Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

While dwelling on the state of the world during the combination of COP21 – determining the future fate of the human species – and the worsening chaos in southwest Asia (with the Rojava Revolution being the only beacon of light) I was trying to cobble together in my head what some viable solutions to the problems we all face might be.

Obviously the biggest problems are at the level of the global system itself: it’s centralised and militaristic state structure, its irrational economic setup premised upon infinite growth on a finite planet, various ideological forces (some religious, some not) trying to subordinate humanity to a single way of viewing the world, the continuing ecocide of the biosphere and nonhuman animals.

In the very long term, the only thing that will suffice as a solution is total system change. A structural transformation of the capitalist state system to a completely different social, political, and economic mode of power.

Though when you think that big, it can be easy to lose focus of how those systemic problems affect us all on the day-to-day level and in the here-and-now. It’s important to keep perspective on how to respond to the problems that are right in front of us, so that we don’t become so concerned with the big picture that we forget about the immediate local issues that need resolving.

Social anarchism isn’t just a vision of a non-hierarchical society that will exist some time in the distant future – after we dissolve every state, communalise the means of production, and flatten every social hierarchy – it’s a means of relating to the world that’s right in front of us which aims to decentralise power, challenge authority, and enhance individual and collective autonomy wherever possible. It’s a method of drawing out the liberatory potentials in what we already do and trying to push them to the forefront of our actions, so that our practices in the present prefigure the world we want to create in the future, helping to transfer us from one to the other.

So in the spirit of “practical utopianism”, I made a quick list of short-term to mid-term to long-term goals in order to help conceptualise where I think we should all be heading and what we should be pushing for. It’s by no means definitive or exhaustive. Merely a few suggestions to help get our minds focused on a coherent transitional process from where we are now to where we want to arrive at.

Short-term

  • Support for the individual struggles of oppressed groups of people (relative to where we each stand): women through feminist activism, people of colour through anti-racist activism, indigenous and colonised populations through decolonisation, LGBT+ folks, nonhuman animals, and so on.
  • The construction of a future “economy of the commons” through the creation of things like worker-run cooperatives, participatory budgeting programs, community land trusts, and so on.
  • Starting up democratic schools which emphasise free creativity, cooperative self-education, and self-realisation over the passive-receptive memorisation of rote tasks and factoids.
  • Unionising the global workforce so as to resist the forces of corporate capital.
  • Opposing the expansion of state power, especially surveillance, militarism, wars to access new markets for transnational capital, etc.
  • Municipalisation – instead of nationalisation or privatisation – of economic resources, making them easier to manage locally and control democratically.
  • Building an international movement (of movements) for climate justice to (1) avert ecological catastrophe, and (2) make sure green goals are fully concurrent with social goals for popular liberation and economic justice.
  • Creating “infrastructures of resistance” to capital and the state, run according to the values of voluntary cooperation and decentralised federation, as part of a social anarchist “transfer-culture” which embodies the spirit of the new world, getting us used to the practice of freedom, equality, and solidarity.

Mid-term

  • The automation, through the applied use of human-scale eco-technologies, of as much needless human toil as possible so as to eliminate jobs that fall under the “Three Ds”: Dull, Dirty, Dangerous. And the reduction of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” which have no reason to exist.
  • The localisation – to as great a degree as is feasible – of the production of goods and services, especially food and manufacturing. Though with technics such as 3D printing, micro-manufacturing, open-source hardware, free software, and vertical farming, this may be easier than you think.
  • Transition to a completely renewable (preferably localised) system of energy. With a particular focus (of course) on solar energy, wind, wave, and geothermal energy depending on the specifics of the community/region which needs power. (Nuclear power may need to be advocated as a necessary evil in a transitional phase, as a kind of methadone to wean us off of the heroin of fossil fuels)
  • The devolution of economic and political power (of state, regional, and local governments) to directly-democratic popular assemblies – meaning the democratisation of finance, investment, allocation of big resources, and political life in general.
  • Creation of a new kind of personal and social consciousness, centred on the values of personal autonomy, civil libertarianism, communal individuality, unity-in-diversity, inclusiveness, non-hierarchical ways of relating to each other, and ecological stewardship of the natural world.

