A Future Dream

How solarpunk helped alleviate my existential dread.

I CONTINUE TO BE SURPRISED BY the darkness that comes each winter. I live with my toddler, Otto, in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and we unintentionally rise and fall with the sun. When the sun rises, we build fires in the wood stove and warm our socks. When it falls, we read books about the summer and go to sleep. Otto lives for the growing season, running outside in a diaper and proclaiming frustrated grunts when I must bundle them from head to toe before opening the door to the chill of our 10-acre homestead.

I was pregnant during the pandemic and during an evacuation from an Oregon wildfire. Otto was born on January 6, 2021, during an insurrection, and was one month old when we lost power for weeks due to an unexpected ice storm in February. I stood outside watching the trees sway, listening to their cracking and snapping, like frozen bones, imagining the weight of a fallen limb and whether I, we, could be crushed.

Dystopian stories surely have a place, as a warning, but sometimes I feel like I’ve been warned enough.

Over the past few years, we’ve all sought ways to avoid being crushed. Some grew gardens, and some baked bread. I did those things too, but I also craved the fantasy worlds I could find only in books. I had a big family of older siblings that didn’t want much to do with me, and I could always escape into books. I have carried my love of reading, especially speculative science fiction and fantasy, into adulthood but often found that I was looking for more hope. Dystopian stories surely have a place, as a warning, but sometimes I feel like I’ve been warned enough. I want to know what to do in the face of despair, to not only avoid being crushed, but to reach for brighter skies. In times like those, I look for books that are part of an expanding genre — and a growing social movement — a counternarrative that has infused my days with hope. More and more lately, I find myself reading solarpunk.

Solarpunk succeeds where so many have failed: It represents thinking about possibility, of movement from today’s reality toward a gritty, gnarly, pragmatic, better future. In the works of solarpunk, I can finally see myself, and the kind of world I want to build, for me and for Otto.

LIKE MANY OF MY GENERATION, I have known dread nearly my entire life. In fifth grade, I was assigned a research paper on the topic of my choice. I had begun to spend my weekends with my dad, hanging out at coffee shops in downtown Salem, Oregon, and chatting with adults about the news. We had just witnessed the 9/11 attacks, and the adults in my life seemed to be waking up to global issues, their fear palpable even to a young child. This was not long after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, and I decided to interview my dad’s friends about climate change and their predictions for the future. When I turned in the finished paper, which detailed mass extinctions and natural disasters, my teacher, Mrs. Stark, wouldn’t accept it. She didn’t believe in climate change, she said, and I needed to study a different topic.

After that, I felt myself slipping from endless curiosity about the world into a mindset where I had to prepare for the worst, and trust no one. This helped me create the shield I needed to get through adolescence. By then, I knew that my gender and sexuality didn’t align with typical gender roles, but I kept that secret close to my tape-bound chest.

Solarpunk represents a movement from today’s reality toward a gritty, pragmatic, better future.

Before my parents divorced, we went to an Evangelical church every Sunday, and I learned to pray each night before bed. These prayers became a place for me to put every bad thought I would have during the day, to pass them along to God. I had already developed a deep shame for my thoughts of being more boyish, and I prayed for these thoughts to end, just as I prayed for an end to natural disasters. I prayed for a better girl-mask. I prayed for a better world. My compulsive thinking followed me into my teenage years. In the ninth grade, I started an environmental justice group, hosting letter-writing parties and taking part in local protests at the Oregon Capitol, but when anti-green legislation passed into law, or when images emerged detailing islands of garbage in the ocean, I blamed myself for not doing more.

This kind of thinking kept me from coming out as transgender. Every time I had an intrusive thought about growing facial hair and passing as a boy, my self-blame returned. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough to be a girl; maybe I just needed to date boys and straighten my hair and shave my legs and wear makeup; maybe too, I needed to do more about the environment, protest more, organize more, do something more. I kept making up versions of myself. I only talked about environmental justice around my dad’s liberal friends. I only downplayed my femininity around my queer friends.

artwork depicting someone reading in a futuristic setting

The one place where I escaped from this constant masking and shifting was in the books I consumed. At 17, I read Ursula LeGuin’s series of novels, the Hainish Cycle, for the first time. I was instantly drawn into the worlds she created, where gender was fluid, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, where some worlds grappled with climate disaster just as some had overcome it, as in The Dispossessed. The way she experimented with the utopian, which always included queerness and dissolved gender roles, was like nothing I had read or experienced.

