Move Quietly and Plant Things

Solarpunk sensibilities for enterprising tricksters

A Codex Seraphinianus Vision Illustration from Codex Seraphinianus

I’ve fallen in love with the notion of ‘Solarpunk’—an aspirational aesthetic, speculative narrative genre and political movement. Something described by Andrew Dana Hudson—half a decade ago—as “a collaborative effort to imagine and design a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability and beauty, achievable with what we have from where we are”.1 Andrew penned a very apt article On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk, which sits nicely amidst the constellation of nebulous beacon-concepts that guide my way.2 A comprehensive (albeit pell-mell) reference guide has been assembled, books have been written, and presentations have been made—you may already be familiar with Solarpunk.

What I love about Solarpunk is that, to me at least, it presents a refreshing alternative to the ‘Doom Foretelling’ I find myself doing when times are bleak.

Because times are bleak. (Wonderful too, sure). Our current species trajectory does not bode well, hoho. Not at all.

Of course, this is far too complex and abstract for most to perceive, though. I can barely comprehend it at the best of times. The human mind is just not so good at abstracting at scale. Thus any efforts made to ‘Get People To See’ are just so… ineffectual and unsatisfying. So: bah! I am not the prophet of the End Times, the Herald of the Gloaming, nor the Harbinger of Ragnarök. At least; I don’t claim to be.

Instead, I suspect this humble Dr Fox—“Arch-Wizard of Ambiguity (most fantastic)”—may well be a ‘Solarpunk wizard’ at heart. Or at least, an aspirant of such.

And so I propose to all ye who may be feeling anxious or lost in this calamitous epoch that ‘Solarpunk’ may well become an attractor beacon for you. One of a few such in the nebulous constellation that might guide our way in the dark.

Right now—as is ever the case—we have a choice as to the kind of future we seek to cultivate together.

At the moment—and perhaps, for the past decade or so—the default narrative seems to be that of a ‘Cyberpunk’ future: a neoliberal world rampant with inequality and hyper-inflated individualism cavorting to the backdrop of ecological and societal collapse. Actually, we’re already there.

Cyberpunk is a dystopian ‘dog-eat-dog’ world flush with massive wealth inequality, corporate surveillance and tech augmented hyper-individualism. I suspect it’s a beacon-aesthetic for many of the warlocks at work—though they mightn’t readily admit it.

The aesthetics of Cyberpunk are gritty and ‘cool’—albeit a little violent and bleak. I personally cannot wait to immerse myself in the virtual world of Cyberpunk 2077 when it is released, and I appreciated the Blade Runner films (problematic as they were).

And yet the cyberpunk genre does not depict the kind of world I wish to cultivate.

Which begs the question: what does?

A Relative Utopia

Earlier this year The Great Hanzi Freinacht published an excerpt from his book ‘Nordic Ideology’ on the topic of Relative Utopia. We could call this ‘eutopia’ (a place of ideal well-being, as a practical aspiration as distinct from an impossible concept) or ‘protopia’ (‘a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better’).3 But whatever you call it, the point is: a ‘better world’ is possible—and it’s something we can start cultivating, today.

Imagining this ‘better world’, though, is a lot more challenging. It requires a relatively high psychophysiological ‘state’ combined with a degree of developmental maturity4—the tired, insecure, overworked and grumpy do not make for the pioneers of our future. And this is what the warlocks want.

Suffice to say: there is no ‘one vision’ of a future that ought ‘win’ above all others. But there is a directionality we can aspire to, and there are beacons that might guide us. Beacons such as the broad and nebulous-yet-patterned speculative narrative genre and aspirational aesthetic of ‘Solarpunk’.

Of course, such a beacon is polyphonous and dynamical ‘relative eutopia’. From the perspective of abstraction we might be able to see the ‘shape’ of it—but ‘zoom in’ and you’ll find a diverse array of perspectives and dispositions. Ergo, to quote Jay Springett, “one cannot speak for other Solarpunks, only be in dialogue and occasional chorus with them”.

A vision for visions

We are—so many of us—‘busy, busy, busy’ these days. Too busy for meaningful progress, and too distracted to care.

This kind of momentum5 inhibits reinvention.

