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@hydroponictrash New podcast episode with Joey Ayoub about #solarpunk ♬ original sound – HydroponicTrash
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Transcript via Antidote Zine:
Solarpunk differentiates itself from other fiction genres and other forms of imagining futures, just in the way that it combines social change with technology and ecology.
Andre (Hydroponic Trash): My name is Andre. I go by Hydroponic Trash online, both on Twitter and TikTok. I’m a hacker, a gardener; I do a lot of random stuff. I write speculative solarpunk fiction, and I do a lot of DIY articles on substack, where I release longform articles either about solarpunk or about building things in general.
Joey Ayoub: Folks who have been listening to this podcast probably already know what solarpunk is, but I like to have different folks define it because I always get a different answer. The way people frame it can be quite interesting in different ways. How would you define it?
HT: Solarpunk started out as a speculative fiction genre. I see it as a new way of conceptualizing science fiction, and a framework to work off of, thinking about different types of futures. We get caught up in dystopic futures as the norm for most people. Having any kind of hope for the future is really interesting. Solarpunk differentiates itself from other fiction genres and other forms of imagining futures, just in the way that it combines social change with technology and ecology. A lot of frameworks and ways of thinking about the future say we should return back to some time that existed in the past. But I really like solarpunk because it’s looking more towards the future, really trying to imagine the changes that we can make that aren’t reliant on getting rid of technology, but also is questioning: Where does our technology come from? How do we use technology in appropriate ways? What are some ways that we can go into a better future without extracting the planet or exploiting other people? That’s directly tied into the solarpunk ethos, it’s the punk aspect of it that’s intertwined with the social change that’s behind all of it.
JA: I asked you to come on because I read this super long essay that you’d written on your substack. The title of that piece is “Solarpunk, Acid Communism, Capitalist Co-opting, and Learning from the Counterculture.” Can you walk us through some of the general points and what motivated you to write it?
HT: Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely a combination of different ideas and topics that I’ve been thinking over for a really long time, and all of it started to click, so I just thought, let me combine all of them. Because I started to see a Venn diagram, where you have separate topics that seem really distant, but when you think of them, they start to combine in these really weird ways.
So I’ll just do a high level overview, and we can touch over some of the points that all connect together. In the article, I talk about the past–more specifically, the counterculture of the 1960s and the 1970s, both from the angle of the radical political change that was happening at the time, and the cultural change that was happening with civil rights and the psychedelic movement kicking off, and those combining in some pretty cool aspects.
Pretty often when people talk about the counterculture of the time, they tend to paint it as if everybody in the counterculture was white, middle class stoners doing LSD in San Francisco, the stereotypical idea of hippie dropouts. But I wanted to point out the importance that marginalized people played in the core of the early counterculture; they were at the core, producing the social and cultural and political change that happened out of that.
The topic of counterculture was brought up in a piece by Mark Fisher called “Acid Communism.” In that piece, he both criticized and praised the counterculture of the sixties. For a really long time he had been really critical of the counterculture, through a lot of his work and his lectures, and then all of a sudden had this change of heart. From that work, he was talking about some of the failures but also some of the potentials of this idea of Acid Communism. While he was working on that, he was also doing a lecture series called Post-capitalist Desire, which sounds way better than Acid Communism for a whole bunch of reasons. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack in just those two words Acid Communism versus Post-capitalist Desire.
But in this work, he described a “libidinal Marxism,” a new form of leftist organizing and politics that took and learned from the failures of the sixties counterculture, and progressed past it. He was describing new forms that organized and conceptualized the world in a way that wasn’t hauntological, didn’t rely on old views of the past.
So while I was listening to an audiobook of the Post-capitalist Desire lectures, hearing his descriptions of new ways of imagining a future that involved social change and cultural change, solarpunk really kept coming up in my mind, because at the time I was really getting into the ideas behind solarpunk and starting to write fiction, starting to write articles about solarpunk. All these three things were starting to combine together. In the article, I really wanted to show the connections between a type of Acid Communism that solarpunk envisions while also imagining a new form of counterculture, but also learning from the pitfalls that we saw from the counterculture (seeing some of the same issues from the counterculture pop up even now). It’s a cyclical process of looking back at the past, but also looking at the future and trying to figure out new ways of thinking of this stuff.
JA: I went through Mark Fisher’s work in the past few months, actually, I was vaguely familiar with him before. I was familiar with Capitalist Realism, which I guess is his most famous work. I read that one and then I read Ghosts of My Life–that really clicked with me, because I’ve been doing this doctorate on and off for several years now, and a good chunk of the theme is hauntology in the Derridá sense. Derridá and a bunch of other folks focus a lot on the ghosts of the past and how they haunt the present; the big example is the whole “End of History” in the early nineties (the declaration by Fukuyama and others), and Derridá writes this book called The Spectres of Marx, and says that actually because you’ve declared it dead, it’s now haunting you. Because nothing is ever fully “over.” I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s the gist of it.
