Presience 7: Solarpunk and Aesthetic

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Solarpunk. If you don’t know what it is, this youtube video gives a very concise and clear idea of what it actually is. But I haven’t been thinking about real solarpunk, the actual formal aesthetic genre. I’m not really into the scene, but I am a big fan of renewable energy, gardening, walkability, eco-consciousness, and social equity. But the solarpunk I’ve been thinking about is stuff that looks like it, but isn’t. Things that use the same basic aesthetic language, but have none of the principles that are supposed to underlie “Solarpunk” as an aesthetic and movement. 

This is a model shown at THE LINE Exhibition in Riyadh. It’s supposed to show a section of The Line, a planned future city in a planned megaproject, NEOM, in northern Saudi Arabia. The Line is supposed to be a completely new, revolutionary city, laid out in a perfect line for about 110 miles (170 km), with industries, housing, services, and a sports complex located within the, uh, line. It’s supposed to be powered by green hydrogen, run by AI, walkable, with affordable public transit provided by high speed rail – easy enough to do when the entire city is a really long line. Looking at the model, it doesn’t seem like a bad place to live. There’s lots of gardens, sleek looking apartments, and a sweet bridge in the air.

It’s the personal pet project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is currently also essentially ruling Saudi Arabia after being elevated to crown prince in 2017. His rule over the country has been essentially dictatorial, and he was key in the brutal war in Yemen and ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since seizing power, he has also accelerated the construction of multiple megaprojects, funded with oil money, partially in a bid to launder the public image of his regime. He is also a giant science fiction nerd, and these megaprojects usually play to his sci-fi fantasies. The NEOM project is key to this effort, with The Line being the crown jewel of an entire new region. As you would expect, The Line is heavily marketed, with renderings of The Line basically being the main propaganda to distract people from the many brutalities of the Saudi regime. 

Which brings me back to Solarpunk. These renderings are clearly playing on the general Solarpunk aesthetic – greenery everywhere, integrated into the architecture itself. The image above is part of a little PR fluff section of the NEOM website. Full of quotes like this: 

“Our progressive design offers immediate and uninterrupted access to nature within a two-minute walk through its diverse open spaces, suspended on multiple levels. Equitable access to pristine views of the surrounding natural landscape, mountains and sky – for all – avoiding urban sprawl thanks to a reduced infrastructure footprint.” (Link)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t count a bunch of gardens in the desert as nature. Think of the amount of water that would have to be pumped out there to keep these plants alive! But I’d especially like to focus on the “progressive design” and “equitable access” mentioned in that quote. Solarpunk is based on social equality and the commonwealth of man, and the same ideas are being used to sell a propaganda project by a country that has been a key participant in a war that has killed an estimated 377,000 people. But don’t those renderings look nice?

Now, I’m going to tell you a really dirty secret: Planners and architects use plants on renderings and plans all the time to help make their projects look greener than they are. It’s a technique used for anything that might be opposed on environmental grounds. Condos are modeled with tons of ivy vining down them from balconies (as if any building super would allow that), and highway expansions are modeled with fully grown shade trees to disguise the amount of sheer concrete being poured. Green roofs, where essentially a building roof is turned into a lawn, are a favorite for this. Fittingly, in actuality a lot of these things aren’t particularly green – for example, green roofs are great, but they require water to be pumped to the roofs of buildings and use more material to reinforce the extra weight. But actually being green isn’t the point of this technique, just marketing oneself as green. This technique, at scale and salted with some oblique references to the ideals behind Solarpunk, is just what NEOM is. NEOM doesn’t even really have to work, as evidenced by architects working on the project who don’t even think it’s possible.

Solarpunk is built on a truly admirable ideal: The end of capitalism and the creation of a sustainable human civilization in tune with nature. To its credit, it’s very upfront about that. But it hasn’t stopped a brutal oil dictatorship from wearing this aesthetic in a propaganda push. And maybe that’s part of the problem. An aesthetic art movement can do a lot, but ultimately, to a lot of people, it’s just a lot of pretty pictures and cool stories. And those can always just be appropriated and taken out of context.

And that decontextualization is getting really grim with the worsening climate crisis – the East Coast, at time of writing, is facing one of the worst air quality disasters in American history, as wildfire smoke from Canada drifts southwards. These aren’t uncommon here in wildfire country, so I can tell you: It’s bad, do not mess with wildfire smoke, mask up and stay inside. Here, we’ve had an incredibly wet winter that has caused a massive amount of flooding and similar damage, and this is during La Niña, which is traditionally very dry. Next winter is El Niño, when we get monsoonal strength storms. Seeing all of these corporations take these hopeful ideas and use them in their own marketing, instead of actually doing something about their carbon pollution and putting effort into cleaning up their mess, just bums me the hell out. 

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