A aesthetic race for the future has begun. At stake: freedom and democracy. That, and preventing the collapse of planetary civilization.
Left, a model of Albert Speer’s “Volkshalle” (People’s Hall): An authoritarian boyish fever dream playing on the grandeur of the empires of the past. Right , The Rain Vortex in Singapore Changi Airport: An authoritarian, top-down, Disney-land version of solarpunk aesthetics — but one that today has the world holding its breath and longing for more.
Without an aesthetic program, it is impossible to truly recreate today’s society in desired directions. We need more than just ideas of the things we wish to avoid (ecological disaster, pandemics, famine, wars, existential risks from technology…). We need more than a moral mission (e.g. “remedy suffering” or “save the animals” as discussed in one of my previous articles) or even the search for truth (“the mysteries of the universe, as revealed by science, in humanity’s greatest quest…”).
We also need an aesthetic longing that calls us: a sense of beauty, of good taste, of inspiration, of creativity.
The Nazis understood this very well. And so do the authoritarian regimes of today. Democratic nice guys, on the other hand, seem to struggle grasping this. As such, only authoritarian regimes have successfully managed to apply the aesthetics that speaks to the longings of 21st century humans: solarpunk.
I believe that the solarpunk movement and its aesthetics offer some of the most viable pathways for such an impulse — one that is capable of carrying forward transition (to sustainability) and transformation (of social reality). Solarpunk can be a vehicle of metamodernist visions, not as a set of abstract ideas and ideals, but as something that is viscerally experienced through the senses and thus easy to communicate and build momentum and movement around. Solarpunks (i.e. people committed to this design sensibility) can be purveyors of metamodern culture and thus ultimately of Protopian society, strengthening these attractor points.
So this is relevant stuff — let’s take a closer look at what may be at stake.
A Trojan Horse for Metamodernism
There is a certain logic behind solarpunk as a fulcrum for metamodernist cultural change. Metamodernism — the practice of taking modernity and its progress as an object to be related to and redirected — thrives at the crossroads of fact and fiction, with informed naivety, pragmatic romanticism, and so forth. The same can be said of solarpunk — it is science fiction about near futures where humanity lives closer to the environment but still with the perks of advanced technology, in closer connection to life and to one another. As solarpunk visions are fictional but strive to become increasingly tangible and to offer real solutions, they naturally strengthen the tendencies of pragmatic romanticism in culture. But there’s more to it than that: solarpunk projects bring with them a certain dynamic which subtly directs people towards metamodernist sensibilities:
Let’s say you build a solarpunk movement around 12 visions: (cleanest streets, greenest streets, local expression, e-democracy and participation, responsive transculturalism, colorful and artsy streets, beautiful and living buildings, healthy environments, best choice architecture, New Municipalism, AI and IoT feedback for public goods, and of course sustainable energy).
This means you’ll need to start investing much time, effort, money, materials, and energy into certain projects to improve buildings, streets, electric grids, transport, etc.
This means that people will need to suggest such projects and gain traction for them by their peers.
This will drive forward digital democratic frameworks and tools for presenting the ideas and deciding upon them.
This will invest people — with real stakes — in deeper democratic participation.
This will make people concerned with processes of democratization and thereby with the other processes that naturally follow from that starting point (the six new forms of politics that I discuss in my book Nordic Ideology). Otherwise, these issues simply don’t crop up as priorities in people’s lives.
And that will get people into a space of superposition between the real here-and-now and the yet-to-be-even-imagined possible: the “new possible” as some people have termed it.
And that’s basically the shift from modern to metamodern or Protopian culture.
Solarpunk can thus be a trojan horse for metamodernism. The expected, or desired, end result is not actually a shiny, green, techy, clean, happy, beautiful city. A metamodern society is, with its richer culture, superior governance, and “listening society” welfare is — i.e. a society profoundly happier and kinder than our current one. The solarpunk stuff is just the gateway drug to get people interested in things that sound too abstract.