And Mark Fisher (and not just him, there’s Avery Gordon, who has this term haunted futurities, and a bunch of other folks thinking about it) comes along and frames that in a very interesting way: it’s not just the haunting from the past, but also the haunting of the futures that have never come to pass. This could be anything from pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism to modernity or capitalism. If you look at the discourses and writings of the whole post-colonial era in the Middle East–the fifties, sixties, and seventies–the visions were not the same, but they were all promising a better future. They were all saying the future will be better, and this is why it has to be under Arab identity, or Islamic identity, or communism, or capitalism–but they all have this idea that the future will be better. This is more or less parallel to what was happening in the West around the same time.
In roughly the eighties and nineties, this starts dissipating–even before 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything that followed since then, that started dying out. Mark Fisher was writing this book and focusing on the UK, and it all sounds super familiar. It’s a bizarre experience to read this as a Lebanese person who has this seemingly different experience, and Mark Fisher is describing something very specific–the nineties and early 2000s music scene, what followed the Thatcher revolution and the advent of neoliberalism–and I’m here from this seemingly different context where something very similar has been going on at the same time. I can talk about this forever.
But talk to us a bit about what you find useful or interesting in that sort of framing, that sort of thinking.
Climate change is going to determine how we live in the future: whether or not we can adapt with climate change, and change our ways of living, change our social arrangements.
HT: A big thing for me, especially now, is grappling with climate anxiety and grappling with my own conceptions of the future. Like a lot of people, I fell into a deep nostalgia of trying to find ways of thinking about the future: every single time I’d think, Okay, what will ten, fifteen, twenty years in the future look like, I always came up against a wall of Well, we’re either going to be in some kind of nuclear dystopia or it’s going to look like this book I once read about cyberpunk. I never had a conception of thinking outside of those terms, the terms of this media I had consumed over time that made it feel like the future was literally cancelled. I could only go back to past iterations or past ideas about the future. So when I came across solarpunk it was a click, because it combined a whole bunch of different topics that I felt at the time weren’t really connected, and connected them.
Solarpunk is a good catch-all term for a whole bunch of different disciplines or ideas I can combine together. But in general, what caught me was finally being able to think, Okay, there actually is a viable future, and it’s in combining these things that most people wouldn’t think about going together.
JA: Tell us more about that. What are some of these things?
HT: A major part of it is the conceptions about technology and ecology. That ties into degrowth, which is a big social and political questioning of technology, society, and civilization. A lot of people who have issues with where our current world is going and want a better future are questioning, Okay, how would we get to a better future? What materials are going into that? How are we actually going to build this type of stuff? That’s a real, actual concern that people have. So when I thought about new futures, I saw the technology–but our conceptions of sci-fi almost always stick to shiny robots. Who is making those robots? Where did the raw materials for those robots come from? Where does this shiny future actually come from?
It’s thinking about technology and how it directly impacts ecology–especially moving into the future, because climate change is going to determine how we live in the future: whether or not we can adapt with climate change, and change our ways of living, change our social arrangements.
JA: One of the slogans I like from the degrowth movement is that change is inevitable, the main difference is whether it’s change by design or change by disaster. How much of a say do we want to have in that change?
Just yesterday I was in another part of Switzerland, taking part in a panel with Julia Steinberger, a climate scientist who has co-wrote parts of the latest IPCC report, she’s a good friend. The conversation was essentially about different futures, very similar to the kind of conversation we’re having now. And at some point it dawned on me that part of the premise of our conversation was flawed. Because the way it was framed by the moderators was: Okay, we want to have this change. But how do we convince enough people to join us? and it ended up feeling like too much of an individualistic thing. We just need to convince other people. Which is important! But that’s not the only thing that needs to be done.
I ended up saying (this is where Mark Fisher comes into it) that when we speak about solarpunk, about degrowth, about all of these potential ways forward out of what is a very dark future, we’re always facing this wall of people or media or whatever, and this rhetoric of Well, that’s just not realistic. We have to be realistic about things. Again going back to capitalist realism. I brought up the point that realism is a very subjective thing. It’s socially conditioned. It’s a social construct, we might say, and it can be constructed in a different way.
We really need to understand that even when we talk about “the economy,” this term hides a lot more than then it uncovers.
HT: If we’re talking about being realistic about the economy, it’s not realistic at all–detrimental, in fact–to assume that growth will be infinite for eternity, like we’re going to have constant growth forever, both from an economic sense and from a material sense. We have finite resources on this planet. We can’t continuously keep going on this growth paradigm. We really need to think about that, because if we’re talking about better futures, we also have to talk about where these resources are coming from. The real realism is understanding that we are coming to a point where the constant growth of capitalism is going to have to stop. It’s either going to have a plateau or a total crash, because there are finite resources.
What we really have to think about is what a new future would look like if we changed our economic relations and our social relations to question growth, and also think of things in new ways. With technology, for instance, the reason why technology is made the way that it is, is to maximize profit, and so we extract rare earth minerals to make high technology, to create more profit. When we’re talking about building better futures, we also have to think, Okay, well, can these technologies work in different ways? Can our ideas of technology and ecology change to where they don’t rely on constant unending growth? Instead, our new futures can question how we live, at a fundamental level.
A lot of what Mark Fisher was talking about was questioning, at a fundamental level, our conceptions of the past and our future conceptions of what a counterculture “in the now” would look like–what would a modern counterculture look like? A modern counterculture would borrow a lot from the degrowth movement, and from a lot of different movements who are saying, Hey, let’s not go to the past, let’s try and create a future, while also thinking critically about the parts of our day-to-day lives that are going to be impacted by climate change in the future.