And yet Covid-19 has halted our collective momentum, dramatically—and in so doing has presented us with one of the greatest opportunities for collective re-imagining we have had in decades.

Blessedly, somehow, some of us have even had ‘time to think’—an incredibly rare thing (especially for busy executives). Of course, most of us squander this time-to-think with the busy work of ‘problem solving’. Or we turn to micromanagement fretwork as a means of feeling ‘productive’.

Yet some have had the privilege and perspicacity to venture beyond these frames.

Most of my year has been invested in deep partnership with a small mix of enterprise leaders and their teams in the very act of imagining, exploring, experimenting, sensing and cultivating whole new ways of working. This doesn’t sound bold and resplendent, I know. There’s rarely cause for trumpets, fanfare, confetti or ‘launches’. Yet as a wizard-philosopher, it is incredibly enlivening to work with folk who resonate with the Solarpunk adage of ‘moving quietly and planting things’.

These fellow complexity practitioners don’t see themselves as saviours or heroes, but rather: as tricksters,6 shamans7 and gardeners. Folks who create, evoke, cultivate and tend to the conditions that allow for more desirable futures to manifest.

But again: this requires a glimmer of a semblance of a sense as to what such desirable futures might actually look like.8 In other words: it requires imagination, charisma, and ‘vision’.9

But instead, what we get is a world of ‘problem solving’. Instead of explorers and experimenters, we get experts and explainers. Instead of playful cultivation, we get serious analysis. Instead of seeking to rise to the complexity of the systems we are embedded in—we dumb things down with artificial simplicity and neat linear ‘plans’.

Such linearity is seductive, of course. The artificial simplicity of a nice step-by-step ‘roadmap’ is like an opiate to an already overworked mind.

And so we see the pantomime of ‘reboot’, ‘restart’, ’recover’ and ‘return’ metaphors. All of which are largely reductive (in denial of complexity), redundant (for they herald no systemic change—just the theatre of it) and retarded (in the true sense of the word: slow or delayed development). Why so?

Again: largely because behind all of these is the disposition of ‘problem solving’. Just as the ‘ideas industry’ is largely a distraction, so too ‘problem solving’ is largely a misapplication of effort. It’s working to fix a broken system, so that we end up with the same thing that created the problem—rather than instead creating the future we want to live into.

Capitalism sells us the ‘solutions’ to the problems it generates, which we buy to fix and fuel the very same system that created the problems in the first place, hoho!

Of course, we have become so cynical these days. ‘Jaded’ is the new cool, it would seem.10 And perhaps this dark wizard is, at times, guilty of that. But ‘I do not dabble in doom anymore’, he says. Because fixating upon the many, many (many) ‘problems’ in our world saps our collective will and whim to create. As my friend Tom Albertsson11 once said:

“Fixing or solving the perceived problems of the oil industry isn’t going to result in a Solarpunk farm!”

Which brings us back to the topic at hand.

What does a ‘Solarpunk’ future look like?

Well! That’s up to each of us. Exciting, right?

There’s speculation as to what it could look like—and it’s mostly (but not always) quite nice, and quite conducive to flourishing diversity, ecological sustainability, community belongingness, self-development—and many of the qualities of a listening society.

But it’s not up to any of us to impose our vision for the future on others. Instead: we adopt the adage of the Solarpunk—we “move quietly and plant things12—and find jolly alignment (if not agreement) together.

So! If we are to stave off the very real manifestation of a hypermodern cyberpunk world that very much already is, I would suggest we ought cultivate pockets of warmth13 whilst ‘resisting-in-place’.14

“To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.”—Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: resisting the attention economy.

There’s something quite attractive about the notion of resisting-in-place. It’s a subtle call to all the infinite players, tricksters, shamans, rogues and sleeper-agents to each play a role in the shaping of this co-created future that is collectively unfurling.

It doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning our myriad woes to go live in the mountains off the grid (though that works). Nor does it mean involuting into a privileged ‘self care’ bubble replete with earth tones, green smoothies and soft linens whilst you work your chakras and purge all ‘negativity’ from your life with a smouldering smudge stick.

Rather: it means finding the opportunities to embody and create the future you wish to live into, wherever you find yourself to be.