Long-term

  • Elimination of the need for killing animals for food with cultured meat having been made viable.
  • Full automation of almost all dull, dirty, and dangerous labour, giving people more freedom to pursue jobs which are creative, helpful, and empowering; and to work at their own leisure.
  • Directly-democratic control of the economy at the level of the (worker self-managed) enterprise and (self-governing) locality – with administrative councils made up of spokespersons (as opposed to politicians) sent by each community to coordinate things on levels beyond the local.
  • The rewinding of areas of the Earth which were spoiled by the existing industrialist economic system; possibly even reintroducing extinct species through cloning.
  • An economy which has moved beyond scarcity to the point where markets and even money are no longer necessary, with people being able to take goods freely from stores.
  • A reconciliation of the urban and the rural with the decentralisation and ecologisation of cities.
  • The free movement of all people due to the elimination of nation-state borders and the equalisation of economic abundance.
  • The birth of a new ecological global culture reconciling humanity with the natural world.

So basically, Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

Solarpunk Virtues

Solarpunk Virtues

Pending a fuller elaboration of a social anarchist system of ethics I’m currently developing, I thought I’d share what I consider to be some good guiding principles (virtues) of solarpunk as an approach to the world. 

The ethical system is going to be a form of consequentialism which incorporates elements of virtue ethics, drawing a lot from the evolutionary ethics of Peter Kropotkin, the moral scepticism of people like Max Stirner and J. L. Mackie, and various utilitarian philosophers such as William Godwin, John Stewart Mill, R.M. Hare, and Peter Singer. For the moment I’m calling it affinitarian ethics, as it takes affinity – to persons, nonhuman animals, ecology, and even concepts – as a starting-point for the consideration of ethical questions.

Looking back through the catalogue of social anarchist approaches to ethics, I think it’s fair to say that while they didn’t have a common established ethical code to draw from, most anarchists landed on a kind of rough consequentialism, often informed by what would now be called virtue ethics, as neither of those terms existed as they do today.

In fact, you could see this project of affinitarian ethics as an attempt to update the ethical framework of Kropotkin in particular, as laid out in his essay Anarchist Morality and unfinished book Ethics. Kropotkin, being the perennial scientist, started from an evolutionary basis, and deemed “the good” as whatever helped a species to thrive in their evolutionary development – a roughly consequentialist position. In turn, he believed that while the path to achieving the good was contextual, depending on the stage and situation of a given society’s evolution, it was generally satisfied through actions which emphasised mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, and personal self-realisation.

Towards the end of Anarchist Morality, he put forward three general principles of action, each of which he felt balanced the other two out. He called these:

— Fecundity of will

— Mental fertility

— Sensibility

Or, to translate these in more straightforward language: vitality, reason (intellectual vigilance), and compassion.

It is these three excellences of character (virtues) which I believe make for wonderful key traits of the solarpunk worldview.

_______________

  • 1. Vitality: A love for life and a desire for self-directedness (autonomy) and self-fulfilment (eudaemonia) for all living beings.
  • 2.  Reason: A critical and intellectual attitude towards solving problems and overturning the rigidities of established dogmas. The ethos of science and rationalism.
  • 3. Compassion: A caring and cooperative approach to cultivating empathy and kindness in oneself – and solidarity, equality, and mutual aid in society as a whole.

_______________

Each of these three virtues, as Kropotkin made clear, complement and reinforce the other two. 

Reason without compassion can be hard-headed and callous, compassion without reason can be soft-headed and sentimental, and vitality without reason or compassion can be directionless and unintentionally destructive.

In combination, they also naturally lead to other liberatory values: vitality plus compassion is complementarity (unity-in-diversity); reason plus compassion is compassionate rationalism; and vitality plus reason make ecological humanism.

Together they imply the need for a social order which enables the fullest possible self-development of the individual in a liberatory and cooperative society of equals; the unity of freedom, equality, and solidarity.

Though one doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to wait for a post-scarcity anarchist utopia to live life in these ways. 

They are positive values which need to be practiced in the here-and-now; planted in our behaviours as the seeds which will make the new world grow within the shell of the old one.

A Few Words on Solarpunk and Primitivism

Is solarpunk compatible with wanting to live a low-technology kind of life?

  

Terminology can create a lot of confusion. Two people could argue endlessly about the same term, weighing the merits and demerits of it, only to realise that they each were going by two different meanings of the word. Such a thing happened to me recently. 

After I had a lengthly exchange with somebody in response to my claim that “primitivism” was antithetical to solarpunk, and they in turn said this was an authoritarian prescription on how everybody ought to live their lives in an ecological society, it transpired that by “primitivism” they just meant living a more low-tech, off-grid lifestyle, while allowing everybody else to live however they chose.

A number of things should be clarified in the wake of this.