JA: Julia has given this example a few times: she assigned her students to imagine a future scenario, twenty or thirty years down the line, and write a fiction story, and they all had a lot of difficulties doing so. That’s very significant. This is stealing from Frederick Jameson’s “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (lots of folks have said this). Literally, today, it’s easier for a kid, five or eight years old, to imagine a zombie apocalypse than to imagine a positive future. So much culture–pop culture, culture in general, things that people consume, a good chunk of movies, so many books, so many TV series–is about the End of Times in one way or another, some kind of apocalyptic future or post-apocalyptic future. Blade Runner, I Am Legend, any of these things.
When we watch a film like I Am Legend, in the beginning of the film, you see this zombie apocalypse start happening, and most people who watch that film end up identifying with the main character played by Will Smith. No one identifies with the most people who are dead within the first five minutes, right? You’re never the person in the background, you’re always the hero in those films. And that’s just not how anything works. That’s just not reality. But it ends up informing a lot of what we end up thinking of as “realism.”
I got into the prepping world at some point, and there is a very toxic version of that (which most people are familiar with), but others are more sober about things. The more toxic version are the ones who see themselves as “realists.” Here I’m referring to people who say, Well, I’m gonna have to have a bazooka in my bunker and Well, these are the tools I need to survive. What’s often missing is, Do I have enough friends? Do I know ten people who can be there for me and I can be there for them? Do I know my neighbors? There are these mental shortcuts, often provided through these films: Everyone is evil except me and They’re gonna try and kill me and I need to survive and That’s just how things are. I genuinely thought like this through my teenage years. It was just normal, it was easy.
This cynical worldview actually informs climate change related discourses. Most people are not hard climate deniers. Most people are aware that there’s something going on. But they would be what’s called soft climate deniers: I see it’s a problem, but what can we do? or, We’re doing the most that we can. Even if you go bullet point by bullet point and show that No, we’re not, and this is why we’re not, and this is what we might do. Not that I have the answers, but we have more answers than what is often portrayed; there are concrete things that can be done and that climate scientists have been more vocal about (Julia was recently arrested blocking a highway to bring attention to this problem). All of this is to say that we’re at the point now where climate scientists are becoming activists, and a bunch of people are starting to understand that neutrality is no longer possible.
What folks like us (if that’s not too arrogant of me to say) can do is complement the hard science. The hard science itself is too much for most people. It’s not pointing to Okay, this is what needs to be done, how can we do it? And how can we motivate people to do it? And how can we motivate ourselves to even believe that this is possible? There is the very hard science work that needs to be done, that is being done. Part of the critique of the last IPCC report is that it’s constrained by capitalist realism: Okay, you’re telling us this, but what can we do about it? The main audiences of the report are nation-states that signed on to the Paris Agreement, and many of those governments have different priorities than “tackling the climate climate crisis.” They’re happy to pay lip service to it, but only as long as it doesn’t harm the actual priority, which is maintaining capitalism and maintaining “economic growth.”
How would my day-to-day life look living and adapting with climate change? How am I supposed to have new thoughts about the future if I can’t imagine myself in it?
HT: This has to do with the ideas of pedagogy–people have no clue what’s out there, because they have no clue that it exists. When you feel like there’s no alternatives to reality, because you’ve never really seen the alternatives, and never really heard of the alternatives, you get stuck in this framework of thinking. So subverting pedagogies of disaster, of endless capitalism and endless growth, and trying to show people that there is an alternative, connects back to the psychedelic aspects of post-capitalist desire and acid communism. It’s not necessarily all about doing LSD and psychedelics–it’s about using art, music, feeling, and emotion, combined with the logics of the hard sciences, to avert our hard wall of thinking about “reality.” Trying to show people that this alternative exists is one thing, speculation is one thing: Oh, hey, here’s a cool sci-fi reality that we’re all talking about, better futures and all this, but how does that actually happen? What’s the hard science behind it that would actually make that happen?
It’s really important to not just think in speculative terms, but use speculation and fiction, and think about emotion. How do people feel? A really big thing for me, especially with science fiction and talking about better futures is how would my day-to-day look in a better future? How would my day-to-day life look living and adapting with climate change? If I can’t see myself and feel myself in this new world–how am I supposed to have new thoughts about the future if I can’t imagine myself in it? That’s where I see the ideas of pedagogy, the ideas of acid communism, and the psychedelic and using art, literature, music in a form that combining with the hard sciences to actually convey what we’re talking about.
When you throw out the hard facts about climate change and the hard facts about some of the social issues that we have today, a lot of people shut down, because they have no clue what to do about it. One way around that is to say, Here are some things that you can actually do. Not on an individualistic level, prepping for the future by hoarding a bunch of beans and guns in a bunker. But understanding that there’s a difference between individual action and individualist action. Individual action is with the end goal of collective action.