Little wonder that metamodernism and solarpunk have already begun to overlap. My Aussie friends, Joe Lightfoot and Jason Fox, have already cobbled together a Metamodern Solarpunk Manifesto — which also incorporates neo-tribal elements, a theme earlier discussed in this article series.
The Grim Reality: Authoritarian Solarpunk
So, to strengthen the attractor points of metamodern society, we basically need to stimulate solarpunk movements, municipalities, urban planners, artists, writers, companies, and ecovillages, right?
Not so fast. The only solarpunk projects thus far — in terms of awe-inspiring aesthetics — have been led by agents decidedly un-metamodern: by authoritarian and paternalistic regimes. Singapore is, of course, the clearest example. But Chinese and Vietnamese projects are joining the fray. Saudi Arabia is designing a whole city, The Line, entirely based around a post-car world. These projects may look like solarpunk, the green and clean future cities we long for, but they are anything but alive and organic in the sense that they build on grassroots, on commons, and so on.
Solar-punks are idealistic libertarians, mainly within the West (sometimes elsewhere), often connected to some version of “nerd” counterculture (visionary/utopian sci-fi, regenerative gardening, tech, nature mysticism, paganism, hackathons, digital arts, role playing, and so on) — represented to a lesser extent also in developing countries. It builds on cyberpunk, on punk simply, on DIY, on energy sovereignty, on a romantic calling back to earth, soil, and nature. It’s about the love of freedom, the feeling that each of us can build small but beautiful lives, but still make a difference that makes a difference. It builds on a sense of the organic, the spontaneous, that streak of a fiercely independent “chaotic good” in each of us, to speak in roleplaying terms. Its intellectual icons are people like sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, the inventor Buckminister Fuller, and the architect-theorist Christopher Alexander.
But, ironically enough, the solarpunk aesthetics — the bank of imagery that comes up if you image-Google the term — seems to come in two distinctly different shades.
The painted and animated images take the direction of the somewhat-too-fanciful-to-be-taken-seriously fantasy genre, sometimes overlapping with New Age-like themes.
The other side, the photorealistic and architectural side, puts on display examples primarily from Singapore, but with some other examples from undeniably beautiful but dictatorial prestige projects, often catering to a rich, transnational class of professionals who are expected to come as tourists or residents but have no stake or say in a solarpunk reality themselves. Poor people, of course, would be locked out — or brought in only as migrant workers with little to no labor and civic rights. It’s a shiny, green, new version of the Dubai model, a city-state level version of the gated community.
Of the two, it is clear that the photorealistic solarpunk of Singapore is the one that captures the world’s imagination: it brings a taste of the future that feel concrete and credible. The more far-out images of fantasy-like solarpunk are just too childish and imagined to be taken seriously by the bulk of people (fantasy and sci-fi art, in turn, mimic the techniques of Romanticism period painting, i.e. heightening color, contrast, detail, perfection, on otherwise nearly realistic paintings, so as to give them that magical glow). Take a look at a few examples of two strands of solarpunk art/design below:
Solarpuink art: “fantasy/sci-fi” style:
Fantasy-style solarpunk — skies are always blue in these images.
Fantasy solarpunk — clearly a dream-world far removed from any urban planning.
Solarpunk “Singapore” style:
Singapore style solarpunk — notice how it works even on a cloudy day.
Arial view of Singapore’s famous “Garden by the Bay”.
Singapore-style solarpunk — notice how it works even with cars in sight.
To this second category you may also add the airport photo at the beginning of this article.
I spoke to a US citizen on a train about a year ago — he compared his native San Francisco to Singapore in which he was currently based. While he admitted that the latter was authoritarian, there was no doubt as to which one he preferred: his descriptions of the urban decay of San Francisco and his appreciation for the neat and the orderly spoke for themselves. Similar stories begin to crop up across the West: An old uncle of mine, a retired mailman from a liberal European country, awe-struck with Singapore’s order and beauty, called it “an ideal society” after a brief visit to his son who studied there. Hearing my old uncle’s tales of Singapore is, I imagine, the equivalent of what it must have been like to hear the visitors of early 20th century skyscraper America.
