Planetary Infrastructure as Resistance: Solarpunk and Web3
After living in a dusty (but bright) corner of the internet for over a decade, Solarpunk has found its way into Web3
“Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded. She had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization. (…) But the network was not to be run from the top down. There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974
On February 16, 2022, Kevin Owocki, the self-described “OG person” of Gitcoin, spoke on content channel Bankless about his book Greenpilled and the launch of The Green Pill Podcast.¹ For Owocki, being “greenpilled” means to “choose to build a more regenerative world with crypto-economics, and to tackle global-scale challenges, like climate change and underfunded infrastructure.”² When asked “why green?” Owocki delayed his answer by speaking to the values of crypto-economic systems:
“We have all come into this [Web3] space as cypherpunks, advocating use of strong cryptography and privacy enhancing technologies creating a future that is more credibly neutral, with accessible finance for the world.³ I strongly believe in cypherpunk values and I think those are really amazing, but another thing that I have in my value system, is the idea of solarpunk, a future in which humanity has succeeded in solving its major contemporary challenges around sustainability and climate change, and underfunded infrastructure. Solarpunk is evocative of a green, integrated sort of mindset. And I think that we’re looking at what the libertarian Left thinks the future of the world can be. We don’t just have strong privacy and strong sovereignty, but we also have solved coordination failures. I think green is the color of the Earth and the Gaia hypothesis. It’s the ultimate color manifestation to me of a world that is more sustainable.”⁴
It is not surprising that key figures in Web3 increasingly refer to, and appropriate solarpunk. In both solarpunk and Web3 beliefs circulate that a more equitable, liveable future is possible and that the development and implementation of (decentralized, possibly disruptive) technological infrastructure can be a means towards this end. Looking at key concepts in both movements, however, there are not only similarities but also differences, or at least distinct nuances to be detected. Analyzing the way in which decentralization and infrastructure are instrumentalized and referred to in both solarpunk and Web3, can help to understand to what extent appropriation of solarpunk narratives within Web3 is appropriate. Additionally, looking at Web3 infrastructure through the lens of New Materialism, which challenges human-centrism and perceives matter as active and agentive, may offer an alternative perspective.
1. Solarpunk Contextualized
“A cluster of dazzling flashes at the east edge of the city made him wink and see dark spots for a moment: the big parabolic mirrors that provided solar heat for Abbenay’s refineries. (...) The sun shone white in a hard, dark, blue-violet sky. The air was clear and clean, without smoke or moisture. There was a vividness to things, a hardness of edge and corner, a clarity.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974
Since it appeared as a term on the internet in the early 2010s on social networks like Tumblr and Reddit, solarpunk has developed as a distributed subculture with an on- and offline community, a niche aesthetic movement and a literary genre. Some artworks and novels have been labeled “solarpunk” retrospectively. Ursula K. Le Guin is, for instance, described by some as the movement’s grandmother, even though she wrote her main ‘solarpunk novel’, The Dispossessed, in 1974. A series of solarpunk-themed anthologies (published by World Weaver Press) contain the most current and deliberately defining written works of the genre.
Because of its non-hierarchical, distributed nature, solarpunk lacks a clear-cut definition and is blurry at the edges. Nevertheless, attempts at defining it have been made in manifestos. The one on re-des.org describes solarpunk as “a vision of a future that embodies the best of what humanity can achieve: a post-scarcity, post-hierarchy, post-capitalistic [sic] world where humanity sees itself as part of nature and clean energy replaces fossil fuels.” Decentralization is not mentioned explicitly here, but does shine through in the mention of “post-hierarchy” and in the claims, further down in the manifesto, that solarpunk “embraces a diversity of tactics” and that “there is no single right way to do solarpunk” but how, instead “diverse communities from around the world adopt the name and the ideas, and build little nests of self-sustaining revolution.”⁵ Decentralization, in the sense that authority is moved away from a central governing body to local or individual agents, is thus implicitly embedded in this description.
Solarpunk is often, also in the aforementioned manifesto, substantiated by a comparison with cyberpunk, in which the latter is seen as depicting a nihilistic, hightech world with social problems and a dark and gloomy aesthetic, and the former as envisioning an optimistic one, with a harmonious relationship between technology and ecology, aesthetically defined by abundance and brightness. The connection to Cypherpunk has also been established, most recently by Sara Campbell, Gitcoin’s Scott Moore, and Alisha.eth, who described this privacy and cryptography oriented subculture as spiritually adjacent to cyberpunk, yet offering “a better, but still limited view of the possibilities technology could bring” in the fight “against an increasingly powerful (though not unrealistic) global surveillance state.”⁶ Here, technology is seen as a tool to decentralize.