Let’s take an example of individual action with the end goal of a collectivist action. An individual action might be you deciding to make your own garden, for instance (that’s a very common thing with solarpunk: talking about community gardens, food sovereignty). This is technically an individual action–a lot of people say we’re not going to be able to solve anything with just individual actions, which is true in a sense. But there are actions you can take that snowball into collective action, that snowball into larger pushes towards things. An individual starts a garden, they start learning more about the ecosystem, learning more from Indigenous people about what the ecosystem looked like before all this development, and start getting more interested in ecology. Great, but that alone isn’t going to solve climate change, and it’s not going to solve the social issues that we have.
But this person starts growing more stuff, and comes to have a little bit more surplus. They start sharing with their neighbor–then we’re starting to talk about moving from individual action into starting to do forms of mutual aid, sharing resources with your neighbors, starting to talk to people in your area. Maybe you convince them to start their own gardens. Now you’re starting to see one individual action start to morph and change, and more and more people are doing these sorts of things. More and more people in an area are starting to grow their own food locally.
From that, more and more neighbors are talking to each other, and growing their separate gardens together: Okay, let’s start a community garden, so everybody in the community can have access to food. So you start a community garden, people start meeting up at this place, helping each other out, giving out food. There’s more surplus, and that surplus goes towards feeding people who actually need it and meeting the actual needs of people directly. From there you start to create a real community, and things spiral from there, things snowball and grow together. It’s that start of an individual action where the end goal is a collective action. It’s all it really takes for us to combine together with other people and start making larger changes.
There are definite differences between individual and collective, but both of them are intertwined. The collective action can start on the individual level, but also the individual can’t start without the collective thought, the collective pedagogy, or the collective idea that a better future is possible.
JA: A lot of what we’re talking about already exists in parts of popular culture, even as clichés, right? They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it. What’s funny about these clichés is they end up being diluted, because they have to be “realistic.” You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it–stuff like that is actually about how you can be more efficient at your job or how you can write a better CV.
I try to have examples that are actually relatable. I enjoy talking about TV series and movies. I talk about The Avengers a lot, because most people have seen them, or other cultural references–I have no idea if someone younger than me would know The Jetsons and The Flintstones. Something that’s very interesting with “our” generation (roughly that age bracket, forties and under) is those who remember a time before the internet versus those who basically grew up with it. Those kinds of differences are super interesting, because now the internet is sort of a memory box: we’re able to go back to stuff in the past, and then it’s being meme-ified, and it ends up becoming a very interesting (and sometimes dark) tool.
Just a few days ago, I learned that George Jetson was “born” this year. The Jetsons premiered sixty years ago. It’s set in 2062. George Jetson is supposed to be forty, so he was born this year, he was born in 2022. The Jetsons‘ universe is futuristic, there are multi-planetary species and so on. What’s funny is that even though they’re on a different planet, it’s still capitalist. They’re still shopping!
Hauntology is when, even if you’re thinking of the future, you’re still using ideas that are locked in the past. It’s easier for a lot of people to hang on to old frameworks; it’s a lot easier than it is to think about something new.
HT: They’re still doing traditional gender roles! The robot is a woman who does all the housework. It’s fucking crazy.
JA: Exactly. So if you’re watching this in 2062, and hopefully I’m around to do that then, 2062 will probably not look like the 2062 in The Jetsons. I’m don’t want to jinx it, but probably not. The gender roles will definitely not be like that. Again, I don’t want to jinx things, but hopefully.
HT: Fingers crossed.
JA: It’s just so interesting, this is the future as imagined by writers in 1962. Despite the flaws, it’s interesting to watch stuff like that. That’s why I’m so into Star Trek as well. I’m watching the original series (TOS) right now. I hadn’t watched it before. But the gender roles in TOS are much more antiquated–they have not aged well–than even in The Next Generation (which is also not perfect). But there’s a huge leap in the years between them. In the first one, women are dressed in a certain way, sexualized in a certain way, and almost always in a submissive role of one kind or another. It’s always the guys doing things. The radical thing at the time was that they’re not all just white guys.
Again, it’s set even further in the future than 2062. It’s two or three hundred years in the future or something like that. And technology is a bit better and more interesting, but gender roles are basically 1960s America, white America specifically. And this is what the future looks like! Even the alien species are mostly white people. That says a lot. It says a lot for me, from my perspective, today. And I’m sure there were smart people even in the 1960s who were writing about that. But not enough, probably, compared to what we have today.
The advantage of what we have now–the tools of the internet, having access to certain websites like YouTube or Netflix (despite all of their flaws)–is being able to look at all of these older sci-fi films and TV series, which for me are more evocative than reading a book. Because literally: how do they picture it? How do they actually film it? It’s always very interesting. All this to say: the writers of The Jetsons or Star Trek in the 1960s were imagining a future that was, for them, “realistic.” It’s not fantasy, we’re not talking about elves and orcs like in Lord of the Rings. It’s more hi-tech, but there’s a logic to the technology, it’s “scientific” somehow. There was also their social imaginary that assumed three hundred years into the future: Well, of course gender is going to be this way. Why wouldn’t it be? These assumptions carried them two or three hundred years into the future, and it colored what they thought the future would be like.
HT: It goes back to hauntology: even if you’re thinking of the future, you’re still using the same ideas that were so locked into the past. It’s easier for a lot of people to hang on to old frameworks; it’s a lot easier than it is to think about something new.
