Jay Springett: So I work pro­fes­sion­al­ly in and around the blockchain space. I have been involved in the solarpunk move­ment since 2013. I’m the edi­tor of solarpunks​.net. And I’m also respon­si­ble for coin­ing the term stack­tivism many years ago, for my sins. So, I will begin. 

So I’m @thejaymo on Twitter, and you can find me pro­fes­sion­al­ly therud​er​al​.com. This talk is in four sec­tions. I’m gonna be talk­ing about the present, going to be talk­ing about visions of the future, nar­ra­tive strate­gies, and strate­gic nar­ra­tives. And I’d like to say thank you to all of the speak­ers that you’ve heard so far tonight. And I’m hop­ing my talk might be able to hit every­thing that every­one’s spo­ken about. With luck. 

So, in part one, In Context. Terra0 are uti­liz­ing blockchain tech­nolo­gies to build auto­mat­ed sys­tems to allow a for­est to own and uti­lize itself. In New Zealand, rivers are final­ly becom­ing peo­ple. Mountains too have been grant­ed legal personality. 

Corporations are already peo­ple, my friend. States are run­ning ini­tial coin offer­ings. And China needs more water, so it’s build­ing a rain­mak­ing net­work three times the size of Spain. 

More than 500 burn­ers have been deployed on alpine slopes in Tibet; the age of cli­mate megaengi­neer­ing is already upon us. And most atolls will be unin­hab­it­able by the mid 21st century. 

So we are starved for visions of the future that will sus­tain us. The sci­ence fic­tion author Cory Doctorow said, Science fic­tion isn’t pre­dic­tive of the future. It tends to be about diag­nos­ing our cur­rent aspi­ra­tions and anx­i­eties.

So then, this is a pic­ture of Netflix’s Altered Carbon. Cyberpunk is about the pol­i­tics of the 1980s. It is about urban decay, and cor­po­rate pow­er, and glob­al­iza­tion. Cyberpunk explores the way that tech­nol­o­gy shoves human life into ever greater lev­els of extrac­tion like cyber­space, the rise of zero-tolerance polic­ing, anx­i­eties around health­care and the psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of the cold for­ev­er war, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion. By the way, the Robocop head­quar­ters is like, a vast­ly under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed by cyber­punk icon, in my opinion. 

Many of the con­cerns of the cyber­punk genre have come true. The rise of cor­po­rate pow­er, ubiq­ui­tous com­pu­ta­tion, and the like. Robot limbs and cool VR gog­gles. But in many ways, it’s far far worse. The exis­ten­tial threat of cli­mat­ic change leans over all of our futures, and our insti­tu­tions seem to be unable or unwill­ing to do any­thing. But in the dark future that cyber­punk pro­duced, the 80s as a decade were book­end­ed by the erad­i­ca­tion of small­pox in 1980 and the glob­al ban of CFCs in 1989

Our cur­rent pop­u­lar cul­ture sees no such hope. It is full of nar­ra­tives of indi­vid­ual super­heroes, or sav­iors, in increas­ing­ly des­per­ate attempts to band togeth­er to defeat exis­ten­tial cri­sis of ever-increasing mag­ni­tude. The sci­ence fic­tion author and futur­ist Madeline Ashby on her blog gave us one piece of advice at the end of last year. And that is to talk loud­ly, and fre­quent­ly, and in detail about the future that you want. Because you can’t man­i­fest what you don’t share.

So, then. I am a solarpunk because the only oth­er options are denial or despair. 

Solarpunk as Narrative Strategy. In 2014, the EIA, CIA, and World Bank pub­lished a graph chart­ing the falling cost of solar and titled it Welcome to the Terrordome.” But we don’t see ter­ror in this future. Solarpunk envi­sions a world with a dras­tic tech­no­log­i­cal shift towards renew­ables, and decen­tral­iza­tion empow­ers move­ments for social jus­tice and eco­nom­ic lib­er­a­tion. It sees infra­struc­ture as a site of poten­tial resistance.

Solarpunk is a move­ment in spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, art, fash­ion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the ques­tion, what does a sus­tain­able civ­i­liza­tion look like, and how can we get there? It is con­cerned with the strug­gles en route to a bet­ter world, and solu­tions to live com­fort­ably with­out fos­sil fuels, to equi­tably man­age scarci­ty and share abun­dance, to be kinder to each oth­er and to the plan­et that we share. 

