a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Even then, 2015 felt like a turning point. At the height of dystopian entertainment’s popularity, presidential campaigns also kicked into gear, prompting the latest rise in nationalism and fascism and emboldening their adherents. Personally, we both left radically different situations to start an MFA in Ames, Iowa. Phoebe, from working in rural Pennsylvania, and Brontë, from teaching English in Spain. Both of us wanted to write speculative literature—but not about dystopias—and even more than that, we wanted to read and love non-dystopian speculative fiction.
We figured that others would want the same, and, in the spirit of proactive transformation, we set out to collect an anthology of speculative fiction that aligned with what we wanted to both read and write. Eventually, this anthology, published by Upper Rubber Boot Books in 2017, gave itself the name Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation and garnered a couple hundred submissions, $6000 on Kickstarter, write-ups in both LA Review of Books and Publishers Weekly, and inclusion in multiple yearly best-of anthologies. This was more recognition than we ever hoped for, but recognition that our contributors and their wonderful work deserved many times over. We wanted to use the burgeoning genre of solarpunk to inspire not just speculative fiction fans, but also activists looking for resilience in increasingly bleak times. What better genre to work in as an attempt to both portray and put into action community-centered resistance to the oppressive systems of the world?
Back in the day, solarpunk mostly existed on Tumblr. In 2013, Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro made a Brazilian anthology of solarpunk, demonstrating the transnational importance of the genre, followed by Claudie Arseneault publishing an anthology of dragon-themed solarpunk, Wings of Renewal (2015). In the midst of these publications, Adam Flynn wrote “Solarpunk: Notes toward a Manifesto” while folks like kdhume, Jay Springett, and T.X. Watson were doing some early theorizing in addition to collecting solarpunk ideas through online sources. Of course, these instances weren’t the earliest uses of the word, but it is when we got hooked.
Small-town Iowa can be pretty bleak for a new arrival. Colonial violence, big agriculture, Monsanto, groundwater heavy with nitrate run-off, extreme poverty: Iowa is among the most abused environments in the so-called United States, and, with 99% of the pre-colonial prairie wiped out and a proud, vocal white supremacist elected to the House of Representatives, it can be difficult to see any form of justice on the horizon. Both of us were hungry for hope, but not the buy-a-reusable-water-bottle kind. We didn’t want to feel better; we wanted to build a path to change—not merely environmental change but something decolonial, anti-capitalist, inclusive, and intentional. So we decided to work toward such a community with an anthology.
Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation (2017) put down roots in the attic of a converted horse barn turned office. Our desks were neighbors, and we procrastinated on grading and writing to talk about climate change, Dungeons & Dragons, and our favorite books. We brainstormed a solarpunk project that would pay writers, provide an introduction to the genre, and inspire resilience and hope-through-action. When Joanne Merriam at Upper Rubber Boot Books accepted our proposal at the end of 2015, we knew we’d found the right publisher due to her dedication to pay pro-rates and publish women and people of color as part of the project.
At the time, solarpunk’s definition still fluctuated, from a solar-powered movement to utopianlike communities, so first, we worked on a definition that tried to encompass all these ideas while pushing against the dystopian mindset filtering into the new year. We settled on not only a call for submissions, but what we hoped would be a call to action:
In 2016, a general hope that the US might elect a progressive president, that the climate crisis might be slowed, still pervaded most discussions—the space before the tipping point. Now, it feels like the space after. In retrospect, it seems obvious that before and after are separated by only the slightest degree of tilt on the fulcrum, that “just before” becomes “just after” in the span of a shallow breath, but in that moment the whiplash of shifting priorities and the velocity with which old narratives aged into delusions and were replaced with much grimmer narratives of a newly visible reality felt impossible to have preordained. Overnight, we found ourselves in a new epoch (or perhaps in an old epoch with new eyes). To our surprise, though, the work that needed doing didn’t change so drastically. The transformative work of solarpunk just before the tipping point only gained vigor in the aftermath.