In their essay, the authors make a case for shifting the Web3 narrative to solarpunk, arguing that “while cyberpunk focused on what we should move away from (dystopian mega-corps, corrupt governments, and fading rebel alliances) solarpunk offers a vision of what we might want to move towards.”⁷ Decentralization plays a part in this argument, as they see solarpunk as a “schelling point for the hopeful” striving to “shed the baggage of or at least better examine historical power structures, whether those are in the form of the governments, corporations, or other less tangible forces like the economy (...)”⁸ Aligning on a solarpunk narrative can, according to the authors, help create less hierarchical (centralized) organizational forms, with more local, commons-based forms of (self-)governance, unregulated by authorities. When applied to a bigger, planetary scale, they argue that “the regenerative economic tools being built in Web3, including “dweb” tech, are one promising solution” to the problem posed by the tragedy of the commons.⁹ “Regenerative economic tools” they argue “are solarpunk.” But to build these tools (and common goods) needed for social progress at the planetary scale, global coordination and large-scale implementation is needed, and the question is whether that is still solarpunk, too.
California-based researcher Isaijah Johnson and literary scholar Rhys Williams can help further our understanding of solarpunk. In Johnson’s 2020 article Solarpunk & the Pedagogical Value of Utopia, he analyzes the metaphorical and literal meaning of the movement. He observes how the “solar” in solarpunk is both an aesthetic and narrative device, and a direct reference to solar energy and low carbon, renewable energy in general.¹⁰ The sun is depicted as the super-abundant resource that can (in theory) provide for all and “solar” is in this sense equated with optimism, but also with a political ambition to envision and build a harmonious future powered by clean energy. This ambition is not (yet) explicit in Web3. In addition, Williams observes in his essay This Shining Confluence of Magic and Technology: Solarpunk, Energy Imaginaries, and the Infrastructures of Solarity how:
“While this image of harmony is utopian, it also threatens, as such images do, to totalise. The sun promises and threatens to subsume everyone and everything beneath it, as much a symbol of beneficence as an emblem of tyranny. While solar power lends itself to decentralised structures, it also encourages plans for a world super-grid.”¹¹
Web3 enthusiasts may share solarpunk’s optimism for the future, but how to ensure that the utopian image does not totalize? The ambition to create a global infrastructure reminds more of large-scale industrial solar farms, than of “diverse communities around the world building self-sustaining nests of revolution.” How decentralized and egalitarian can a super-grid be? Williams pointedly observes how “sunlight does not fall on everyone equally” and in a similar sense technology is not accessible to everyone equally. Moreover, the idea that everyone on earth would want more sunlight or technological infrastructure, is totalizing, not democratic.
Johnson further writes how the “punk” in solarpunk generally refers to its countercultural, oppositional quality. In many cases, solarpunk stories imagine an overturning of the status quo—challenging not just authorities or capitalism in general but more nuanced ecological and social injustices. According to Johnson “the main injustices solarpunk addresses are environmental racism, ability and disability, and representation.”¹² Johnson posits that “solarpunk is a chance to imagine (..) what a world would look like which addressed its injustices (rather than the simply-utopian path of imagining them away without a plan).”¹³ Adopting a solarpunk narrative brings with it this responsibility, and although the attitude in Web3 is largely a proactive one, it may be appropriate (and more solarpunk) to shift the focus from “solving challenges surrounding climate change and sustainability” towards a more considered addressing of “climate justice.” As Associate Professor of Geography, Farhana Sultana observes: “climate justice fundamentally is about paying attention to how climate change impacts people differently, unevenly, and disproportionately, as well as redressing the resultant injustices in fair and equitable ways.”¹⁴ Addressing climate change and sustainability issues can easily be perceived as solving issues for just the wealthy few; addressing climate justice offers a more inclusive, intersectional approach.
2. Decentralization as a Trope (and Treasure Trove) in Web3
“Could they really admit equality and participate in intellectual solidarity, or were they merely trying to dominate, to assert their power, to possess?”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974
Infrastructure plays an important part in solarpunk imaginaries, as the world envisioned is generally one on the other side of the energy transition: a world freed from petro-chemical dependency. In reality, actual infrastructure needs to be built to get there, and the “how” is often not so vividly described in the literature. Williams observes that “the simple switch to solar technologies, without regard for the specifics of their construction, and the very real problems with their disposal, is insufficient” but also sees how this is a “break with reality that is required to elaborate a different future.”¹⁵ Web3 culture could play a pivotal role in building the infrastructure envisioned by solarpunk, but the way in which it is built and for whom matters.