JA: British monarchy stuff, series like Downton Abbey, The Crown. It’s easy: it’s set in time, people are set in their ways, people know their roles, and you lose yourself in that world. You’re one of them. It’s almost play acting: you’re really putting yourself there.
HT: It’s easy because things are laid out in specific ways. There is a social hierarchy that’s easy to understand, there is an economic hierarchy that’s easy to understand. So thinking about the future is, Let’s maintain these hierarchies, let’s maintain these social arrangements, because it’s easier to conceptualize our lives around it. A lot of media, especially rightwing media, is looking towards the past, it’s locked into the past, because that’s easier to maintain. It’s easier to conserve these past thoughts when thinking about a future. It’s easier to maintain that simplicity. A lot of rightwing and fascist talking points revolve around appeals to emotion that don’t involve logic in any sense, but are always extremely simple. They’re easy quips, simplistic arguments.
But what we’re talking about isn’t simple. There’s a lot of nuance, there are a lot of sliding scales between things. Take gender for instance. Gender and sexuality isn’t black and white, there is no simplicity. So it’s really hard to throw out a simplistic answer on gender roles, for instance, because we have to talk about all these other things that are behind the things that seem so simple. How do people who are gendered as male or gendered as female interact? Why do these gender roles happen? You have to go into the background of patriarchy. Rightwing fascist traditionalism just says, Well, that’s just the way things are. We see this reflected in our ways of conceptualizing the future, because it’s easier to remain in the past and remain in these strict roles. So Star Trek imagines a future that still feels like the 1960s. That’s the goal for some people, because they can’t imagine getting past those points.
It’s super important to be able to say there’s an alternative. When we think about the future, we can’t rely on these really simplistic, old ways of thinking. Maybe we should question the foundation of all this stuff.
JA: What’s very funny about right wing nostalgia–if I think of “traditional masculinity” in the US context, a lot of it would reference a John Wayne figure, and the whole “Wild West.” But those are movies. And a lot of those movies are not based on something that actually happened. It’s an imagination by people in the 1950s of what things looked like a hundred years before that. It’s not necessarily the most accurate representation of the past. There’s the degradation of Indigenous folks, literally just treating them as the people to murder. Anyway, there is this “masculinity,” which was then embodied by someone like Ronald Reagan, to take a political actor, and the evangelical rightwing Christians who voted for him against Jimmy Carter. They projected on this empty vessel what they thought he was about and what he was defending. It’s even more obvious with the figure of Donald Trump.
The other example that is taken even more for granted–I want to talk about cars, and how there is actually a car culture that has been purposefully designed that way. People have written books on this. It’s not like it’s some conspiracy, it doesn’t take rocket science. There is a direct correlation between, for example, associating owning a car with freedom (there’s a masculinity aspect to this as well, although the car companies have tried to have a “feminist” version of that as well): When you own your own car, you can go wherever and drive into the distance and you’re free. There’s a direct correlation between this and not having good public transportation. We can literally go through the timeline of where these things have been happening, especially in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe. And again, we’re facing an energy crisis which would objectively be alleviated by a transition to green energy and a reduction of car use. I suppose this should be the realism. But it is actually what’s called not being realistic: People are gonna need cars! Usually what ends up being the “acceptable framework” is that obviously we need to transition to electric cars. That’s maybe one percent of humans. It is literally not possible to have every single human being use an electric car, we do not have enough minerals for that. It wouldn’t even be desirable. Public transportation–objectively, already proven a billion times–is more efficient.
If capitalism is supposed to be this thing where, because of the “magic of the market” and supply and demand, the most efficient thing will be prioritized, then it it clashes completely with the reality of things. Actually these things are being artificially supported–as in, subsidized by governments. The vast majority of airports are subsidized, because they would collapse without it. So we’re not talking about whether we believe in the “magic” of the market, because they don’t even seem to believe in it.
HT: No, because it’s all based off of these imaginaries; they want to return. People want to imagine a past that isn’t real, it isn’t based on reality. We can’t even conceptualize getting around without using cars. We can’t even think about a world without cars because our past has been so tainted by cars. Every single piece of media that we see in the past is somehow related to cars (for a very specific reason).
JA: So many car ads! 24/7, regardless of what you’re doing, there’s a car ad.
HT: So we can’t even think about the past in a way that’s based in reality. If we’re thinking about a past based in reality, we can see there were plenty of cities that had robust public transport, actual electric trolley systems that were efficient, that didn’t require fossil fuels, that we would consider to be futuristic, that were happening in the late 1800s, and that were systematically destroyed by car culture. It ends up going back to our pedagogy, our ideas of what “reality” would actually entail. And our reality has been hijacked. We can’t look at the reality of the future or the past because we’re so stuck in these made-up conceptions.
When I think about the future, it’s counterbalanced with the fact that I’m not ever going to retire; I’m constantly going to have to deal with climate change, with natural disasters impacting my life, and with economic disasters impacting my life.
