I didn’t know I was writing solarpunk. My aim was to write hard science fiction, to see if it was possible to communicate climate science in a way that actually cut through, by writing it into a novel, a bit like hiding vegetables in the two-year-old’s spaghetti sauce. I’m a list maker. I started out with spreadsheets full of carefully constructed plotlines and folder after folder of research. But then my characters took over. They didn’t want to be victims and they weren’t cut out to be heroes, but there was no holding them back.
Adam Flynn, in his ground-breaking 2014 Hieroglyph article “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” defined solarpunk as being about ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’ in the face of crisis, and this is what the characters in my novel ‘470’ discovered. They went off-script. They refused to be the ‘ordinary people’ encountering a hyperobject that they couldn’t understand or control, as I had planned for them. Whatever corners I tried to back them into, they refused to even try to look realistic stuck there. They milled around refusing to do anything much, making me get up from my writing desk and go for long furious walks until I let them ditch that whole chapter and take the plot where they wanted.
‘470’ starts in the near future in a world become precarious. There is a sense of normal being a little bit off, the uncanny flicker of a system on the edge. Characters go about their everyday lives looking over their shoulders and waiting for the next unprecedented thing to happen. There is nothing for them to do but to keep trying to act as if, this year or next, things will go back to normal and they can make some progress in their lives. “It’s as if we’re all trying to get some momentum in quicksand”, Zanna thinks while she serves ice cream into bowls for her dinner party guests.
The cyclone that displaces Zanna is a local manifestation of a systemic tipping point as one in a thousand year events become one in a hundred, then one in ten, tripping over themselves as they follow hot on each other’s heels. The cyclone is just the little bit of the elephant Zanna can see, and just one of the triggers for a cascade of social and economic consequences across the globe. There is a breakdown in economic and social institutions that throws the characters back on their own resources.
But it also creates an opening, an opportunity. I thought they would flounder. I wanted to give them some kind of hero’s journey against insurmountable odds. But to my surprise, it is almost as if there is a sense of relief. The spell is broken. There is no more waiting for normal to reassert itself. Normal wasn’t working anyhow. They aren’t happy about it and it isn’t easy. (‘470’ is, after all, still based in solid climate science, and anyhow, what would a novel be without giving characters trouble?) Transitions are painful, especially the kind of major, paradigm shift they are thrown into. There are moments of despair and self-pity, but there is never a moment in which they look like giving in to victimhood.
In response to the crisis, the characters in ‘470’ explore a large number of adaptation strategies – it is difficult to imagine people doing anything else. In their world, they are simply solving immediate personal issues of food, safety, health, transport, energy, medicine, communication. However, to do so they must adapt to a world in which familiar sources and institutions are no longer available, familiar social and political arrangements fail, and familiar relationships with the natural world are lost. They need to invent new ways to relating to the world, and do it on the hop without leaders or models. In finding the answer in ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’, they made me, unintentionally, a solarpunk novelist.
‘Solastalgia’ is a word I love, such a useful word. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to mean the distressing sense of displacement and nostalgia for what is lost brought about by climate change. It is a sense of unwelcome change, grief for the loss of a loved place and time, along with loss of the comfort, familiarity and sense of belonging that it holds. It is nostalgia for the remembered beauty of the world before.
‘470’ holds the hand of characters experiencing, adapting to, and mitigating it. They worry about loved ones, make difficult decisions about child-bearing, try to figure out their personal and moral responsibility for strangers, grieve the loss of orangutans, frogs and reef, and solve the daily challenges needed to survive in a world where their familiar modes of being are disrupted. Near the end of the book, Zanna finds herself “sitting on the beach with salt water running down her face”, crying for “the whole wounded world”. But even as she does so, there is a sense that despite real grief, there is also relief and hope and even joy to be found. Her tears also celebrate “her own fragile luck.”
When I started out with all the spreadsheeted plotlines, I imagined I was going to write a novel about climate change mitigation, the things we together need to do to limit the climate crisis, and the risks of not doing them. One of the things the characters in ‘470’ taught me, once I let them have their head, was that adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand to the same place. The things Zanna and the other characters do to adapt are also mitigation strategies. Which is good, because I didn’t want to find out they were just recreating a system where personal survival and wellbeing comes at the expense of the entire tangled delicate web of life on this planet.
After the first shock, Zanna surprises herself feeling “strangely liberated” – no obligation to see through deals, no winding up with clients. The monkey grip of capitalist consumption that seemed inescapable was washed away in that same cascade of natural consequences. In the process of just trying to figure out how to live a good life in this new normal, Zanna and her community discover for themselves the tiny germ of a better good life than the one lost. Unformed, unfinished, unexplored, but full of hope, and carbon negative.
“Eudaimonia’ is another word I love. It comes from the Greek, and means a good life, a well-lived life, with enough material possessions but not so many as to mug you of the real joys and meanings in life. The term is used to apply well-being theory to the economics of climate change mitigation. The argument is that we have been focussing too much on the supply side in figuring out how to beat climate change. We’ve investigated all sorts of green energy sources and ways of mopping up carbon, but we haven’t looked hard at the demand side – at whether it is actually necessary, or useful, or pleasurable to release so much in the first place. We haven’t seriously questioned, or at least put enough effort and thought into finding out, what makes an eudaimonic life, and whether our carbon-producing consumption adds anything to it.
That’s changing. The IPCC now uses the term. The argument is that a focus on eudaimonia can have a real world effect on climate change. If the lowest cost options for combatting climate change are the lowest cost in terms of eudaimonia rather than GDP, everything changes. “I miss the ocean so much”, says Zanna, near the end of the novel as they plan a trip to the beach. What she misses isn’t the economic, or even the “ecosystem services” it provides. She misses something much less tangible, a deep human relationship with the natural beauty and joy of it. If we rank this kind of value alongside economic value, then the whole equation shifts.
The extension of this idea that is of interest to cli-fi novelists is the effect of imagining eudemonia in a climate changed world. Maybe creating fictional worlds in which characters live eudaimonic lives can have a real-world effect, an inspiring vision, a picture of a kind of life to aspire to. Which is where solarpunk as a genre sits.
I wish I could have just put my characters there. It’s one of the hardest parts of being a novelist, creating characters you love and care about then giving them trouble and pain. It feels quite sadistic. But I had to get them somehow, from here to there, and to be true to climate science, there’s now no easy way. They showed me though, that there is a way, with courage and active hope and a good measure of luck, through crisis, solastalgia, and despair to love, worthwhile work, beach holidays, kids, birthday parties, eudaimonia.
You can find out more about ‘470’ here.
Linda Woodrow is a Northern Rivers NSW based writer, researcher, and food gardener. She is the author of 470 (Melliodora Publishing, 2020) and The Permaculture Home Garden (Penguin, 1996). She lives in a home-built, off-grid house and checks on the platypus in the creek most days.