Firstly, by “primitivism” I didn’t mean anybody who favours a more low-technology or Luddite way of living – away from cities, computers, and with a closer connection to the natural world. 

That’s a perfectly fine way to live, temporarily or permanently, for anybody who finds fulfilment in it; and in fact could be seen as an understandable reaction to the trappings of industrialist society.

By primitivist, for those who don’t know, I refer very specifically to a branch of thought a great deal more extreme, which (unfortunately) gained a following among self-described anarchists in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s; associated with people like John Zerzan and more recently Derrick Jensen.

Such primitivists not only want to live closer to the natural world, but regard all forms of “technology” (defined in nebulous terms) as inherently authoritarian and something no one should take pleasure in unless they’re deluded and a slave to machines. 

They regard not only the industrial revolution as a mistake, but even the agricultural revolution.

Yes, the one that happened 10,000 years ago.

To them, the only solution to the trappings of the capitalist state system can be a worldwide abandonment of all cities and technology, and a mass return to a hunter-gatherer way of life. They also regard clothing, art, writing, spoken language, counting in numbers, and even acknowledging the passage of time as authoritarian and worth abandoning.

In many ways, the way of life they seek is less like that of the real hunter-gatherers they venerate/romanticise and more akin to non-human primates like bonobos or cervine species.

It would be one thing if primitivists just wanted everyone to voluntarily abandon technology and civilisation through a kind of popular exodus or great reformation. Though that’s not what they have in mind. 

Instead, they claim that “civilisation” itself is innately doomed to self-destruct, gradually culminating in a rapture-like process called the “collapse”, leading humankind to be left with no feasible alternative but to become hunter-gatherers again.

There’s a bunch of obvious problems with the above which contradict their own objectives – such as the nuclear catastrophe that would happen without anyone to monitor waste or reserves – but I won’t go into those here.

What’s clear is that in seeking total civilisational collapse for the whole human species, the aims of these primitivists are not compatible with the values or aims of solarpunk.

Solarpunks, by and large, do not reject all technology as inherently authoritarian, but only centralised/hierarchical forms of technology which are more coded for dominating or destroying things than helping anybody. 

To a solarpunk, problems arise less from technology itself and more from how technologies are used. Just as the capitalist state system creates hierarchical and violent technics, a more liberated, egalitarian, and ecological kind of social system would create and maintain more liberatory kinds of technics.

That’s why solarpunks seek to use certain forms of technology in a responsible and ecological manner to make life better for both humanity and the natural world (humanisphere and biosphere, second nature and first nature), restructuring our technological infrastructure along decentralised and horizontalist lines, so as to re-harmonise the relation between humans and the Earth they live on.

The long-term aim would be to create a different kind of high technology than the kind associated with the capitalist state system. A world powered entirely through renewable energy, with decentralised eco-cities replacing congested metropolises, automated machinery and artisanal craft replacing industrialist mass production; with liberatory technologies like 3D printing, vertical farming, open-source hardware, and the cornucopia of a copyright-free Internet enabling a high standard of living with a minimum of human labour – and with localisation of production/distribution allowing us to stay within ecological boundaries.

This is a vision which chimes well with a number of technological thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, Peter Kropotkin, and Murray Bookchin; people associated with (or close to) the social anarchist tradition.

But in this non-hierarchical and decentralised world of technological abundance, would there be room for those who personally disliked being surrounded by even decentralist eco-technology? Would there be space even for those who wanted to be hunter-gatherers and live as most primitivists want to live?

The answer is not only yes, but of course.

Just as there’s no one type of person, there should be no one type of living arrangement that everyone should be expected to like. The general solarpunk vision of post-scarcity eco-cities is only an overall hub, around which many different kinds of life could be made possible.

We might have living areas which are more congested and industrial-looking for those who like that feeling of hustle and bustle, pastoral Amish-like communities for those who prefer the simple life away from urbanity, and even reserves for those who wanted to live as hunter-gatherers, just like what the John Zerzans of the world see as their ideal.

The difference is, while a Luddite or even primitivist way of life would be possible within a solarpunk world, a solarpunk way of life would not be possible within a primitivist world. As the imagined “collapse” would make it impossible for anyone who likes high technology and city living to exist in a way that pleases them; if they even survive the apocalyptic transition to such a state of affairs.

So to sum up, when I criticise primitivists, I don’t refer to those who want to voluntarily lead a more low-tech existence while respecting others’ lifestyles, but to those extreme anti-technology/anti-civilisation ideologues who seek the kind of collapse which would make a diversity of lifestyles impossible.

Democracy or Autonomy?