Whilst the term has some antecedents online, solarpunk tru­ly began in Brazil in 2012, with the pub­li­ca­tion of an anthol­o­gy sub­ti­tled eco­log­i­cal and fan­tas­tic sto­ries in a sus­tain­able world.” And today, the English trans­la­tion has just gone up for pre­order on Amazon, if you wan­na go check it out. Since then in 2012, the idea has been picked up as a flag, or as a ban­ner, by a diverse com­mu­ni­ty of activists, writ­ers, artists, and tech­nol­o­gists. There are now mul­ti­ple antholo­gies of short and not-so-short fic­tion you can find online. 

Rejecting both the low-life and high-tech dystopias of cyber­punk and the low-life and low-tech sur­vival slogs of post-capitalist sci­ence fic­tion like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Mad Max, solarpunk aims to can­cel the apoc­a­lypse. It attempts to fos­ter a socio­cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment which empha­sizes indi­vid­ual auton­o­my, con­sent, uni­ty and diver­si­ty, with free egal­i­tar­i­an dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er. Of course, with these prin­ci­ples comes polypho­ny. One can­not speak for oth­er solarpunks, only be in dia­logue and occa­sion­al cho­rus with them. 

The upcom­ing 21st cen­tu­ry shift towards clean ener­gy opens the future to an age of inno­v­a­tive dis­sent. Solarpunk seeks to lever­age the nar­ra­tive log­ic of a decen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture and its tech­nolo­gies to change the kind of pol­i­tics and futures that we can imag­ine. A solarpunk plot unfold­ing in real time right now is Spain’s attempt to make it ille­gal to use solar pan­els to go off the grid, which has since devel­oped into the sun tax on pho­to­volta­ic instal­la­tions. Power has already seen the pos­si­ble points of nar­ra­tive entry and is already cir­cling wag­ons around the kind of future that we want. 

Solarpunk is not unaware of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies and infra­struc­ture the­o­ry, and that has quite right­ly found that cer­tain tech­nolo­gies inter­nal­ize cer­tain ide­olo­gies. The effects of these inter­nal­ized ide­olo­gies are all around us, in some sense. The vertically-integrated but inter­de­pen­dent stack of tech­nolo­gies that keep us alive has grown over time, but the his­tor­i­cal and the inter­nal bias­es of the peo­ple that made them, and the tech­nolo­gies them­selves, some­how lean through time and still touch us today. 

Solarpunk is also not unaware of the fact that new tech­nolo­gies don’t inher­ent­ly alter the pow­er dynam­ics that gov­ern the divi­sion of domes­tic labor, or even call them into ques­tion. Solarpunk attempts to play with the pow­er dynam­ics by imag­in­ing new ways of being in the world, with the new tech­nolo­gies as props. 

Solarpunk cre­ates a mul­ti­tude of spaces for indige­nous sov­er­eign­ties, repro­duc­tive jus­tice, and rad­i­cal queer pol­i­tics. It con­trasts the grim futures of cyber­punk with a bright virid­i­an green opti­mism. Solarpunk is a response to Szeman and Boyer’s call that we need to map out oth­er ways of being, behav­ing, and belong­ing in rela­tion to ener­gy in order to reimag­ine moder­ni­ty in the face of glob­al warm­ing. Rhys Williams on solarpunk in the LARB wrote,

It’s pos­si­ble that a shift to renew­ables will spell the end of cap­i­tal­ism; that alter­na­tive forms of ener­gy are not com­pat­i­ble with cap­i­tal’s grail of prof­it and growth. [But] where there’s a cap­i­tal­ist will there’s usu­al­ly a cap­i­tal­ist way. The neces­si­ty of ener­gy tran­si­tion pro­vides us with a his­tor­i­cal moment of cri­sis in which oppos­ing ide­olo­gies are wrestling over the future not only of ener­gy, but of soci­ety. The point is less whether renew­able ener­gy auto­mat­i­cal­ly equals a fair­er soci­ety, and more that the mas­sive infra­struc­tur­al changes ahead pro­vide lever­age to insti­tute some­thing better.
Rhys Williams, Solarpunk: Against a Shitty Future

In solarpunk, ener­gy is explic­it­ly polit­i­cal, and the unfold­ing process­es that renew­ables provide—the trans­mu­ta­tion of wind, water, and solar—projected for­ward result in new human life­ways. It is a human­i­ty in com­mu­nion with the environment. 