I love this because it makes me think of the folks I work with. I think of you, reading this, and then potentially reflecting upon where you are in life right now, and the various roles you play. I imagine you pausing, head cocked to the side, considering your circumstances and wondering—with a glint in your eye—what a Solarpunk might do. What would it look like if you were to ‘move quietly and plant things’, so as to contribute to the kind of future you wish to see unfurl?

My own examples aren’t terribly grandiose—but the charm is always ever in the subtlety, I find. I shall share a few things I am noticing right now.

I love the work of speculative designer Tim Hunt, who recently shared a kickstarter project called ‘Circa Lunar’—‘a cyclical alternative to the tyranny of linear time ’. This lunar calendar app compliments Tim’s already sublime ‘Circa Solar’ app, which replaces the clock with a deeper attunement to the daily and seasonal shifts of the sun. Quintessential Solarpunk, if you ask me.

I recently discovered ‘Oda’—a set of beautiful speakers and a platform all meticulously designed for live performances. It’s early days yet, but the creation of new, ethical and opinionated business models that eschew the dud industry defaults is wondrously compelling. It calls to the hipster in me, that’s for sure.

Projects and products aside, my vision for a Solarpunk future involves simple things like, well: more small pubs and cafes on street corners, as community gathering points. It involves farmers markets and more casual dinner parties. It looks like community gardens, and folks gathering together to rebuild wildlife corridors. It looks like beautification with street art and plants.15 Long walks, easy rides, picnics, copious reading, live music, camp fires and balmy nights under the stars. It looks like fostering friendships, taking the time to sleep, eat and move well. It looks like taking the time to care; to listen and learn. It looks like frugal hedonism and the time-abundance such a disposition begets.

It also looks like becoming increasingly attuned to the bioregions and the complex interrelations of the worlds we live within, coupled with a growing understanding and affinity to the Indigenous knowledge systems of the First Peoples. Jenny Odell writes of this in How To Do Nothing—resisting the attention economy:—

“Bioregionalist thought encompasses practices like habitat restoration and permaculture farming, but has a cultural element as well, since it asks us to identify as citizens of the bioregion as much as (if not more than) the state. Our ‘citizenship’ in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together… It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention.”

I love the thought of being globally connected to each other via the Independent Solarpunk Web—whilst at the same time being deeply attuned to our local community and ecology. I love the thought of travel being a much more intentional activity in the future.16 To almost hearken to a time where such travel was more of a pilgrimage than something to simply squeeze into whatever ‘time off’ we have allocated in our calendar. Long train rides with books. Home gardens. Knowing and noticing the stars.

Of course, this all sounds ‘hipster-hippy’, I know. And my examples thus far are rather benign, ‘surface’ and ‘cute’.

Yet they foreshadow a much more subversive emancipatory undercurrent. This, of course, beckons the smug tittering of the bourgeois and the established elite who benefit rather nicely from the current system. To return to the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk:—

“Where once capitalist democracy argued its worth against the legitimate failures of the communist projects, now neoliberalism acts as an ideological superpower. Its mission: to make capitalism appear not just unchallenged but unchallengeable, as though it were the only possible system. It does this at the expense of acknowledging reforms that actually make the system sustainable. Any questioning, any poking at the limits, is met with sustained scoffing or resigned shrugs from the cultured classes.” (Andrew Dana Hudson)

Whilst it can sometimes be helpful to acknowledge the egregore-like ‘superpower’ qualities at play, let’s remember: ‘neoliberalism’ is an emergent system, borne of the myriad interactions of the complex adaptive systems we live within and are a part of. No one ‘designed’ neoliberalism. It wasn’t ‘planned’ or cooked up by supervillains in a volcano lair—it is a state of affairs that has ‘emerged’ via collective complacency and complicity.

Thus there are no ‘bad guys’ for us to rattle our sabres at.17 Sure, there are the 1% and the incumbents who benefit from system as it is. I am probably one such; you too, maybe. But hunting for ‘individuals’ to ‘blame’ belies the fact that our current state of affairs is an emergent property, borne of countless interactions.

When faced with such entangled complexity, what is one to do?

How on Earth do we ‘change the world’?

Hoho: we don’t.