When I allowed myself to fall into these fictions, my dread would turn over into an almost hopeful outlook. I understood this as fantasy, though, and never considered taking what I had read in LeGuin into my real life. Instead, I spent years dreaming of alternate realities, where I hadn’t been born into a doomed world. To cope with the real world, I would make lists of everything I would need to survive a catastrophe, and I taught myself survival skills, like how to build a friction fire in the backyard.

In 2020, as the pandemic and my pregnancy took over my every waking thought, I felt myself spiraling into depression. I stopped reaching out to the online community I had started to form and spent most of my days under the blankets, playing the video game Animal Crossing. Around this time, my friend Sim Kern asked if I wanted to start a climate fiction book club. We invited another BookTube friend, Wil, to join us in a rotation of monthly discussions. We were all trans, but this did not immediately strike me as significant. I was still toying with the concept of being nonbinary and using gender neutral pronouns, still uncertain about medical transition. The book Internet, meanwhile, had become a place for me to find a community that gave me a sense of security in my identity. I could not explain it yet, but I knew my trans and environmental fears were deeply intertwined.

One way these fears were entangled was in how they were written about in modern media sources. It seemed that there was something so hushed, so confidential about each topic. No one was talking explicitly about the impact of major corporations spilling oil into the ocean, or the mass production of plastic products and use of fossil fuels. I had to learn about it from small, specific news outlets and wondered where that conversation was on a bigger scale. Trans-related topics were similar. I found information on medical transition or community resources through lengthy dives on the Internet, on very niche accounts. These niche spaces eventually led me to the book Internet space, where my virtual book club introduced me to a whole new way of imagining the world.

We started the book club with climate fiction classics. The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, encouraged a conversation about race and class and the violence associated with catastrophic events. Moon of the Crusted Snow, an Indigenous horror about an Anishinaabe community, by Waubgeshig Rice, helped us understand suffocation and isolation rooted in colonization. My Year of Meats, by Ruth L. Ozeki, exposed uncomfortable truths about the meat industry, abusive labor, and capitalism. Though important, our discussions about such books often descended into feelings of hopelessness. This left me wanting.

By November 2021, Otto was nearly a year old, and we were still facing ongoing environmental threats to our home. Smaller — but still significant — fires left us worried about evacuations, and I struggled to push down my anxiety and stay present with my curious baby. We were beginning the process of weaning from chestfeeding, and I had just received the go-ahead from my doctor to begin hormone replacement therapy. During this time, the club read a book called Foxhunt, by Rem Wigmore, published by the independent Queen of Swords Press. Foxhunt is a novel that features queer bounty hunters who track down resource-hoarders in a verdant, post-climate-crisis future. The story has conflict, and the world has continuous corruption that must be dealt with, but the narrative had a hopefulness to it that I hadn’t experienced since the Hainish Cycle. Here, though, hope felt more plausible than fanciful.

Such stories are now called “solarpunk,” a literary genre that has grown in prominence over the last few years and is echoed by a real-world social movement. Solarpunk is driven by a need for people to imagine a better future from where we are, not necessarily a fantasy world set in an unfamiliar, unlikely future. Solarpunk pushes against the bleak Blade Runner future of cyberpunk — a speculative genre centered on urban dystopias dominated by corporations and technology. Solarpunk provides a shining vision of a positive future, grounded in our existing world, one that emphasizes the need for environmental sustainability, self-governance, and social justice. Solarpunk imagines an inclusive, sustainable, possible future, where renewable technology meets ecological enlightenment.

AI generated image of a futuristic green utopia

An AI-generated image of a futuristic, green utopia. Solarpunk provides a shining vision of a positive, green-tech powered future that is grounded in our existing world, and that emphasizes the need for environmental sustainability, self-governance, and social justice. Image by Yamonstro.

In solarpunk, mesh renewable grids might electrify permaculture cities, while kelp-farmers thrive on abandoned offshore oil platforms. It’s a DIY world of green tech, upcycled goods, and scrappy nature-based design. Ecological ethics in this future expands to wider social awareness and the dissolution of problematic social constructs. In Foxhunt, for example, there is an all-present understanding of gender as neutral until a person declares otherwise. Its world wouldn’t be possible without advances in green technology, the absence of fossil-fuel powered vehicles, and an egalitarian baseline within its communities. None of this is pure fantasy. The characters in this novel reminded me of my own queer and trans communities, and it read as though I were simply experiencing a beautiful future created by my friends.