Its futur­ism is not nihilis­tic like cyber­punk, and not quasi-reactionary like steam­punk. It is a great tragedy that steam­punk as a genre was not decolo­nial to its core from its incep­tion. Optimism and pes­simism, utopia and dystopia are not real­ly mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. They are coex­ist­ing con­cepts, like two sides of the same coin. And a coin is always pos­si­ble to flip. Progress/development is not the same as growth, and an inte­gral the­sis of solarpunk should be about decou­pling the first from the sec­ond. More is not bet­ter.” Solarpunk is punk because opti­mism and the prac­ti­cal route for­ward are very much not in vogue cul­tur­al­ly, or are they the sta­tus quo. 

Solarpunk treats sus­tain­able inno­va­tions as a prob­lem of pol­i­tics as much as engi­neer­ing. It is not a genre that relies on huge tech­no­log­i­cal leaps into the future, nor by tak­ing wist­ful glances at the past, but by look­ing lat­er­al­ly at what’s already in the world and pro­ject­ing it for­ward. And the world right now around us pro­vides a rich soil of ideas and action from which our strug­gles to an on-route to a bet­ter world can grow. 

One such exam­ple is David Holmgren, the co-originator of per­ma­cul­ture’s newest design man­u­al Retrosurburbia, The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future. It is a weighty tome of design pat­terns and men­tal mod­els that can be adopt­ed by any­one liv­ing in a city, with ideas for plant­i­ng in win­dow box­es and scal­ing up to retro­fitting whole streets in coher­ent ways. It focus­es on and rec­og­nizes top­ics such as the pro­vi­sion of basic needs rather than expen­sive wants that will dom­i­nate future pol­i­cy and action; sim­ple and robust sys­tems that are capa­ble of being main­tained with­out expen­sive and spe­cial­ized tech­nol­o­gy; pro­gres­sive rural­iza­tion of our set­tle­ment pat­terns and process­es in which bio­log­i­cal needs and func­tions of food sup­ply, water, and nutri­ent recy­cling will be fun­da­men­tal to the redesigns; and relo­ca­tion of our economies and deci­sion­mak­ing structures. 

Other books such as Sprawl Repair by Galina Tachieva (I’m sor­ry if I said that wrong) point to design pat­terns that can be used in con­cert with Hologram’s Retrosuburbia to redesign our cities and bring about a solarpunk-type future. 

Solarpunk then, should be con­sid­ered a grand dress rehearsal for the future that we would like to live in, told through sto­ry, dreams, and song, aligned with the prac­ti­cal devel­op­ments and inter­ven­tions in the world that exist today as its stage. 

Strategic Narrative. Unfortunately for us, to arrive at this future there is a laun­dry list of things that need to be reun­der­stood. I work pro­fes­sion­al­ly in and around the blockchain space, as I said ear­li­er, and align myself com­plete­ly with Jaya’s cri­tique. So with the remain­ing time that I have I’d like to intro­duce you to my cur­rent research project, Land As Platform. It’s gonna be a book as well, and it’s gonna be a long slog to fin­ish it. 

So Land As Platform. What can we learn from the log­ic of plat­forms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon that have arisen along­side our cul­ture of ubiq­ui­tous com­pu­ta­tion? And how could these log­ics be applied to our land­scapes around us? Platforms are more than enti­ties for cri­tique, as in plat­form cap­i­tal­ism. Stafford Beer’s huge­ly influ­en­tial book is called Platform for Change. What then in the 21st cen­tu­ry are the kind of changes that land as plat­form needs to con­tend with? 

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Climate change: Drought may threat­en much of globe with­in decades

Given the pro­ject­ed changes to our cli­mate in the next cen­tu­ry, and depend­ing on which mod­els you look at, what does it mean to imag­ine the Netherlands as a Mediterranean cli­mate, or as a per­ma­nent, frozen icy tun­dra? Both out­comes are pos­si­bil­i­ties that require long-term think­ing and prepa­ra­tion com­bined with detailed sce­nario planning. 

So then, giv­en the dis­pas­sion­ate eye that they require us to think about the Netherlands as icy tun­dra or as Mediterranean cli­mate, whole cli­mat­ic zones mov­ing thou­sands, pos­si­bly tens of thou­sands of kilo­me­ters, we need to recon­sid­er what Western ecol­o­gy real­ly means when it talks about native, non-native, and inva­sive species. Plants and trees will have to be moved and assist­ed in their relo­ca­tion, just as human­i­ty will need to be replant­ed and resited. 

