In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power of 7.9 million homes and businesses in 15 states and the District of Columbia, a story spread on social media that a group of Nigerian high school girls had built a generator that could run for six hours on a liter of urine. It turned out this was not quite true. The generator was real, but as Snopes.com was prevailed upon to point out, it was not the “solution to Earth’s global warming and energy problems” because it required more energy to run than it provided. It did, however, achieve inventor Duro-Aina Adebola’s actual goal, which was to create a generator that did not release carbon monoxide. So the generator had potential as a life-saving device, just not a world-saving one.
Another photo that circulated after Sandy was of an Occupy Sandy volunteer apparently training uniformed National Guard members to aid with relief efforts. This image of an activist giving orders to soldiers not only seemed like something out of a disaster movie; it also suggested that grassroots relief efforts were proving more responsive than governmental agencies or established charities. But this story too was not quite true. The Columbia Journalism Review identified the uniformed trainees as members of the Oneonta JobCorps military cadet program, not National Guard members. The JobCorps, however, were there because the big-name organizations didn’t respond to its offer of assistance, whereas Occupy Sandy responded within half an hour.
We are increasingly reliant on networks, both electrical and digital, over which we have varying understanding and minimal control
That both these stories about localized solutions were spread into myths suggests something about our anxieties about our relationship to technology, and what we want to believe is possible. We are increasingly reliant on networks, both electrical and digital, over which we have varying understanding and minimal control. We know they are harmful to the planet and our health, yet few of us have the knowledge, let alone the resources, to opt out.
During events like Sandy, though, the grid opts out on us. Such experiences are disastrous, though as Rebecca Solnit points out in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, they can also be surprisingly empowering, affording “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” The Mexico City earthquake of 1985, she argues, eventually led to the removal of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000, as the disaster revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence and the people’s own power and strength.
It makes sense, then, that during times of crisis, DIY innovations and organizations would be hyperbolized into legends. If worse comes to worse, these stories seem to remind us, we’ll make it. They are the hopeful inverse of the Black Mirror terror that our new technologies will spin irreparably out of our control.
But between these two poles of passive reaction — technology is a miracle cure; technology is an evil curse — is an alternative. Beyond the mythologizing of the Nigerian generator and the Occupy Sandy story is a more pragmatic lesson: We can transform our relationship to technology into an active attempt to meet community needs. As the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, technology “is consistently misused to mean only the enormously complex and specialized technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources.” Instead, she suggests, it might be seen more intimately, as “how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are.”
Technologies, in this sense, are any skills that can be shared and taught, from permaculture gardening to computer coding: from Ron Finley’s plan to grow a community garden in the South Central Los Angeles food desert to the invite-only forums where American farmers can buy cracked software for their tractors. As Le Guin says about technologies, “they’re what we learn to do.”
How did we end up conflating “technology” with “high technology”? In the past century, manufacturing companies began to advertise their products in magical terms, as though they were technological precisely to the degree they freed people from thinking about how to “cope with physical reality.” In this Gizmodo piece, Matt Novak describes a 1952 Whirlpool washing machine ad, which promoted the machine as “the kind of emancipation any woman could understand.” But faster household appliances don’t necessarily free a woman’s time for personal pursuits; the research by Ruth Schwartz Cowan that Novak cites demonstrates that housework didn’t decrease with technology because expectations of cleanliness rose. The new technologies don’t inherently alter the power dynamics that govern the division of domestic labor, or even call them into question.
This pattern of cost-intensive technology being used to intensify existing inequities holds in the workplace as well as the home. Bertrand Russell, echoing the sentiment of many revolutionary movements, lamented in 1932 that while “modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all” — an idea updated today as fully automated luxury communism — “we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.” Eighty years later, a study by Pixmania found that smartphones and tablets add two hours to the working day, since workers feel pressure to check emails off the clock. Contemporary “high” technology appears convenient, but it merely shifts our labor, distributing it throughout the day and monetizing more aspects of our lives.
New technologies don’t inherently alter the power dynamics that govern the division of domestic labor, or even call them into question
It is hard to overthrow a system you are entirely dependent upon, and dependence is systematically inculcated by many technological “advances.” In this context, developing alternatives to the market’s ready-made solutions can be a part of a revolutionary project, engendering skills that can reproduce the life of an alternative community. Occupy Wall Street exemplifies this: It was criticized for failing to make coherent demands of state power along conventional activist lines. But as Yates McKee points out in Strike Art, quoting Silvia Federici, it succeeded at making visible the work of “‘social reproduction’” — the cooking and cleaning, the caring usually assigned to women to sustain men’s public struggle. The encampment featured a kitchen, a “People’s Sanitation Department,” and even a gray water system. These visible systems of sustenance suggested a collective way of life independent of the powers that be, which could be mobilized a year later when Hurricane Sandy temporarily disabled the city’s literal power.