As I read and learned more, I felt even more at ease in the genre. From the outside, solarpunk is sometimes dismissed as an aesthetic movement — often inspired by art deco. This is reminiscent of the way some people trivialize the expression of queer and trans identities. Like queerness, solarpunk is more than it seems. It is an expansive movement rooted in radical social justice, incorporating all forms of media. Solarpunk podcasts exist alongside manifestos, conferences, art, design, and architecture. Websites like solarpunk magazine or solarpunk.net provide expansive resources for writers and technology buffs who wish to explore a hopeful future. Jay Springett’s Solarpunk: A Reference Guide asks the key question of the movement: “What does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?”

Unlike cyberpunk, solarpunk aims to use technology as a way to envision a better future. And unlike steampunk, another speculative genre, solarpunk takes a realistic view of a starting point. That is not to say that steampunk is uncritical of the direction our current form of capitalism is leading us. “Where the logic of capitalism centers on growth at all costs,” Isaiah Johnson writes in The Journal of Sustainability Education, “solarpunk fits much better with an ethic of compassion and temperance in economics.”

artwork depicting someone wearing a futuristic face mask

Befitting its science fiction lineage, solarpunk has influence on the present. Researchers at the World Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology, for example, have begun research on vermicompost (the product of decomposition by worms) to produce energy, an innovation straight out of solarpunk. The site Anarchosolarpunk explores ways that computer science and technology enable radical forms of political organization. One way to do this, the site’s founder Andre writes, is by creating an open-source network that makes software free to access, establishing communal ownership of technology (as opposed to the private ownership of billion-dollar software companies). There is even a place for solarpunk in the world of fashion, as designers incorporate sustainable materials. For example, Svitlana Bevza, a designer based in Kyiv, Ukraine, presented an entire winter collection of materials made from recycled plastic bottles — a “love letter to the Earth,” Bevza called it. Such ideas are solarpunk.

Beyond tech and design, Solarpunk addresses accessibility issues, eugenics, racism, and misogyny. The collection Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures showcases a huge range of stories where these issues are intrinsic to solving the environmental crisis. “The multispecies concept argues that we can only truly understand the world if we look at the many ways humans and other life forms are entangled, in a way that cannot be easily separated,” the editors write in the introduction. “For example, one could not possibly write a human history of the year 2020 without considering another organism: the novel coronavirus.”

Solarpunk tackles real problems with viable solutions, and the only speculation needed is on the will of any of us to build such a world. In solarpunk, an outbreak doesn’t lead to a zombie infestation; it leads to collective action.

IT IS WINTER AGAIN, and Otto is now two. As I write this, atmospheric rivers are hammering California, and here on the farm we have been through countless ice storms. As spring warms, I know we will face wildfires, as we do now every year. Amid this, I am learning to be myself and a parent. I am showing Otto how to tend to our homestead, even though I know it could be gone any year. I worry about raising an innocent toddler among so much uncertainty and violence. But I increasingly find solace in solarpunk, in its ideals.

The best fiction creates a new reality, and I have found mine. I can envision a future where I am allowed to exist.

I have noticed that I now apply what I have learned from the movement into how I parent and how I have created a home for Otto to grow up in. On our homestead, we bring compost to our worm bin, raise chickens for their eggs, and rabbits as a less environmentally impactful means of meat production. The food we don’t eat is given to the animals that can create compost, so we can grow more of our food. Otto and I play and experiment with both the natural environment just outside our door, and the technology inside our home, often combining the two by taking videos of falling leaves or using cedar boughs on a miniature drum kit to create new sounds. This past fall, we often spent the day running through the deciduous forest behind the house, stopping at every fallen hemlock and poking at the red belted conks and orange jelly mushrooms in pure astonishment. At night, we read picture books about the garden, and when Otto recognized on the page a plant or bug they had seen outside, they gasped. As they grow up, I want to incorporate this kind of play and exploration into their learning and always remind them of the hope that exists in our futures.

Solarpunk has taught me how to channel my existential dread into hope. The best fiction creates a new reality, and I have found mine, in part. As I move through my medical gender transition, I can, thanks in part to this unexpected discovery, envision a future where I am allowed to exist. Through the lens of parenthood, I am able to reflect on the fear that forced me to close off so much of my excitement for life, to relearn a life of play. I’m excited for the conversations to be had with my child, about the endless potential that exists moving forward, where we can watch the world evolve and change — not discounting how difficult it will be — but engaging in idea creation and learning. We will stay up late sometimes, dreaming of a future where, through innovation, invention, radical organization, and creative action, we can live with the ongoing impacts of climate change and all the strife that will follow it. This dreaming will become our version of prayer.

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