At the Very Least We Know the End of the World Will Have a Bright Side



The oil industry in the U.S. has had a busy few years. In North Dakota alone, barrel production increased more than tenfold between 2005 and 2015. The state’s daily oil barrel output surged from a low of 90,000, and within a decade it was consistently producing over one million barrels of oil per day. A majority of this oil was extracted via fracking, a controversial practice linked to a litany of harmful health and environmental effects. But if there were to be a public reckoning with fracking’s dangers in North Dakota, it would have to overcome steep challenges. A recent collection of research on the oil boom includes Sebastian Braun’s account of how pro-fracking sentiment, propped up by corporate lobbyists (like the American Legislative Exchange Council) and others who stand to gain, is so strong in the state that, during a speech at an energy conference, the audience didn’t bat an eye when a presenter likened EPA regulation to terrorism. Braun, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, alleges that this lobbyist-generated atmosphere of consensus is hostile to local researchers investigating topics including air and water quality. Another study in the collection by Ann Reed, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at ISU, points to the oil industry’s spending on “community outreach initiatives” within the state, funds which it disperses in order to establish a positive reputation for itself (and, as a side effect, make some citizens feel pressured to stay quiet about their apprehensions regarding the industry’s practices). As of 2018, the state continues to set daily oil production records.
It’s not just North Dakota, of course. Similar efforts helped silence debates around fracking, pollution, and renewable resources in the lead-up to this year’s elections in ColoradoWashington, and Arizona, eventually helping defeat reform initiatives in those states. But these are only regional instances of the broader, global trend of the suppression of research and stifling of public discussion on the impacts of fossil fuel extraction. The most significant example probably involves Shell and ExxonMobil, who studied and documented the catastrophic effects of climate change decades ago but kept their findings confidential and, in ExxonMobil’s case, funded denialist campaigns and anti-regulatory efforts based on false information. While the public spent years fruitlessly debating the legitimacy of climate science, oil giants obscured evidence, promoted research amenable to their interests, and kept drilling, happy to make hay while the warming sun shone.
Those associated with it tend to hold out hope that solarpunk could be a starting point for something bigger, something that could help propel a shift away from our contemporary sense of defeatism.
Mainstream media coverage of climate change is not as dependable as needed, given the stakes. Chris Hayes revealed some of the reasoning for this in a tweet this past July: it’s a “palpable ratings killer,” which means “the incentives [for coverage] are not great.” Other environmental reporters rebutted his claim, noting the popularity of their own coverage of climate change. Though this is an important correction, these journalists also noted that justifying environmental reportage with ratings and click-through numbers is evidence of a structural failure (or foundational error) in for-profit media.
As recent reports from institutions like the IPCC have made apparent, we have entered an era in which climate change will affect life on earth in profound and transformational ways. For many, it already has. But political and corporate interests restrict our ability to even conceive of climate change in the terms necessary to respond to it. Denialism is a farce, proposed liberal reforms are too mild, and mainstream media is insufficiently engaged. In short, things are not looking up. There is a genuine desire within the public to address the climate crisis, but our levers of political accountability, if they ever existed, have failed us spectacularly.

Any potential good news from here on out will have a hard time outrunning the bad news. It’s difficult to imagine what the future will be like, but one thing seems certain: it won’t be better than the present.

Unless you happen to be a reader or writer of solarpunk. For fans of the genre and members of its online communities, the future can look surprisingly — well, sunny.


A new type of science fiction, solarpunk takes as its premise the idea that climate change is unavoidable and probably will be severe, but demands optimism of its writers. A 2015 essay on the genre’s political ideals and inspirations by Andrew Dana Hudson refers to solarpunk as a “speculative movement, a collaborative effort to imagine and design a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability and beauty, achievable with what we have from where we are.” In practice, so far this has meant a bunch of short fiction and visual art, numerous explanatory essays, and a lot of enthusiastic conversation on social media and in online communities. But those associated with it tend to hold out hope that solarpunk could be a starting point for something bigger, something that could help propel a shift away from our contemporary sense of defeatism.

Solarpunk cohered into an identifiable thing in the early 2010’s (though the term predates this by a couple of years), so it is still relatively new. A scroll through the solarpunk tag on Tumblr (where the movement gained some of its early momentum) or an image search reveals a distinct style in which nature has reclaimed space in futuristic cities and people incorporate organic material into the design of their buildings, clothing, and infrastructure. It’s a bright color palette: greens, blues, oranges. The aesthetic invites comparisons to predecessors like steampunk or cyberpunk, but solarpunk adds overgrowth and sunlight to its mix.

One writer, Connor Owens, describes solarpunk as “a rebellion against the structural pessimism of how the future will be,” with “hope that perhaps the grounds of an apocalypse…might also contain the seeds of something better.” Later, he calls it a movement of “practical utopianism,” which feels like it gets closer to the genre’s priorities. It has a preference for decentralization, communal collaboration, local engagement, and patchwork technological advancement (and de-vancement). Hypothetical high-tech gear sits alongside cell phones and generators someone could purchase today; people build new devices and dwellings from the ruins of our own civilization. Owens also describes the genre’s “radical inclusiveness,” its “unity-in-diversity.” In an interview about the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, the volume’s editors mention their intent for it “to represent as many perspectives, places, genders, and groups of people as possible.”


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