“Nomos of the Earth: Original Instructions,” a 2014 manifesto by the Woodbine collective in Ridgewood, Queens, links this ethic of social reproduction through participatory technology to the imminent climate crisis: “Finding ourselves tethered to a civilization that is on its way out only adds to the urgency of our experimentation,” they declare. If contemporary life disempowers and immiserates, then its unsustainability presents an opportunity: We must change or die, and that change will make us happier.
This can sound a lot like accelerationism, which, as this New Statesman piece explains, is “the process by which capitalism is pushed to its worst excesses as soon as possible in order to provoke an anti-capitalist response.” What separates Woodbine’s approach is their insistence that capitalism has already accelerated enough. We cannot wait for another Sandy or five to begin building the practical solidarities that Solnit describes in her account of disaster response.
Further, disaster doesn’t necessarily mean liberation. The communities Solnit focused on emerged in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe, but as Naomi Klein wrote in The Shock Doctrine, as soon as it is safe, corporations rush back in to profit and privatize, as evidenced by the auctioning off of beaches in Southeast Asia to wealthy resorts after the 2004 tsunami. Solnit criticized Klein for portraying ordinary people as helpless victims of both natural disaster and the exploitation that follows, but Klein does show that the predations of the powerful can make the ordinary experience of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina much worse. Read together, the two authors suggest that emergency situations are just an escalation of the ongoing war between community and capitalism.
But as Woodbine asserts, communities shouldn’t wait for this escalation to discover their power. The collective strives for communal autonomy over individual “self-sufficiency,” which it rejects as “hypochondriacs guarding their private kingdom of canned corn and toilet paper, rifles ready.” The techniques they recommend for developing that autonomy range from “signal blocking” to stop a phone from revealing its location to authorities, to “pickling workshops.”
The latter may suggest the hipster caricature exemplified in the Portlandia sketch “Dream of the 1890s,” in which beardy men sing hymns to curing their own meat. But the Woodbine collective is not necessarily primitivist. Their point is that no skill set should be rejected or denigrated. The implication of the Portlandia video is that old-timey food production makes for a trendy business plan, but Woodbine’s goal in skill sharing is not personal enrichment but rather building an infrastructure that will “make it materially possible for those who want to desert.”
Changing the community’s relationship to technology is not something that can occur on a personal basis. It requires resisting a system that relies on our passivity and figures it as fun, interesting, safe. For projects like Woodbine to succeed, they need to redefine fun and interesting — countering the tendencies to trivialize and demonize collectivity while articulating collaboration not as a matter of dreary virtue signaling (look at my low carbon footprint) or personal distinction (look at my beard), but hope.
Currently, perhaps the most hopeful imagining of a critical, communal, and empowered relationship with technology is solarpunk. As Jay Springett, who curates “Solarpunk: A Reference Guide,” defines it, “solarpunk is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question, ‘What does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?’” It’s not about waiting for tech to save us, as with electric cars or geoengineering, but thinking about how we could use technology to save ourselves. Rejecting both the “low-life and high-tech” dystopias of cyberpunk (Neuromancer–style urban noir) and the low-life and low-tech survival slogs of post-collapse science fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), solarpunk aims to cancel the apocalypse.
Solarpunk treats sustainable innovations as a problem of politics as much as engineering. Ethics are embedded in the approach to technology rather than an afterthought
The movement is international in scope — the first solarpunk anthology was published in Brazil in 2012 — and it strives to be pragmatic and accessible, as is evident from its chronological reference guide. Though the movement has been described as an offshoot of steampunk and shares its fusion of old and new technology, solarpunk moves beyond merely fetishizing Victorian aesthetics to address practical questions of how to adapt to a world without oil. As Adam Flynn put it in his 2014 “Solarpunk: Notes Towards a Manifesto,” it’s “infrastructure as a form of resistance.”