JA: Let’s to go back to solarpunk. I discovered solarpunk about two years ago on this podcast; I had a friend on, Emmi Bevensee. At the end of every episode, I ask folks to recommend three books. Emmi recommended a couple of books and then said, “honestly, anything that’s Afrofuturist or Solarpunk, because I find it impressive and inspiring that people are still able to have hope.” So I did what most people do, Googled solarpunk, and found St. Andrew, who I ended up interviewing as well. And it clicked: This is what I was thinking about, I just didn’t have a term for it. When the status quo is hopeless, then hope can be radical. Hope can also be an escape…but it can be radical if done in a certain way.
I write about and work on pretty depressing stuff most of the time. My PhD is depressing as fuck, there’s just no way around it. It’s on hauntings and trauma, and the forcibly disappeared in Lebanon, and the civil war. The last chapter is slightly more “positive,” but it’s a heavy topic. I watch films and documentaries that are by their very nature difficult to go through. So something I often get asked is, Do you still have hope after all this? The answer often is No, not necessarily. But I have come to terms with this. Even when I don’t have hope, I try and create hope. If I don’t have hope, I try and read or observe other folks who, when I’m listening to them, or viewing them, seem to have hope. There is a bit of a useful lesson there: Even when I don’t feel hope, I may still do something which can help someone else have hope, if that makes sense.
But I go from the assumption that there is a lot of horrible stuff happening in the world. There’s no point in sugarcoating it, it’s very difficult, there is horrible suffering. But in the same way, just as it is literally impossible for me to consume all of that news or even think about all of that stuff at the same time–it’s just too much, it’s not physically possible–it’s also impossible for me to keep track of all of the positive stuff that is happening, that people are thinking about or writing or doing (like direct action or activism). If you’re doing community gardening which is having a genuinely real impact for hundreds of people, you won’t livestream every single day. The entire point is that you’re being present now in the moment with these other folks, and something is being built, often slowly, but surely, and it’s very valuable.
So I remember this, but it requires a bit of imagination. I’m not imagining elves and orcs and Middle Earth and that sort of thing. I’m going from a very basic rational assumption that someone is probably doing this now. There’s too many of us, so someone is doing it, it’s just gonna happen. That’s a good thing! So I’ll focus on that a bit, and maybe even seek them out, if possible, because it doesn’t take that much (again, the advantage of the internet).
All of this to say: when I read a difficult book, or I see something that’s very difficult and depressing (and traumatic in many cases), it’s not that I then need to desperately filter it with some happy thoughts. That’s not how it works. When this is happening, it just is what it is, and it’s very hard, sad, difficult, traumatic. What then helps me is that I ground myself and remind myself that even in my personal experience, if I’m not in a good mental space, or physical space, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the end. For me, this is the role of the imagination. To put it dramatically, it allows me to live another day. I live on, another week, another month, until something else happens.
I create hope even when I don’t have it–create something that can be hopeful for someone else, even when I don’t personally feel it. I may feel it later, but someone else can feel it now.
HT: That’s the thing I’m constantly coming across too, coming to realizations about my own life and about the future: It is bleak. We can’t just say, Everything’s gonna be fine, we can imagine better futures. While we can do that, we have to come to the realization that the path we’re on is extremely dangerous. The assumption that our generation has been given, from our parents, is that things will continue as they always have for them, and their parents and grandparents. But when I think about the future, it’s counterbalanced with the fact that I’m not ever going to retire; I’m constantly going to have to deal with climate change, with natural disasters impacting my life, and with economic disasters impacting my life. It’s very easy to fall into a rut of inaction, saying, Well, I guess I’ll just give up.
But no, when you look at all of human history, when all this stuff is happening: there are for sure people who give up, but there are plenty of people who say there is something worth fighting for. On the horizon, even if it’s just imaginary, even if it’s just a concept of a possible future that might happen, there is stuff to keep fighting for. And there are concrete things that I can do, even if it doesn’t seem like it’ll have an impact in the moment. If I’m having a really bad day, sometimes it just helps to go out in the garden, plant something, work outside. It helps to work on a little project here and there.
Or sit down and imagine, What would a great future look like, in my eyes? and think, Okay, well, if I’m imagining a better future, and I’m imagining all these cataclysmic things happening, what kinds of solutions are there? What kinds of things can we do to mitigate those risks? What what can we do to make people’s lives better–or even good–in these cataclysmic times? Then you’re starting to think, Okay, well, there is a glimmer of hope, there are things that we can do to change the path that we’re on. What are some concrete things that we can do in the here and now that will lead to something better?
What are some things that I or a small group of people can do, at a community level, on a local level, to really impact change in a broader way? It starts from a small group of people doing direct action, and leads into some really amazing collective action happening. Look at something like Occupy Wall Street. That was a really interesting time. A counterculture started to grow, people were getting fed up: seeing the economic collapse happening, seeing the Iraq War happening, seeing everything that was happening at that time, people were saying, maybe we should just do something, anything, to have a glimmer of hope for the future. So small actions eventually blew up into what became Occupy Wall Street. It can just be a small group of people saying, I’ve had enough, I want to do something, I’m gonna do anything to change this. It’s hard.