Meanwhile, liberal hubs like Berlin and San Francisco are not being properly solarpunked. Both cities have solarpunk communities and a few spots with solarpunk vibes going for them (like Salesforce Park in SF), but they’re just not leading stars like Singapore is.
Need I point out the risk we are running here? Solarpunk aesthetics are incredibly powerful, but they remain in the hands of those city planners that have enough centralized political power to make these visions come true. Such powers include: long-term capacity for large scale top-down planning, finances for no-expenses-saved projects, and of course border controls to attract only wealthy citizens while denying the unhealthy access or at least citizenship. Ideal society — ahem.
As fascist and neo-traditionalist theorists have long argued, it is often authority, inequality, and top-down power that concerns itself with the spiritual goals of embellishment (made possible, then, by the power differential itself, if you will by the surplus gained from exploitation itself): the super-rich create mansions and keep art galleries alive, the Catholic church raised cathedrals, and so forth, while communist or social democrat apartment blocks are generally functional and uninspiring — hence, the Louvre is not filled with 20th century stuff, but with stuff from more unequal and authoritarian days.
If the beauties and allure that capture the global public imagination and aesthetically define “the good life” are solarpunk-based, and if solarpunk is increasingly in the hands of authoritarian powers — what do you think will happen? There are already other attractor points that suggest we could end up in a period of global balkanization combined with some kind of eco-fascism or at the very least an extensive and deliberately exclusive eco-paternalism. If the citizens of the free world do not soon begin to offer viable alternatives to authoritarian solarpunk, the battle for human dreams and desires will very likely be won by authoritarian powers. People will gladly sell out their freedom and democracy for a chance to live in what looks like an ideal society. The lure of aesthetically superior expression and smoothly running social order will snuff out first the spirit of liberty and then of equality.
The Cold War against communist authoritarianism was not won by moral arguments. It was won, primarily, by consumer goods, by lifestyles that elicited genuine, visceral desires: As an example, it can be mentioned that leftwing Western students who visited communist East Germany were shocked to find that the citizens there were obsessed with empty cereal boxes from the West and would use them as decorations in their kitchens. And in 1959, in what was later named the Kitchen Debate, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Here he was shown a replica of an American household with all the newest home appliances and was shocked to see the level of affluence enjoyed by ordinary middleclass Americans.
The world’s imagination was captured by the lifestyle of the “1st world”. It is a daunting thought that washing machines, color TVs and middle class suburbias won the battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism under a thin guise of socialism. Today, however, authoritarianism is winning the hearts of the global middle class through its capacity to guarantee order — and to solarpunk society “from above”.
You Could Show It to a Six-Year-Old — And, Crucially, to the Middle Class
If you are a metamodern activist or scholar and you want to reach others with your intentions and visions, you can tell a highly educated and philosophically gifted person: “We want to strengthen the metamodern tendencies in society so as to transcend the problems and tragedies of modernity…” And with much effort, and long discussions, you may have a fellow traveler on the paths to go beyond modern life.
But that only really works if your listener is a particularly abstract thinker, and it does take great effort. It’s a lot like taking a time machine to England 1224 AD and try to explain a few peasants, even intelligent ones, why they should strive towards “liberal democracy” Sure, some would be intrigued, but you would mostly be wasting your time. And theirs.
Yes, a metamodern or Protopian society is what really matters. But most people won’t give a damn (frankly my dear) about lofty ideals and visions.
Now, instead, imagine showing our medieval friends a video of a new home with running water and all the food available at the grocery store, and their interest might be peaked. Okay, that got me interested. How do we get there?