Natural per­son­hood and non-Western life­ways will need to be rein­cor­po­rat­ed back into our cul­ture after 500 years of inter­mis­sion. Decolonizing our cul­ture in nar­ra­tive, sci­ence, and law should be con­sid­ered one of the pri­ma­ry tasks for inter­est­ed per­sons in the 21st cen­tu­ry. These new land­scapes will need to be designed. Ecologists and preser­va­tion­ists may squirm at the idea, but tru­ly there is no such thing as nature. Not with­out humans present inside it. The term rewil­d­ing” should be con­sid­ered code for allow­ing a com­mu­ni­ty of enti­ties to unfold in place and time. 

I spoke last week in Berlin at Trust, which is a new insti­tu­tion for plat­form design and utopi­an con­spir­a­cy. I con­sid­ered the impli­ca­tions of deep sens­ing devices embed­ded with­in our envi­ron­ment, and the impli­ca­tions for these types of devices giv­en the end of general-purpose com­put­ing and the accel­er­a­tion of ASICs, or application-specific inte­grat­ed cir­cuit chip devel­op­ment. You can find that talk at peer2peer​web​.com. It’ll be online soon. 

The pos­si­bil­i­ties and ques­tions that arise from deep sens­ing are ques­tion of LoNo com­put­ing, low- or no-power devices embed­ded with­in our envi­ron­ments, sur­fac­ing data. These devices don’t sur­face the data with the log­ic of state-like leg­i­bil­i­ty and con­trol, but as the cre­ation of new data land­scapes that a plat­form can con­tain. These data land­scapes are new nich­es that human­i­ty can move towards, exist in, and reacts to. 

Deep sens­ing and embed­ded com­put­ing pro­duces a fur­ther impli­ca­tion for how we exist with things in the world. Coexisting along­side trees, plants, rivers, moun­tains, deep sens­ing devices out in the land­scape should be approached and thought about like minute bits of moun­tain tricked into think­ing with cap­tured lightning. 

How long does it take to make the woods? As long as it takes to make the world. It is always finished, it is always being made, the act of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.

Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir

The plat­form, then, exists in a kind of devel­op­ing present, rather than fixed to a spe­cif­ic idea of the future. Platforms like Facebook or Amazon, when dis­sect­ed can be decom­posed into mod­u­lar ele­ments that can be recon­fig­ured and rede­ployed to prospect new poten­tial lines of devel­op­ment. The mod­el of a plat­form is to con­tin­u­ous­ly flower, not control. 

Contrasting 2003 and 2010 photos of an area in the Loess Plateau, showing it almost completely barren vs covered with greenery.

Large-scale land design projects can trans­form land­scapes. The heavy lift­ing lift­ing is con­tained main­ly with­in the plan­ning phase. Working with local res­i­dents and plan­ning detailed, frac­tal water­cours­es takes far longer and more effort than regen­er­at­ing the land­scape and plant­i­ng trees itself. Does any­one know where the Loess Plateau is? 

[Unidentified speak­er: China?] 

Yes. So, on the left is where the ter­ra­cot­ta war­riors were dis­cov­ered, and on the left is what 10,000 years of agri­cul­ture will do to a land­scape essentially. 

So I want to con­sid­er the appli­ca­tion of land use plan­ning schemes such as key­line design algo­rith­mi­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed from the land­scape topol­o­gy, in an urgent call for holis­tic think­ing in mesh net­work pro­to­cols and radio design in order to best com­ple­ment the new geospa­tial log­ics of land as plat­form. This is a whole­sale reassess­ment of land in the light of cli­mate change. 

Meatspace and cyber­space have fused. But plat­forms are still raised areas that facil­i­tate. What does it mean for deep sens­ing and new land­scape log­ics being applied at the same lev­el of detail as we would apply build­ing codes and zon­ing in cities will only fur­ther this new real­i­ty. We should be mind­ful of what it means for forests to own and uti­lize them­selves, rivers and moun­tains to be per­son­ed, think­ing machines and dis­trib­uted autonomous orga­ni­za­tions with or with­out oth­ers to coex­ist along­side one anoth­er amidst the upcom­ing tur­moil of the 21st cen­tu­ry. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I hope you will fol­low along with my work as I attempt to puz­zle it out. Thanks.

Further Reference

Jay’s write­up of the presentation

Terraforming Earth Talks event page