In an interview, Flynn defines solarpunk as a way to “describe a vision of the future that we actually want.” But getting to that future is as much about transforming what we want as the technological means to get there. Flynn talks about changing the meaning of the “good life” from the excesses of consumer society to sustainability: “renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing.” One example he gives of a solarpunk plot unfolding in real time is Spain’s attempt to make it illegal to use solar panels to go off the grid (which has since developed into a “sun tax” on photovoltaic installations). Solarpunk treats sustainable innovations as a problem of politics as much as engineering.
Solarpunk’s approach links it with permaculture, a concept developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in response to another moment of anger and political despair. “To many of us who experienced the ferment of the late 1960s, there seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected,” Mollison wrote on the origins of permaculture. So he decided to forge a positive direction: “to build an army of permaculture field workers to go out and teach the ideas of sustainable food production.”
What separates permaculture from ordinary organic gardening is its commitment to building ethics into design. Each permaculture project incorporates the movement’s three ethics of “Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Shares”: that is, it must not deplete natural resources and must be sustainable over several generations, it must meet human needs and foster community by creating networks of permaculturists with different skills, and it must address the resource-use imbalance between the global north and south.
These are not novel values, as Maddy Harland points out in an explanatory write-up for Permaculture Magazine, but permaculture is “removing them from the realms of philosophy and practically rooting them in everybody’s lives.” Ethics are embedded in the approach to technology rather than considered as an afterthought.
Cuba offers an example of the viability of permaculture. When the Soviet Union’s collapse left the island without access to international trade or foreign oil, Cubans had no choice but to turn to localized food production to feed themselves. Cuban permaculturist Robert Perez credits sustainable permacultural techniques with the success of the island’s agricultural revolution. By 2012, urban farms grew over 70 percent of the vegetables eaten in Havana and Villa Clara.
The Cuban case, however, is not unlike the disaster communities in Solnit’s book: collective innovation in the face of crisis. Outside catastrophe, movements like solarpunk and permaculture remain subcultures. The question remains whether they could ever become majority movements. Project Drawdown, for example, compiles existing solutions that could reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere if applied to scale over the next 30 years. But in its aim at mainstream viability it undermines itself. Project Drawdown promotes only solutions that it regards as “economically viable,” which it defines as having “a business case.” But the site never answers the question of why its currently available solutions aren’t already deployed at the necessary scale. Might it be that the business case for deploying them isn’t as strong as the ethical one?
Those unanswered (and unasked) questions make Project Drawdown a collection of ideas that are half empowering and half paralyzing fantasy. Not all of Project Drawdown’s solutions can be enacted on the grassroots level or offer an active role to the average person. Because it lacks solarpunk’s awareness of the interrelation of technological, political, and cultural change, it limits the imaginations of readers by taking capitalism as neutral or necessary rather than as part of the problem that has led to global climate crisis. It refuses to imagine the economy itself as a problem that requires a solution of its own.
A more empowered or positive relationship to technology can’t happen through sheer innovation or different consumer choices within the existing structure. Instead, the task is to craft new tools and new structures of interaction at the same time, realizing that they were always already intertwined.
As Andrew Dana Hudson writes in “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk,” “In light of their power, overthrowing the mega-rich is a dicey project, and one perhaps left to a different kind of political aesthetic. Instead solarpunk can challenge the capitalist status quo by nurturing alternative economic arrangements at a community and network level.” In other words, it can foster a more participatory relationship to technology — the skills and tools required to sustain our common lives. Hudson suggests solarpunks “figure out what a community needs to be prosperous, peaceful and sustainable in as long a term as you can wrap your head around, and start building whatever piece is most in reach before the absent state notices.”
When I worked at the Strand Bookstore years ago during a very contentious round of contract negotiations, I remember watching the pizza place around the corner toss unordered pies into a trash bag at the end of the night. Ordinarily, this would have filled me with rage or resignation, but that night I felt something like joy. If we did go on strike, and the pizza place was as wasteful every night, then that was dinner for everyone while on reduced pay. From there, my thoughts expanded outward. If we’d all been in the practice of growing food on out rooftops, an extended reduction of already lousy retail wages would hold less terror. If the whole city were gardening, a general strike might pass from fantasy to possibility. And then the follow-up question. If we can learn to sustain ourselves without bosses, what are we striking for? Why not just turn life into an extended garden party?
This essay is part of a collection on the theme of POSITIVITY. Also from this week, Hanif Abdurraqib on the online’s small, sustaining joys, and Sasha Geffen on how games simulate the everyday scorekeeping of social media.