  
While social anarchists have always used the word autonomy – meaning self-directedness as well as free association – there’s been a certain ambivalence about the word democracy. This can be confusing for newcomers who start reading anarchist literature and see direct democracy being described as anarchistic in one book and lambasted in another.

The term comes from two Greek root words (demos + kratos) which together mean “people power”.

At the beginning, the word was synonymous with what is now called “direct democracy”, and referred more broadly to the idea of a self-organised multitude (“demos”) having ultimate power, rather than royals, elites, or priestly castes ruling in the name of divine authority. Originally, the very term “representative democracy” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms, as popular will by definition can only be direct. It cannot be represented by anyone speaking on people’s behalf.

While democracy was considered a radical and dangerous concept all the way up to the 19th century, often being used in the same way “anarchist” and “extremist” are used today, in the early 1800s the term started being applied to the practice of representative government, first as a populist euphemism, then literally.

Elections for office were in fact an invention of aristocracy, not democracy. Rousseau in the century beforehand described representative government as “elective aristocracy” (a more fitting description for what we have now), not democracy in any sense, which he associated with direct and participatory decision-making through popular assemblies.

With most classic social anarchist literature being written in the 1800s, the early anarchists used the “democracy” in an almost entirely negative sense, to mean both representative government as well as the idea that majorities had the right to rule over minorities.

Since the 1960s though, many social anarchists began reclaiming the earlier radical sense of the word democracy to refer to the kinds of participatory bottom-up decision-making methods they always supported anyway. Most people don’t like the state, which calls itself democratic, but still like the idea of democracy (people power) in essence. So this provided a useful discourse to reframe social anarchist ideas: as the fullest manifestation of democracy in the original sense of the word. This use was also common among others on the libertarian left such as Cornelius Castoriadis, who contrasted democracy with the “liberal oligarchy” that’s normally called democratic.

That’s not to say it doesn’t still have its detractors in anarchist circles. Even if many anarchists understand that what’s being referred to isn’t representative democracy, but direct participatory democracy, they still use it to refer to the idea of majority rule and the denial of dissenters to go their own way.

These anarchists (the North American group Crimethinc among them) contrast “democracy” with “autonomy”.

But are they really so opposed to one another?

All social anarchists agree with the principle of voluntary association and the freedom of any individual or group to disassociate from an organisation if they find themselves in irreconcilable disagreement with it. They can then do their own thing or convince other dissenting parties to join them in forming a new voluntary association.

And in the absence of nobody ever cooperating with anyone else out of fear that they may have to compromise with others, some level of group decision-making will be necessary in order to get anything done on a scale that goes beyond the lone individual.

So long as the methods we use for making decisions are voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede), why not call them democratic, given the popular resonance the word so clearly has?

Just as with individualism and collectivism, setting up a separation between them is establishing a false dichotomy. It’s true that notions of democracy that are majoritarian and not fully voluntary need to be rejected. But then so too do notions of autonomy which are antisocial and elitist.

The lone individual who just wants to do their own thing without being forced to take part in democratic decision-making is someone who should always be respected in any directly-democratic society.

So the answer to this dilemma is not democracy or autonomy, but democracy and autonomy. The aforementioned Cornelius Castoridis even used the two terms as roughly synonymous, identifying the practice of direct participatory democracy as the essence of the project of autonomy which runs throughout human history, always in tension with heteronomy (the opposite of autonomy), or what social anarchists would call hierarchical power.

The answer is a synthesis of the two traditions: autonomous democracy (or democratic autonomy as the Rojava Kurds call it).

We should use both terms in a positive and anarchist-specific sense, letting people know that we don’t allow for majoritarian/involuntary democracy or antisocial/elitist autonomy.

Autonomous democracy avoids the trappings of both rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, fulfilling both the personal and social instincts in humanity.

Eco-Anime: Six Movies with Ecological Themes, Tropes, and Messages

  

When Ronald Regan saw the famous TV movie The Day After, which is about people surviving nuclear war on the United States, it was said to have had such a profound impact on him that it lessened somewhat his macho posturing about military action towards the Soviet Union. It’s rare that movies can be said to have had such a direct effect upon the course of socio-political policy. Usually the effects are more indirect as a certain structure of feeling finds its way into cultural consciousness, which is then reflected in the kinds of subjects writers and directors choose to cover and subsequently make films about. 

