Solarpunk as a way of redesigning higher education for the climate crisis

One well-known risk of working on climate change is depression.  The topic presents so many terrible futures that dwelling in it can be mentally brutal.

In response to this grim issue, people have been offering hopeful ways of thinking about global warming.  One of them became a design movement which strikes me as an antidote, and I’d like to introduce it and its implications for higher education in this post.

The design movement is called solarpunk.

1: What is solarpunk?

I’ve seen people describe it as a way of prompting us to imagine the best possible Anthropocene, and that’s a good start.  Generally solarpunk envisions a positive response to the climate crisis, a way of designing and living that’s in harmony with nature, as opposed to exploiting it.  We rethink everything from transportation to clothing, food systems, landscapes, and social relations.  Put another way, solarpunk is a prompt to get us thinking of a climate future that isn’t horrifying, but actually appealing.

The name is interesting.  On its face the two parts clash: “solar” standing for the sun, of course, and “punk” referring to a rebellious or nihilisitc attitude. In practice the prefix makes us think of solar power, representing renewable energy in general, while the suffix emphasizes creative dissent and an attempt to break with the present day order of things.  The sun also tends to have a positive, warming resonance, which signals the term’s positive aspirations.  For me, “punk” particularly indicates an unfinished, improv, DIY creative energy.

We can tease out a host of concepts under the solarpunk header, starting with biophilic design. This is an architectural school which seeks to reconnect people with nature within the built environment.

For an example, consider this classic image by Imperial Boy:

A solarpunk vision by Imperial Boy.

The city is far greener than most.  Note the plants and trees growing on buildings beyond their first floors, intertwining flora with urban life.  Note, too the centrality of water, both in the canal and (implicitly) running through the plants.  There’s much more to biophilic design, but let’s move on for now.

A second concept is what we used to call appropriate technologies for the post-fossil fuel world.  Solarpunk is neither anti-tech nor boosting tech for its own sake, but seeks instead to pick tools which work and have a minimal footprint.

For an example, watch this extraordinary video which is putatively – of all things – a yogurt ad:

Some days I prefer this version, with the voiceover (and ad copy) removed:

Notice the mix of technologies.  Some are advanced, like human-ish robots, drones for delivery and local rain clouds. Others are not, like old school clothing.   Technology doesn’t dominate the world, but sits nicely within a human and natural context.

A third element is a kind of left-green politics. Solarpunk centers the environment and renewing it within the political sphere, as per Green parties.  It tends to be anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist.  It’s also keen on social justice along multiple axes: gender, race, geography, development, etc.  I’ve especially seen the latter in solarpunk fiction, which often turns around ways of addressing inter-human injustices.

Solarpunk stories and art often speak of growth, but it’s important to note that it’s not in the neoliberal sense of ever-expanding market share, business size, stock value, and so on. Instead, solarpunk growth strikes me as being more about natural renewal. Indeed, that can be at the expense of humanity, whose footprint recedes in many ways.

Additionally, it’s important to see that solarpunk is a transnational, global movement. We can find examples from Brazil, China, India, Europe, and the United States.  The designs show this, with local/national details and remixes of many cultures.  At the same time, solarpunk stories are often very local, focused on a given community.

We can also speak of solarpunk’s visual aesthetics.  They often emphasize green colors, of course.  We also see a mix of Earth tone.  The appropriate technology dimension leads to interesting representations of hardware combined with nature.

There’s a lot more to be said about this design movement.  We can pull up examples from literature, games, and art.  We could dive into the long prehistory of solarpunk antecedents. But I’d like to pause that for now (see below for some links) in order to turn to how we might apply it to colleges and universities.

2: What might solarpunk mean for higher education?

Now I’d like to bring this design movement to bear on academia as we wade ever more deeply into the climate crisis.  My intuition is that solarpunk can inspire us to interesting and useful ways of rethinking colleges and universities.