Adam Flynn, who wrote Solarpunk: Notes Towards a Manifesto in 2014, argues that “there’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk, but it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance.”¹⁶ This emphasizes the sense within the solarpunk community that infrastructure can (in theory) be mobilized as a tool for societal change. The direction of this change is, despite the general anti-establishment sentiment in solarpunk, not always entirely clear. Williams points out how the specifics of imaginaries “vary depending on the politics of the dreamer” and observes how solarpunk (perhaps because of its distributed nature) is not entirely politically homogeneous.¹⁷ His literary analysis shows how some solarpunk narratives are limited to envisioning a business-as-usual future, whereas others are more explicitly aimed at creating a more egalitarian, entrepreneurial society.¹⁸ Even others imagine futures of global cooperation and, ultimately, communism.¹⁹ This “ambiguous” nature makes it important to, when appropriating solarpunk, be specific.
A similar thing can be argued about decentralized infrastructures, as the way they function depends —largely though not entirely—on the politics of the dreamer who dreamt them up. Following Professor of Anthropology, Brian Larkin, infrastructures can be seen as technological systems, financial instruments, and even biological or social structures.²⁰ As such they can bind “people and things into complex heterogeneous systems”, and imply “a kind of mentality and way of living in the world.”²¹
Blockchains, as peer-to-peer systems, are infrastructures with the defining quality that they are (socially, financially, and technologically) decentralized. Interestingly, this has made them appealing to both the neoliberal right, and the libertarian left. Sune Sandbeck, et al. showed through their research on governmentality in Web3 how decentralization is perceived and implemented differently on both sides of the political spectrum.²² By heralding competition, “neoliberalism subordinates state power to the conditions of the marketplace, the implication being that ‘political problems’ can be recast in technical terms.”²³ It thus creates a scenario in which competition becomes the basis of social relations. When speaking to the way this maps onto blockchains, they argue:
“In the same way that neoliberal governmentality does not actually eliminate governance — but rather curtails the amount of regulations required from any single actor in the system — blockchains do not actually eliminate trust. What they do is minimize the amount of trust. (…) Blockchains thus herald the arrival of a digital order that effortlessly merges libertarian philosophies of governance and neoliberal precepts about value creation and distribution, by elevating laissez-faire to an autonomous, self-governing algorithm.”²⁴
The element of competition is visible for example in the mechanism of Proof-of-Work (and its problems of mining cartelization), and it can be argued that the financial infrastructure of Web3 does not effectively redistribute capital in a more equitable way, but rather exacerbates an oligarchical concentration of wealth. In the example of Bitcoin, a ‘trustless-architecture’ (meaning as little trust as possible) was instrumentalized to favor technical solutions over trust in human and organizational relationships.²⁵ Decentralization is, in cases like this, predominantly a mechanism to circumnavigate institutional interference, and consequently to avert responsibility for, or awareness of the common good. Sandbeck et al. mention how “Bitcoin and other so-called ‘trustless’ cryptocurrency architectures have merely served to promote neoliberal governmentality by relying on financial subjectivity and speculative futurity as the primary impetus for governance on the blockchain.”²⁶ They also observe, however, how “blockchains can offer possibilities for developing and deploying the highly reliable, versatile forms of collective action, engagement, and exchange in open networks on behalf of projects opposed to both neoliberal capitalism and libertarian politics.”²⁷
In their 2021 essay, Positive Sum Worlds: Remaking Public Goods, Toby Shorin, Sam Hart, and Laura Lotti also observed this potential “danger” of decentralization, when they pose how:
“The crypto community ostensibly holds an ethos of liberalism, where "decentralization" frequently stands for community self-sovereignty. With the wealth creation in the space, there is no reason crypto shouldn't be able to build goods for the diverse values of its different communities. (...) But in practice, little space has been made for different values to be discussed or enacted. Which is why, in the absence of ways to enact our shared values, we default to the lowest common denominator: profit.”²⁸
Their proposition, in line with Gitcoin’s, is to relay the focus from profit to the creation of public goods, a term they describe as ‘positive externalities’ or infrastructures which are of benefit to people, communities, and the planet. Here Larkin’s words gain new meaning, as blockchain infrastructures could produce “a kind of mentality and way of living in the world” where tokenholders turn away from the accumulation of capital towards social and planetary relations based on care, connectedness, and humility. Utilized in this way, decentralization could create more egalitarian governance structures and help build, not minimize, trust.
The focus in Positive Sum Worlds is largely on sustaining urban lifestyles, with the main examples of public goods being parks and libraries. These are of course relevant for a large chunk of the human population. However, to create public goods that create a more liveable world (not just more liveable cities), we need to think beyond the urban scale. The framework of climate justice can help here, to understand what the public goods are that (also) cater for those already very adversely impacted by the climate crisis and the continued practices of colonialism that exacerbated it. Additionally, to deliver on solarpunk’s ambition to create futures in which technology is in harmony with the earth’s (endangered) ecosystems, an even broader perspective may be needed, one in which not merely the infrastructure is decentralized, but which decenters the human.
