate change. At the heart of many of these virtuous circles is the power of learning by doing, a power that applies to Passive House design and construction. Considering that buildings are responsible for about 40% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions globally, that is a big deal. We all have a starring role to play in building a Solarpunk future. Let’s do it!