JA: None of this is easy at all. I’ve heard conversations about Occupy where some people will say it didn’t achieve anything. But what does “achieve” mean? That’s an entirely different debate. But what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been following protest movements, uprisings, and revolutions since I took part in one, in Lebanon 2015. I’ve seen, in Lebanon, two different massive uprisings, 2015 and 2019. I’ve found it very interesting to y compare them. In 2019, a lot of lessons from the mistakes from 2015 were learned–not all of them, and also there were limitations and things that I would have liked done in different way. There were disagreements, because especially when you’re in a mass mobilization situation, there are going to be a lot of folks there, and they’re not all on the same page. There’s maybe there’s one thing in common, but that’s about it.
But you have to find a way to make something work. So of course, in these protest movements you will have the more radical and the more moderate, maybe the more conservative, people who are sort of on the fence, maybe attend once a week. You’ll have different roles. I used to frown on that, or find it very tiring. But I’ve been revisiting my own emotions from back then. There were different sets of emotions in those four years. I ended up appreciating a bit more that we’re not all on the same page. I would be a bit weirded out if everyone’s agreeing with me. It another cliché, but you need a bit of everything to make the world work. In those moments, whether it’s a protest movement or trying to build in community, you will have different skills that you can offer. But you don’t have to have everything. That’s the difference between “smart” prepping and the I’m gonna bazooka my bunker kind. One of them assumes that I cannot be a doctor and an engineer, a gardener and a cook, and the caregiver who’s taking care of three kids. It’s not possible, so therefore I need other folks.
Of course we can learn from each other, and we can divide tasks. But the idea is that you can bring something to the table. I have done this a billion times. It always it starts with disbelief. When you ask, Well, what are your skills? What do you like to do? You can also learn, you can grow, you don’t have to be the perfect artist immediately, or the perfect gardener (which doesn’t exist anyway). But you don’t have to have all of those skills immediately. You can want to do that, and maybe this is an opportunity to do that, or you can help create the opportunity to do that. And then one thing follows the other, as you said. It can start from an individual effort.
I started gardening on my own with my wife, and now we want to expand it to a more community level. There’s a community garden nearby that we haven’t visited yet. It’s five minutes away. A lot of the time it really comes down to this: what are the day-to-day things that prevent you from exploring these different options? And why does it so often come down to: Oh, well, it’s just not a “realistic” thing to do now; I can do it tomorrow, maybe, or in ten months? There is an element where we still live in capitalism. Many folks, myself included, have work hours. I hope people understand what I’m trying to say here–I’m not saying it’s just about your “mindset.” No, that’s the entire problem actually: we have structures that prevent us from being free, essentially, from experimenting and not having to worry about a roof over your head and paying rent and getting food. But even despite all of those restrictions, and I know some folks who have been in even worse situations than, there are ways of planting the seeds for something that will later on be helpful, meaningful, and help you be happier.
The mindset, the motivation–being demotivated is a very common problem these days. Being motivated long enough to even want to do something, or start doing something that you may not see the result of for some time (weeks, months, maybe even years)–that is where imagination comes into play. The more it is done, the less individuals will have to do the hard work of constantly having to imagine it. It should hopefully become easier to do that imagination work–and have it also it no longer feel as much like work. It just becomes part of the ether, in the same way as it felt like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo did, where almost overnight, it clicked for a whole bunch of people, it clicked in their mind: This is not good, and needs to be changed now.
Of course, it’s not actually overnight.
Instead of looking at things as black and white, as wins and failures, we can look at them as steps towards new imaginings.
HT: Yeah, there’s a lot of background stuff that ends up coalescing, and then all of a sudden you feel like this came out of nowhere. No, this came out of somewhere; all this stuff comes from somewhere. There are always people in the background, constantly working and thinking about these things, and then “all of a sudden” it comes up and there’s a massive change. That imagining will always be happening. I think of all these things as sparks. There’s never an end goal. There’s never going to be some cataclysmic thing that happens and Oh, the end is here, great, we solved everything. No, every single protest movement, the counterculture from the sixties–all these things were sparks that will light the fires for the next spark. This will carry on and on. We see these changes happening. Even in my lifetime: we’re seeing changes from the protests that happened in Ferguson up to now. The amount of social change that we’ve had in America, when we think about race and social politics, is because these sparks have ignited something. Sure, a lot of these things have been put out or put down by the US government, by capitalism trying to make sure that these changes don’t happen. But we’ve seen so much social change happen.
A huge thing in Mark Fisher’s work “Acid Communism” was trying to point out that the counterculture didn’t “fail.” There were a lot of failures between the end goals that people had, but that was just the beginning. The counterculture made such a huge impact on society–not just in the US, but the world over–just by thinking in new ways. Whether or not you want to say that the counterculture created neoliberalism, it’s more that neoliberalism filled the void of what happened after the counterculture. We can look at failures and wins, or we can look at things as a slow and steady progress to the futures that we imagine, the futures that we want to happen.
Instead of looking at things as black and white, as wins and failures, we can look at them as steps towards new imaginings. And as we progress through, and as our conceptions about culture and society and each other change, that will also change how we imagine the future, going on from there. I tend to think of it as not necessarily stepping stones, but we’re building on top of the past, and also trying to reimagine the future based on other changes that we’ve had along the way. And re-imagining, changing our conceptions about the fundamental stuff that we’re talking about is how we get to the next step, how we get to the next movements.