A decade and a half into the 21st century, the new topic of global concern is not so much nuclear war as ecological collapse due to anthropogenic climate change, brought about through the use of fossil fuels for energy; and the potential resource wars over water, petroleum, and even living space should it get so severe. It can’t be a coincidence that we’ve been seeing a lot of movies and media as of late with post-apocalyptic themes about survival in societies that have been built back up after some kind of civilisational collapse. Though in most cases ecology is an issue that’s only alluded to than directly referenced – from Interstellar, to the Hunger Games, to The Maze Runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Book of Eli; not to mention the copious amount of post-civilisation television and video games, from The Walking Dead to the Fallout franchise.

Not so in the long history of anime (Japanese animation), in which ecological themes and tropes have been a salient feature for several decades. Perhaps due to seeing the ecocidal/genocidal effects of nuclear weaponry, perhaps due to coming from a culture which blends the ancient withthe modern and the natural with the technological, along with many other factors, green concerns have been a recurring concern in Japanese animated filmmaking from its beginnings under the legendary Osamu Tezuka to the maverick works of Hayao Miyazaki.

While the track record of American animated features dealing with the environment is somewhat sketchy – from the preachy Ferngully, to the intelligent and nuanced Wall E, to the abominable Lorax – anime tends to consistently deliver green narratives which instil an environmental awareness in the audience without beating them over the head with it. It’s strengths also lie in viewing the roots of anti-ecological consequences in systemic structures (states, militaries, corporations) rather than individual consumer behaviours, which seems to be the main focus of green animated movies in the west; emphasising personal guilt over the need for structural changes.

From the birth of the modern ecology movement in the 1960s to the present, there has grown a division into two rough poles with, on one hand, primitivists – who believe we ought to abandon all technology and return to a hunter-gatherer way of life – and, on the other hand, futurists – who believe we can use technology in an environmentally responsible way to liberate both ourselves and the natural world from hardship, with most greens being somewhere in the middle.

The relative scope of eco-anime films which tackle environmental issues and themes could also be broken down roughly into two camps: eco-fantasy and eco-futurism. The former tends to be more lighthearted, and deals with humanity’s relationship to nature in a whimsical and imaginative way. The latter tends to be more dark and grim, depicting the negative consequences of human folly in our effect on the natural world.

While the parallels between primitivism/eco-fantasy and futurism/eco-futurism don’t perfectly align, they share enough in common that thematic resonances exist between them when it comes to viewing the expression of ecological consciousness in feature films. 

I want to start with optimistic visions from the 1980s and 1990s – which emphasise small-scale and general concern for the environment rather than systemic change – followed by movies that depict ecological catastrophe and the “revenge of nature” upon humanity, and conclude with a film which mixes apocalyptic imagery with a more optimistic outlook on the potential for humans to live in harmony with nature instead of dominating it.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Even without the relevant connection to ecology and other themes, Hayao Miyzaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a delightful children’s adventure story, blending the works of Jonathan Swift with high adventure fiction from the early twentieth century and swashbuckling action movies from the 1930s – it’s also noteworthy for being one of the first cinematic examples of the genre now called steampunk.

The story concerns two teenagers, Sheeta and Pazu, in an alternate-history version of Europe, where steam-power has given birth to airships instead of sea-ships, as they search for the legendary city of Laputa, said to contain the ruins of a lost civilisation. They are pursued by the villainous (aesthetically fascist) Muska and the military, who wish to conquer the lost city for its treasures and weaponry.

While its plot is a little on the simpler side relative to Miyazaki’s other works, with Muska in particular being a somewhat cartoonishly evil villain in comparison to his more nuanced antagonists, it doesn’t try to be anything other than a fun family adventure film with implied messages about militarism and the necessity about having a connection to the natural world.

The film opens in the lush valleys of what seems to be alternate-history Wales, where people are visibly poor materially but still full of vitality, then transitions to the high-tech surroundings of the military of this world, which contains unpleasantly rustic browns, greys, and an aura of aggressive uniformity. These two aesthetics are smashed together when our characters, good and evil, arrive in Laputa, a former technological hegemon which has been taken over by flora and fauna. This is something Muska finds “filthy” and disgusting as he rips through vines to acquire control of the city’s weapons of mass destruction.

Sheeta’s ancestral connection to the city comes into play towards the end as it becomes apparent to Muska that he cannot become this world’s ruler without her. Threatening her at gunpoint, Laputa’s decaying technological might comes into play as it becomes apparent that it was once the head of a great empire which collapsed due to its disconnection from the Earth, in both a figurative and literal sense.

Ultimately, while the film’s ecological message is covert, rather than overt, it is coded to the audience in a remarkably mature fashion for a nominally child-centric movie, making links between statism, war, militarism, and inevitable ecocide.