Some AIs agree. Claude.AI had some thoughts, starting with the physical campus:

Here are some ways a college campus could embrace solarpunk ideals and aesthetics:

  • Abundant plants, trees, gardens, and green roofs on every building to integrate nature and capture carbon. The campus could focus on native species and food production.
  • Renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines providing electricity. Buildings designed for natural light and ventilation to minimize energy use.
  • Sustainable architecture with recycled and natural materials. Lots of wood, stone, and glass for a bright, earthy look. Decorative elements made through 3D printing or crafts.
  • Rainwater harvesting systems used for irrigation and plumbing. Features like constructed wetlands and bioswales for drainage.
  • Transportation by walking, biking, and public transit encouraged over cars. Paths connecting campus to greenbelt areas and the local community.
  • Makerspaces with technology like 3D printers where students can build and repair sustainable devices. DIY and upcycling emphasized.
  • Communal gardens, kitchens, workshops, and social spaces to foster sharing and collaboration. Focus on circular economy and repair/reuse over waste.

Next, Claude has ideas about the non-physical infrastructure of a college or university:

  • Courses and research involving agriculture, renewable energy, ecology, technology, social justice, arts, etc. with a holistic approach to solving environmental problems and creating sustainable systems.
  • Campus culture values equity, inclusion, cooperation, and democratic processes. Students, staff, and community partners work together on improving sustainability on campus and beyond.

The overall goal would be a closed-loop, carbon neutral or even restorative ecosystem improving the natural and social environment.

That’s a good start, covering a nice range of topics.  Each makes at least some sense, but is by no means the final word.  And we can see the bot hitting some of the domains I’ve previously identified:

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

I would add even more. Does solarpunk suggest collaborations between campus and the local community, such as those communal kitchens?  How might academic research play a role on the wider regional or global stage?

Visual AI services have created some intriguing images.   An early edition of Midjourney depicted some interesting, abstract views, like these:

Solarpunk_university_4 pix JohMag23__Midjourney

Sketchy, but you can see glimpses of nature and various academic signifiers.

Stable Diffusion presents more details:

solarpunk by Stable Diffusion

Now we see buildings deeply intertwined with greenery – forests and farms?  Water lines one side, while solar panels are plentiful.

Nowadays Midjourney offers more detailed visions, like so:

bryanalexander_A_solarpunk_university._glass and blue water

There’s a strong emphasis on water and glass, suggesting greenhouses, perhaps, or passive heating and cooling.

Compare with this one:

bryanalexander_A_solarpunk_university._lots of brown wood

I don’t know what “…ATO SURAN” means but do enjoy the surrealism of AI image generators freestyling new languages.

Again with water and glass.  But the brown/tan colored structures might suggest wood or mass timber, for a very different building design.

Hopefully you, dear reader, may have some ideas which you’d like to share in comments, your own blog, or on social media. I think this is a good prompt for reflection, conversations, prototyping, and workshops.  In fact, I’m going to host a live video Future Trends Forum session this week, wherein participants can develop their own ideas together.  Join us!

There’s a lot more to look into if you’d like to explore solarpunk.  The Arizona State University’s Hieroglyph project’s manifesto is handy, as is this interview with its author.  This article goes into more detail. Here’s one nice has good materials.  Rhys Williams has a good appreciation and critique.

(drawing on sources like Solarpunk Anarchist and Built In)

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5 Responses to Solarpunk as a way of redesigning higher education for the climate crisis

  1. Mark Corbett Wilson says:

    What was old is new again! I haven’t been following Solarpunk. I hope it is more speculative than spectacle. I would drop an image here, but WordPress…
    This video is a nice update to Paolo Soleri’s work.
    I studied with him in 1976, and lived at Arcosanti for most of 1978. I’ve never understood why his ideas have never caught on. I always imagined a mining company building an arcology in Africa or South America. Maybe China will lead the way here too.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That just adds to the many reasons I admire you, Mark. Studying with Soleri and living in the arcology! Amazing.

      I’m not sure why his work didn’t take off. Apparently it was all the rage in the 70s.

  2. Mark says:

    What a wonderful post. Magnificent images and the imagination is very unique. Solarpunk ! is the future rebellious yet genius to moderate what created us. Thanks for the read, Bryan.

  3. Pingback: solarpunk can inspire us to ways of rethinking education - Sidmouth Solarpunk

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