Or well; we do—but very much in the manner of tweaking. Painstakingly small, collective tweaking.

We align our dispositions toward the attitudes, interpretations and behaviours most conducive to a flourishing world more curious and kind.

Put simply: we move quietly and plant things.

  1. This seems to align with the general directionality (and intentionality) of The Metamodern Aristocracy and perhaps The Emergentsia. And more besides. The charm is that these subtle ‘movements’ are speculative and descriptive—not specific and prescriptive. 

  2. The ‘constellation’ includes attractor-notions such as metamodernism, Indigenous knowledges, adult development, complexity savvy, game~b, collective blooming, infinite play, deep ecology, and more. I shall write of this some day, maybe. 

  3. I find the notion of protopia to be more practical than it is attractive or compelling. It doesn’t light me up, for it is far too reasonable. ‘More of the same but slightly better’ just won’t work. Not for our current trajectory. But hey: it’s better than giving in to the currents drawing us deeper into a cyberpunk dystopia. So: there’s that. 

  4. Something Hanzi talks of at depth in The Listening Society

  5. That is: doing the same thing over and over, whilst continuously iterating, so that you get faster and more efficient at it, so that it becomes a non-thinking default and then eventually inescapable due to ‘The Curse of Efficiency’. This is a theme I expand upon in How to Lead a Quest—a handbook for pioneering leaders

  6. I am leaning heavily on the mythical role of the trickster here, guided by Lewis Hyde’s wondrous book Trickster Makes This World. “Most of the travellers, liars, thieves, and shameless personalities of the twentieth century are not tricksters at all, then. Their disruptions are not subtle enough, or pitched at a high enough level. Trickster isn’t a run-of-the mill liar and thief. When [a trickster] lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.” (emphasis mine) 

  7. Here I speak of ‘shamans’ as Professor John Vervaeke might, in the sense that shamans are deft at disrupting the default ways in which you are finding patterns in the world. To be a shaman in today’s context is (in a small part) to be able to bring new metaphors and ‘ways of seeing’ to your ‘tribe’, so as to enhance our capacity for insight and ‘wisdom’. 

  8. In How to Lead a Quest I describe how to imagine and explore multiple possible future contexts, so as to harvest ‘options’ that might serve for deeper experimentation—so as to, in turn, enrich strategic decision making (so that we might move closer to a state of ‘enduring relevance’). 

  9. Not ‘a’ vision—but ‘vision’ itself. “Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities. The Renaissance, like all genuine cultural phenomena, was not an effort to promote one or another vision. It was an effort to find visions that promised still more vision.”—James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games 

  10. On that note, the metamodern sage Brent Cooper has penned a brilliant article on ‘The Hypermodern Highway to Hell’. This cynical jadedness I speak of could be considered as ‘hypermodernism’—“nihilism in its aesthetic form (skeuomorphism) masquerading as postmodernism”. 

  11. To whom I am grateful for being introduced to this frame, and many things. It was Tom who helped me see just how ineffectual a ‘problem solving’ frame can be, when compared to the disposition of creating. Of course; it’s always a ‘both/and’—maintenance and repair work are noble, vital and key. 

  12. This gem originates from Andrew Dana Hudson. 

  13. A ‘Collective Blooming’ of mutual aid communities, if you will. The more I think of this, the more it makes sense—there’s a fractal quality to this that seems consistently apt, no matter the frame I view it within. 

  14. This may be where the ‘punk’ element comes into play. Now, I’m more a gentleman-chap than a ‘punk’, per se—but if to be a Solarpunk is to actively create and embody a future we want to live into then, well: call me a Solarpunk. Yourself, too! 

  15. We have this happening in our suburb right now, where roundabouts are ‘claimed’ by the community as a means to plant natives species and flowers. Or to plant ‘street rosemary’ and other herbs. 

  16. I say this as one whose work took saw me on way too many flights. At one year I had nearly 200 flights and was away from home for half of the year. This was terrible—thank goodness the pandemic has opened the world to much more savvy with virtual events. This might also translate to our in-person ‘offline offsites’ being much more intentional, when they do happen once more. 

  17. No ‘good guys’ either; nor any apolitical, innocent or pure. This is the isness one works with as a complexity practitioner.