Solarpunk as Pharmakon: Building a New World out of the Ruins of an Old One

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki. Film still: Topcraft
“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki. Film still: Topcraft

In times when capitalism claims its monopoly on both dystopia (such as apocalyptic theme parks) and utopia (such as green smart cities), it is difficult to draw emancipatory ideas from either dystopian or utopian narratives. The solarpunk genre, with its hopeful post-apocalyptic visions, seems to offer an alternative to this dilemma. But is this really the best of both worlds? Or something else? The cultural critic and journalist Alessandro Sbordoni takes stock.


Green capitalism is the hottest new thing. A sunny valley with advanced technology, a robot farmer picking strawberries with grandma and grandpa, a floating vehicle in a lush and green natural landscape… This is the green imagery of the 90-second animation “Dear Alice,” an advertisement produced for the American food company Chobani, with a soundtrack by Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. In the words of the animators, “Dear Alice” is “an optimistic vision of the future of agriculture. It’s a nostalgic look at a new era of farming. A cow bellows in front of a solar panel while you eat your favorite yogurt and drink your dairy-free milk. “How we eat [and consume] today will feed tomorrow.” Again, another ad produced for Chobani by animation company The Line: “Growing oats uses less water today so we can enjoy the future tomorrow. Delicious. Creamy. Chobani Zero Sugar Milk.” Green capitalism has never tasted so sour.

Three months later, on October 19, 2021, a new “decommodified” solarpunk animation of Chobani’s “Dear Alice” ad was uploaded to YouTube. No more product placement: Chobani® Coffee Creamer and Chobani® Coffee Cold Brew bottles are just monochrome containers with no branding. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack is replaced with environmental sounds.

Echoing Audre Lorde’s famous phrase, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, one can say that in this case of green optimism, the master’s garden tools will never poison the master’s garden. Like the Roman emperors Caligula and Nero nineteen centuries ago, whose names, effigies, and portraits were erased or removed from public view after their deaths, Chobani’s name will be erased by the minor history of the future. In analogy to the denarius coins bearing the faces of the two Roman emperors, which were later either melted down or counter-marked (the archaic sign of “decommodification”), the industry of signs as such is liquefied into a brand new cultural economy in the name of solarpunk.

We need solutions, not just warnings.”

The 2019 “Solarpunk Manifesto” reads: “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 do we get there?’ […] Solarpunk can be utopian, merely optimistic, or concerned with the struggles on the way to a better world, but never dystopian. As our world roils with disaster, we need solutions, not just warnings.”

In twenty-first-century literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed” (whose subtitle, most notably, is “An Ambiguous Utopia”) is an often-cited pioneer of the genre, along with other works such as the manga series and film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” by Hayao Miyazaki. In architecture, Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore and the city of Almere in the Netherlands are two examples of solarpunk aesthetics in which nature, technology, and human life are designed and integrated together. The non-place of Jewel Changi Airport is no longer just a place of transit, but also a place of wonder. According to Matt Bluemink, Changi Airport “may be one of the few airports in the world that could be considered a tourist attraction in its own right.”

On the other hand, Almere’s green urban design, as Jens Branum pointed out, represents the imagination of another future, reproduced through futuristic architecture and ecological urbanism, which cannot exist without capitalism: the logos of Samsung, Toshiba, and Sony are plastered on the facades of solarpunk buildings. The solarpunk aesthetic is the high noon of capitalism. The sun is at its zenith, but the shadows have never been longer. In the end, “midnight is also noon – […] night is also a sun,” as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

Antidote to denialism and despair?

Today, the “green models” of Singapore and Almere are often cited as forerunners of cities like The Line (ironically, the same name as the animation company quoted above) in Saudi Arabia. Founded by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, The Line is a linear “smart” city in the desert: a 170-kilometer line without cars and carbon emissions, powered by green energy. Efficiency and optimization in these “smart” cities will also be measured by the extent to which they succeed in providing “security” and monitoring their inhabitants around the clock.

In this context, it is worth quoting the eleventh thesis of the “Solarpunk Manifesto”: “Imagine throwing out ‘smart cities’ in favor of smart citizens.” But what does it actually mean to be a “smart citizen” outside the urban version of the “smartness mandate” (Orit Halpern) when smartness is both technology and fantasy of capital? In any case, The Line seems to enforce the literal antithesis of the critical reconstruction of intelligent citizens to build a linear city in the desert.

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki. Film still: Topcraft
“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki. Film still: Topcraft

Let us read the second thesis of the “Solarpunk Manifesto”: “We are solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.” Contrary to the cyberpunk philosophy of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the Wachowski twins’ “The Matrix,” solarpunk is the representation of hope and optimism. In the words of Matt Bluemink and Jens Branum, solarpunk is an “antidote” to the hopelessness and pessimism of cyberpunk. However, solarpunk’s “antidote” is also somewhat toxic. It is a pharmakon, both remedy and poison.

As Mark Fisher noted in “Capitalist Realism”: “What we are now dealing with is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potential, but rather their precommodification: the preemptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations, and hopes by capitalist culture.” In other words, “Dear Alice” is the precommodification of its ad-free remake.

The revolution is already over. It is already the antithesis of another thesis of the “Solarpunk Manifesto”: “The ‘punk’ in Solarpunk is about rebellion, counterculture, post-capitalism, decolonialism, and enthusiasm. It is about going in a different direction than the mainstream, which is increasingly going in a scary direction.”

Capitalism is the end of the world

But solarpunk aesthetics is also about developing an “economy of contribution,” to use a phrase popularized by Bernard Stiegler, that is out of and against the capitalist economy. It is about building a new world out of the ruins of an old one. It is also about imagining a different future that may already be here and now. The pessimism of capitalist realism must be countered by the optimism of post-capitalism. Solarpunk is a fiction, a fever dream, a fantasy. But so is the future.

In an essay for the second annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths in 2019, Jodi Dean writes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, because capitalism is the end of the world.” She added in an untranscribed section of the talk that “the ravages of capitalism – enclosure, debt, stress – are deadly and world-ending,” as quoted by Matt Colquhoun, editor of Mark Fisher’s posthumous book “Postcapitalist Desire,” who was present at Goldsmiths that day. The question is not what to do, but how to do it. The answer, according to Jodi Dean, is a form of political relationship: comradeship.

One hundred years after socialism or barbarism, the choice is between communism and capitalism. But according to Byung-Chul Han, community is already another commodity. “Capitalism will be fulfilled when it sells communism as a commodity.” And so, “Communism as a commodity means the end of the revolution.” Is there a third way?

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the BG’s “Politics of Apocalypse” dossier. More content on these topics can be found here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.