Correspondingly, if you show this following image of a reimagined, “solarpunked” Berlin, even to a six-year-old, there’s good reason to think they’ll intuitively understand what is to be achieved:
A “Solarpunk Berlin” by Alex Rommel
If you know Berlin, you here see it reimagined — with enough familiar buildings to recognize what it is, but also so much redefinition of it that its entirety feels more alive and inviting. (Blue skies, of course, in Berlin, but never mind).
Here, we are approaching a “show it don’t tell it” by means of beauty. Not rational argument, not moral awakening — just a sense of “ahhh, that’s nice, I’d like that.”
And here’s what’s crucial: You know who would like that? Not a few psychedelic artists and burners and punks and anarchists and deep ecologist. Middle class people would like it too. Even the underclass may prefer solarpunk’s more inviting landscape over cold, hard, concrete and garbage-filled alleys or trailer parks.
In short — this is an argument I have been implying from the beginning of the article, but which I feel must be made absolutely clear — solarpunk aesthetics is currently the world’s best ticket to getting normal people to change the world, thereby saving human civilization.
Solarpunk is, to speak the language of that great social reformist of fin-de-siècle London, Mary Poppins, the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Again: I am not saying that the sugar is more wonderful than the medicine. All I am saying is Mary Poppins.
Solarpunk is an aesthetic that works, it’s a gateway drug to metamodernism and Protopia. If you want to be cynical about it, you could say that one can use it to fool people to want sensible things like the transition to an ecological, equitable, and effectively governed society. A Trojan horse, as discussed above.
Beauty in the Service of Truth
I don’t have many good things to say about the work and ideas of the New Age economist Charles Eisenstein, but I believe it is no coincidence that his dictum — and book title — The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible has stricken such a deep chord in so many readers. Dreams are not made of truth, nor of moral dignity, but of beauty, of aesthetic qualities. Eisenstein did not call us to a more rational world, nor to a morally dignified one: but specifically to a beautiful one. That’s the only calling we can, in all honesty, hear. That’s the ugly truth about truth, morality, and beauty.
To be clear, I certainly don’t believe that beauty, seen as a value, can ever be allowed to trump justice and truth — in fact, I have long argued that the essence of fascism and its brand of totalitarianism consists of that very misprioritization (“everything should look like THIS, and not otherwise, the truth and morality of the matter be damned!” …and from there on, a mad ride to copy the exact same pattern across the world ensues: same swastikas, same ideas, same people, same race, same clothes, same housing…). Truth and morality indeed must ultimately trump aesthetic qualities: There’s no sense to “this is a beautiful torture session”, or “what an aesthetically pleasing genocide”. But I am claiming that there is a “truth about the truth”, and a “truth about morality” — and it’s that humans are incapable on fully acting upon what’s true and what’s just unless these qualities are aesthetically mediated: the elegance of science, poetic justice, and so forth. We are not machines: if our world dries out, so do our spirits, and thus our motivation.
And if we stop to examine this point just a little further, I believe that a profound existential insight reveals itself:
The evil of the world is recognizable particularly by its propensity to put beauty before morality and truth — to let subjective taste colonize the latter two. In Joseph Goebbels’ (who later became propaganda minister of Nazi Germany) novel Michael, “the people” is the marble in the hands of a sculptor, an artist. Society itself is not alive and sentience does not inherently merit ethical consideration — no, it’s just stuff you can reshape according to what looks nice. Again, this is exactly what the Nazis did: They manically pressed what the world should look like according to them onto everything, the truth be damned. A huge copy-paste regime plastered the Swastika on everything that moves and then some. Humans themselves were to look a certain way. Even their military tactics were aesthetically defined, refusing to rationally assess priorities (Let’s all get the coolest uniforms and most advanced equipment and the biggest cannon history has ever seen and never retreat on any fronts!).
Conversely, if one follows what is both truthful and morally sound, there is always a beauty revealed at the end of the road. If you stand up for what’s good, there is beauty in that struggle and that in itself sparks the creative imagination. Follow where the search for truth takes you, with no regard for what your “taste” says, and the beauty that awaits is even greater than the one you left behind.