3. Distributed Trust → Distributive Agency
“In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rights of the money-changers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men's acts, even the terrible became banal.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974
Sune Sandbeck et al. argue that “perhaps a more accurate way to describe blockchains is not as ‘trustless’ but as built on the basis of distributed trust: trusting everyone in the aggregate as economic agents participating in a network on the basis of rational self-interest and competition.”²⁹ As shown above, this distributed trust leads to problems, especially when there are no shared values among the tokenholders other than making profit. The authors suggest that problems start to arise at a certain scale, and that trust takes a different shape within blockchain technologies if these are scaled communally, not globally. In this way, they argue, “the shared values and goals of a defined community can maintain their guiding role in the production of the blockchain.”³⁰ Giving a few examples of community-sized crypto projects, they show how this changes the relationship between people, blockchains, and trust as “trust” is in these cases “not located in a central authority, nor is it located in a ‘trustless architecture’, but rather is it located in the community.”³¹ In these examples, blockchains are used for time tracking and tokenization, and to create a commons-based organization (a common good with positive externalities).
In addition to this consideration of not scaling beyond the communal, it could be productive to think not merely in terms of “human” trust. As suggested above, to create a more harmonious world, we may have to apply a less human-centric perspective. This was also recently called out by Phoebe Tickell in the GreenPill Podcast episode of May 5th, who suggests imagining future scenarios in which rivers and mountains are understood as having agency and decision-making power. In her 2010 book Vibrant Matter, a political ecology of things, Jane Bennett extends the notion of agency to material objects. She argues how “[a] lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.”³² When Bennett says “a lot happens” she means, among other things, that it shifts the power balance: humans are no longer the center of agency (or attention), but part of an interdependent network of other, human and nonhuman, actors.
Bennett develops her theory of distributive agency by building on Spinoza’s notion of affective bodies, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “assemblage” while analyzing, among other things, a North American power blackout. Bennett describes how to “a vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, and fantasies of mastery” just to name a few.³³ A similar logic can be applied to blockchains, as these too are infrastructural webs consisting of both material and immaterial, living and nonliving actors. Similarly, a blockchain is a volatile mix of many things, including fantasies of mastery.
Thinking about blockchains in this way, and of agency as distributed, obviously brings up the question of responsibility. Because, if agency is distributed, who is to blame when things go awry? Bennett responds to this by suggesting that
“it is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hope of enhancing the accountability of specific humans?”³⁴
We may not be there yet, we may still need a politics of blame to hold people accountable, but the thought experiment is tempting, and it urges us to rethink the relationship between humans and technology. This brings to mind Peter K. Haff who describes this relationship in his 2013 article Technology as a geological phenomenon: implications for human well-being when he speaks of the technosphere at large as “an emerging geological process that has entrained humans as essential components that support its dynamics.”³⁵ Haff shows how we are not just deeply ingrained with, and dependent on, the technology that surrounds us (e.g. at our current scale we cannot survive without the technosphere) but that our purpose may be to keep the technosphere alive, rather than vice versa.
This closes the loop to the originator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, who in his latest book, Novacene, written at the tender age of 99, observes how humans have birthed Artificial Intelligence, and that this child of ours (AI) will likely be the species to survive us. Lovelock here asks the million dollar question: if technology is (becoming) conscious, self-reliant, and all-encompassing, what should we, as its parents, teach it?
4. Food for Thought
The question initiating this piece was whether the name of a subculture and literary genre can be credibly appropriated by an increasingly (both financially and culturally) powerful tech movement. Solarpunk may seem a fitting ‘schelling point’ for Web3 because of its optimistic solar imaginaries and visions for societal change. However, signaling alliance with the solarpunk community (or its nests of self-sustaining revolution) brings with it the responsibility to understand the political and ideological nuances already present. Solarpunk may be nascent, ill-defined and blurry at the edges, yet some convictions have become core to solarpunk, like its ambition to build greener, more egalitarian societies, and its addressing of injustices like environmental racism.
Shifting the narrative in Web3 to Solarpunk can be seen as mere absorption of a cultural trope if it is not clear what the gesture of alliance entails. So the question is, how to add something credible to the already existing narratives?
Furthermore, solarpunk’s “punk” may come across as a desirably edgy, which may work well when preaching to a cypherpunk choir. But is it the right term when speaking about the implementation of planetary infrastructure? There seems to be a rift between the scale at which solarpunk operates (think self-sustaining nests) and the implementation of global blockchain-based technologies. The scale of implementation may be determinant for the way decentralization functions, and for whether it can still be considered solarpunk.
Lastly, in order to truly create a more equitable world, in which technology and ecology coexist in harmony, it is instrumental to shift our focus away from the human-centric. Expanding our awareness to acknowledge the agency of our nonhuman animal- and nature kin (like parrots, rivers, and mountains) and our technological kin (like servers), may help in creating this more harmonious place, where humans are not perceiving themselves to be “in charge” or entitled to the largest piece of the proverbial pie.