Foundationally, an anthology is a community, even if the common meeting ground is between the covers of a book. Perhaps that’s why no singular solarpunk text has been published, but rather, the genre flourishes in collections. In fact, we hope to see more of that. Yes, write solarpunk in all the different genres and mediums, but rather than trying to find a book or write a novel that will do for solarpunk what Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) did for cyberpunk, let’s invest that creative energy back into our various local communities. A specific, revolutionary solarpunk text is monolithic thinking, and underneath such thinking lies the latent desire to capitalize or profit from such a work and gain from it an individual, if small, celebrity. The solarpunk community should be and always is reevaluating why we are telling stories (particularly in a genre that hasn’t been and even shouldn’t be commercially viable and in a market that can be so ruthlessly sales-driven as to consume any of a work’s radical potential). Let us not hope to make the solarpunk text but to make and to give fun, strength, vision, and trouble.
To that end, here are some ways we’ve been thinking about making change. For the writers and editors, consider offering your skills to strengthen community publications. The news cycle is overwhelming right now and even local stations are often controlled by larger media conglomerates or, at the very least, are centering those statistically in power. By contributing to community media—whether free newspapers, zines, community radio, podcasts, whatever!—solarpunks can help build hope into community awareness while decentering the narratives of the wealthy and those invested in maintaining exploitative and abusive systems. And in these creative pursuits, refuse to normalize such oppressive systems and their results: instead, criticize them and break them down, ask for and offer alternatives, and work to build these alternatives in any way and any scale you can.
Solarpunk is often thought of as an environmental ethos, but we must remember that there is no environmental justice without racial and decolonial justice. These issues are not and never have been separate. To treat environmentalism without considering how it is influenced by colonial capitalism and white supremacy is to maintain those systems. Solarpunk needs to focus on continually expanding to proactive decolonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist action. In storytelling terms, this means confronting our utopian visions of places like the areas currently known as the United States and Canada and asking ourselves what it means to live in a utopia built on unceded lands by the beneficiaries of genocide. It means telling stories that don’t just handwave away issues like racism, labeling them as “solved,” but instead telling stories that antagonize and break apart destructive systems and build solidarity, support, and self-determination in their stead. In practical terms, decolonial and anti-racist action starts, at its very foundations, with centering BIPOC thought and organizing. As white colonizers, we don’t get to decide how decolonization goes down, but by putting in the work, we hope to become accomplices and co-conspirators. So for those of us who are white in North America, as a start, we can financially support BIPOC, we can put our bodies on the line at protests and direct actions, and we can listen and learn. Importantly, we must learn to view every part of our constructed daily lives as forged in the fires of a racist, colonial society and to understand how that impacts even seemingly innocuous relationships to the world around us. Going forward, we must learn to distinguish the products of a colonial mindset from what we may have learned is “human nature.”
One radical way to be anti-capitalist and work toward this justice is to make sure the people around you are fed. This includes feeding our friends and families, but it also necessitates caring for the invisible members of our communities, or the ones we actively unsee. Join or start a Food not Bombs chapter, host community dinners, check-up on the students, houseless, and elders you know. Ultimately, take care of the people directly around you.
A common thread through these ideas is community. Being a solarpunk is a collaboration, not an individualistic identity. As the solarpunk genre gains more recognition, the goal shouldn’t be to evangelize or make it more of a thing. Ultimately, a solarpunk invests in the local, is community-based, works in their direct surroundings, helps the people directly around them. Build connections within your community, not walls around your community.
Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Wieland met in an MFA program, and their collaboration began with Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation, which was recognized in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Sierra: The National Magazine of the Sierra Club, LA Review of Books, and other publications. Like all good collaborators, Brontë and Phoebe ended up stuck together on presentations, prairie restoration projects, protests, road trips, potlucks, and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Currently, Phoebe is a PhD student, studying environmental literature at University of Nevada, Reno while Brontë attempts to balance independent scholarship and creative writing. Their next collaboration, Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures, is upcoming from West Virginia University Press.