Making Tomorrow

3 April 2019

‘Business as usual’ is hurtling us towards a desolate future. If we continue this way, climate change will intensify, sea levels will rise and humanity will face an existential catastrophe. We know this, but what would it look like if we started doing better? Blind optimism can distract from the truth, but frameworks of hope can help us find common goals and inspiration for the future. I would like to present two such frameworks: solarpunk and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Solarpunk is a literary movement that imagines a desirable future, in contrast to bleak cyberpunk dystopias. Technology aids an equitable humanity, living in harmony with nature. In solarpunk, the high standard of living afforded by technology applies to everyone. Its aesthetic includes tall buildings draped in foliage, light-soaked balconies, greenhouses and bicycles. Building a solarpunk society requires collective action, not just government mandates. Solarpunk is a movement that emerged from popular culture. It has a strong vision but no clear goals. Solarpunk is bottom-up; from the people.

The SDGs are, according to the United Nations Development Program, “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”. They are a UN initiative, agreed to by governments and organisations. (It shows: goal eight includes economic growth—likely included for appeasement rather than sustainability). The 17 goals state broad visions, including no poverty; gender equality; affordable clean energy and life on land and below water.

Solarpunk and the SDGs are two visions of the same thing: an egalitarian, just society and thriving ecosystems. The SDGs say nothing about declaring marine sanctuaries, passing laws which promote LGBTQ+ rights or switching cities to renewable energy, yet these things connect directly to the SDGs. A marine sanctuary, for example, promotes goal 14 (life below water). Solarpunk imagines what would happen if these abstract goals became part of the world; how we will live if the SDGs are implemented. This future might involve avoiding the worst of climate change, or emerging from the ashes of a scarred world. Either way, having a shared vision is important. It gives us something to talk and dream about. When we know where we want to go, the policies that will get us there feel like common sense. When we collectively commit to a world with healthy wildlife, social justice and renewable energy, then sanctuaries, laws, and clean power grids can fall clearly into that established framework.

The SDGs are particularly useful for working with governments. They can identify what we want, instead of every advocacy group coming up with new values and demands. If governments sign on to the SDGs, we can point out how the SDGs will be affected by government proposals. Still, they aren’t enough. Their breadth makes them widely applicable, but also vague and noncommittal. We need solarpunk for its concrete, community-oriented vision. Clean energy for those who can pay and green roofs for the one per cent won’t change anything except rich people’s light bulbs. Solarpunk demands egalitarian access to green, well-designed infrastructure. We need it because we need punk.

Punk culture values individuality. Corporate propaganda has convinced us that individual action starts and ends with buying better products, or recycling those already purchased. This is preposterous. Individual action doesn’t have to be about stuff. We must hold the real perpetrators—industrial polluters and their enablers—accountable (big activism), but we should also create supportive communities for ourselves (small activism). Punk culture values being a creator. That means building pieces of the world we want, in order to lead by example and fill the holes left by poor leadership.

Hope without action is feeble. We must fight like it’s the apocalypse, and build a world that might avert the worst scenario, or rise from it. Solarpunk literature can be found online and in fiction, and there are guides for getting started with the SDGs in universities. Students around the world are demanding that their institutions commit to working towards these goals. We can’t know the future with certainty, but we can shape it into a place we want to live in.

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