Compare these two images.
Nazi SS rally, Nuremberg 1936. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images.
The neutrino detector Super-Kamiokande. Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo
There is a certain similarity between the two, a beauty that both images seem to converge on—let us admit as much. The difference between them is that one was created for the sake of beauty alone, and from human flesh, on a might-makes-right basis, and with no honest appraisal of the truth claims of why all those men are standing there together in the first place. All those men are seduced (and in part coerced) into being part of one whole, but with no true guiding principle — only pretending to have one.
The science facility of second image was created for the sake of truth, emanating from physics itself. The beauty that we can see reflected in the Japanese neutrino detector chamber is more sublime, more lasting, more universal — because it follows from tracing the steps of deeper and deeper truths and mysteries of the universe.
There is no doubt in my mind that the awe felt by the SS soldiers is greater than the Japanese scientists who are just doing their jobs. But the awe felt doesn’t actually lead anywhere — just down a cliff and into immanent self-destruction. The awe of Nazism is real on an emotional level, but it is not real in the sense that the underlying assumptions it all builds on are entirely ludicrous (we’re a master race destined to conquer the world and our leader knows what he’s doing, guided by fate!). The fairly mundane task of maintenance work on the neutrino chamber is less awe-inspiring, but it points towards truths so mind-boggling it cannot but elude us and draw us into the beyond: the nature of matter, energy, and space — quantum realities, and so on.
Truth in the Service of Beauty
So similar things emerge from so diametrically opposed processes. And yet, the similarity is a superficial one, a false one. Even though the Nazi image is made of living men, by living men, its beauty is dead. While the neutrino chamber is made of inanimate glass and gold, its beauty is alive. Only one of the two is a sublime work of art, because it doesn’t force itself upon the world — it traces the very structure of reality and reveals itself as a surprise: beauty emanating from truth. The opposite of inauthenticity, of posturing, of hysterically impressing what we wish to be true upon reality.
Excuse this long detour. What I mean to say is this: The authoritarian solarpunk-from-above movement may look fancy. It may be as seductive and feel as alive as a Nuremburg rally. But it is a forced beauty, a Disney-land aesthetics. It does not follow function, nor morality, nor the truth of the people who live there, nor of the planet and its other creatures.
Emancipatory solarpunk — true solarpunk — must instead spring from an aesthetic that flows from real solutions to real problems, from real human concerns and relationships. It cannot be “designed” just for show, for the prestige and allure of a certain political-economic center of power.
True beauty brings freedom because it, well, follows where truth takes it. And so, interestingly, there is a truth about the truth: that truth needs beauty to prevail— while there is also a truth about beauty: beauty is a false promise if it does not emanate from truthfulness, including truthfully seeking to address moral concerns.
As such, we have a Ouroboros-like relationship between truth, aesthetics, and ethics. Truth needs beauty to be made manifest, it cannot live alone. Beauty needs to serve the truth in order not to be evil — and what is evil always turns ugly in the end. There are no pretty genocides, nor glorious ones.
Authoritarian solarpunk, solarpunk aesthetics used to seduce middle classes and to exclude people and to excuse the curtailing of freedom will also be ugly in the end.
A solarpunk that resolves real problems for and by real humans through truthful communication will result in the freedom and sustainability that solarpunk promises. This is a playful design-battle not only for justice, but for the future of the human soul.
We must thus save solarpunk by reclaiming its beauty for deep-democratic purposes: going beyond the limits of mainstream liberal and capitalist democracies, not undermining them and reverting to authoritarianism.
Doing so does not only save democracy on a planetary level; it also builds the environmental movement that Greta Thunberg has been calling for. But Greta’s call is a moral one. This will be an aesthetic one, one you literally cannot resist — designed, in turn, by tracing the real and practical solutions to problems of sustainability, inclusion, and justice.
More details on metamodern solarpunk in my next article.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook and Twitter, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here. See www.metamoderna.org for more content.