Especially now with the social climate of Gen Z and Millennials, we’re starting to see the anti-work movement starting to grow. Especially after 2020, and with the pandemic, we started to see a lot of people being radicalized, being able to slow down and think about their lives and think about capitalism, and think about how their lives were impacted by the pandemic, by the mass death that we saw. With all that happening, that’s combining together to create the kindling for a new fire, for a new spark of whatever countercultural thing that we’re going to see with Gen Z and Millennials in the near future. All of that hinges on us being able to imagine how we can change our culture and society to fit new realities. As a millennial, if I compare how I view the future of gender or race relations compared to how I did as a kid, it’s totally different. Same with Gen Z. It’s about learning from each other.
Now the world is completely different, socially, from even five or ten years ago: the concept of getting rid of gender roles, or understanding gender on a spectrum, or understanding how race and capitalism work together–now we can have an even deeper view, an even better imagination for the future, of what getting past all that will look like
JA: As we’re recording this, the protests are ongoing in Iran. A good chunk of them are being led by what we can call Gen Z. These are folks that didn’t live through the ’79 revolution, and they didn’t lived through the eighties and the very bloody war between Iraq and Iran. What happened in the nineties wasn’t that pretty, either. But I’m generalizing a bit; it’s not all black and white, obviously. The point is, it’s never the case that everyone is on board. This has literally never happened. If I’m not mistaken, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was still one of the most unpopular Black men among white Americans in polls. Folks don’t like to think about this as much now, I suppose, but it’s just a fact. Same for the Suffragettes in the UK. These are things that many folks know about, I assume, that things were not popular in the way they get portrayed now. Eventually they became popular, after forcing the government to make concessions.
But what was it that drove them to be motivated enough to push through that final goal? And how can we emulate that energy, but on a scale that has never yet been achieved? I’m talking about the global scale–or as global as possible, because we will never have everyone on board. But how do you get enough folks on board that enough other folks accept, Well, this seems to actually be better?
When we talk about big concepts, bringing it back to the personal level often allows me digest things a bit better. So I’m sitting at a family lunch or something, and I’m with folks, relatives and so on, who don’t necessarily share my politics. I mean, they don’t. If you’re the “activist” in the family, you’re often facing people who don’t see themselves as activists, because they see themselves as the “realists,” they see themselves as Well, this is just the way things are. You can try and deconstruct why they are the way they are–and ask, Can they be different, maybe? How can they be different? and How can we achieve that? It’s not that they disagree with me. But it’s still not enough to convince them that it is possible.
Even if they agree with the facts, even if I’m literally just printing out IPCC reports and showing what the scientific status quo is, and this is what we know we need to do–even if I do my homework, it has been my experience to come across this wall of, It’s not realistic, this is just how things are. And then I ended up questioning what where their framework is coming from. What is their assumption, and why do they have that assumption? I can reach some conclusions based on what I know about their lives and where they grew up, maybe Lebanon, or where they currently live, and I can get some kind of picture which at least allows me to be slightly more patient when I hit that wall.
That’s very important: if I were to manage to convince this aunt or this neighbor that this isn’t just desirable, but it’s feasible, it’s possible, I would consider that an actual victory, because it means that this that specific messaging worked in that specific context. I ended up realizing that the messaging, the methodology can’t always be the same. I can’t immediately go to everyone and talk about sci-fi and Star Trek and solarpunk, because they won’t necessarily relate to it. But we’re humans. Languages are very a funky thing that we do with one another. There’s often a way of reaching that other person you may or may not have much in common with.
For me this is a way of creating hope, even when I don’t have hope. When I manage (sometimes I don’t), this is how I am able to manage, to continue doing this even when the horizon is not necessarily clear.
HT: Speaking to people in a language that they understand, it’s a little bit easier to get some of these topics in front of people, because there’s a lot of negative associations with terms. If you talk to a conservative, for instance they might agree with you on a bunch of topics, like localism, moving away from “globalist” systems into more local communities and bringing back the idea of community. But if you say we want to do this through some form of “democratic confederalism,” or “anarchism,” they instantly shut down. That’s it, end of conversation.
But if you can say, let’s talk about localism: how do we get corporate and government control out of our lives? Maybe we can do that through building autonomous communications or internet systems. Here’s how to build it. Here’s a prototype, or here’s a step-by-step on how to do this. Then instead of being far-fetched, it becomes real because you’re showing it. It might be a speculative idea, but here’s a device that came from this idea that exists in reality.
Thinking about the future, we’re going to be facing water crisis. If you’re thinking about the future, you’re asking, What are some ways that we can capture drinkable water? The ideas of natural rainwater harvesting or atmospheric water generation sound really futuristic until you actually make a device and show somebody the schematics to make it. This is the reality we’re going to have to deal with in the future: water scarcity, water problems. But we have things that me and you can build and do, right now, to help alleviate that situation in the future.
Combining that imagination of looking at the future with the reality of concrete steps to get to that future–it circumvents a lot of people’s reservations, or people’s ideas about reality in the future (and about the past too) when you show them the real, and not the hyper-real or the imagined past or whatever bullshit fantasy they have about things.
JA: That’s a wonderfully optimistic note to wrap up. I can do this for hours, but I need to make dinner.
Thanks a lot for coming on. This was fantastic and so much fun.