Pom Poko

Written and directed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata, the filmmaker behind one of anime’s most renowned cinematic gems, the World War II tragedy Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko focuses on a group of anthropomorphic Tanuki (raccoon-dogs indigenous to Japan) as they wage a guerrilla war against humans developing on their habitat.

The film has a lot of colourful and creative imagery depicted through the magical Tanuki’s ability to transform into humans and monsters to scare the humans off, and also a lot of black comedy which will probably fly over children’s heads.

Story wise, the film takes place over the course of a couple of seasons as the Tanuki try various campaigns and strategies to keep the humans away from their land and stop them destroying their homes. Part of the charm of the film is watching the anthropomorphised animals mimic human habits yet acting very much like one would expect real animals to act if they could speak. That is, in a not so rational and enlightened way.

The more militaristic section of the Tanuki has similarities to radical environmental groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, performing acts of strategic sabotage and property damage in their fight against human encroachment. And, interestingly for a family film, not only has the Tanuki commit actual murder at points, but laugh hysterically about it afterwards.

Unusually for an animated family film that deals with green issues – which was released at around the same time as the similarly themed Ferngully: The Last Rainforest – the film actually grows more somber and bleak as it goes on, as the Tanuki gradually run out of options and are slowly faced with death due to starvation. It confronts the characters with tough choices to which there are no easy answers, even from the audience’s perspective. Do they go out blazing in an anti-human rampage rather than accept slow death from starvation? Attempt to find another less habitable home? Should the few Tanuki who can magically transform try to assimilate into the human world leaving their weaker comrades to an uncertain fate?

The film is overall a bit too heavy handed in its depiction of human-nature conflict. It even ends with one of the Tanuki characters speaking directly to the children watching the film about treating the environment responsibly. But in other ways it makes for a surprisingly mature story about how there isn’t always an easy answer to the question of human versus ecological survival.

Princess Mononoke

In another Miyazaki entry, this time of a far darker and more adult nature, Ashitaka, a young man infected with a curse given to him by a forrest god, must abandon his tribe and search the lands of medieval Japan in search of some kind of cure. The god was driven mad by some kind of spiritual infection said to be caused by the progressive human ravaging of the forrest, as many bands of humans are determined to conquer nature and her spirits so that industrialisation and the march of progress may continue.

Along the way, in this 2 ½ hour epic, Ashitaka encounters forrest spirits, corrupt monks, soldiers who want to cut his head off, a town lead by an ambitious woman of mixed morals, and a girl raised by wolf gods after having been abandoned by her human parents, who has turned against her own species to become a warrior for the forests: Princess Mononoke, who gives the film its title.

This movie is generally considered Miyazaki’s magnum opus in a career chock full of masterpieces. It’s not difficult to see why, as almost every character is fascinating, complex, and well-developed; the animation and direction is nothing short of breathtaking, even by today’s standards; and its plot of a war between humanity and (anthropomorphised) nature itself manages to be multi-faceted and avoids painting either side as fully right or wrong in their dispute.

It would normally be expected in a pro-ecology film for nature to be depicted as virtuous and humanity as villainous. Though the picture Miyazaki paints is more complicated than that.

Nature is shown to be a world of balance and harmony, unjustly being destroyed by human action; but also rigid and stubborn in its inability to compromise or accept necessary change. Humanity – as represented in the industrial dwelling of Iron Town, led by the ambiguous Lady Eboshi – is shown to be violent and reckless; but also a force of creativity and vitality. And Lady Eboshi herself, who in any other film would probably be the designated villain, is shown to be at once ecocidal and myopic, but also a woman who built a thriving community of social outcasts – prostitutes, runaway soldiers, lepers – when the rest of society denied them even basic humanity. 

So in a sense, the film plays out as a battle between the best of a flawed humanity versus the worst of a benevolent nature over the contested territory of living space, with Ashitaka being caught between both worlds, who (as a member of an indigenous tribe excluded from Japanese society) having localities to neither, ends up getting caught in the middle; attacking and defending both sides at various points depending on the situation.

In the end, as expected, balance between forrest and town is achieved through the cooperation of Ashitaka and Mononoke, with each being children caught between worlds, and therefore the best bridges between them. As a dark but ultimately hopeful example of eco-fantasy, it gives its viewers interesting points to contemplate around the subject of human dealings with nature in the name of “progress”, and whether a progress that involves increasing the vitality of humans by decreasing the vitality of nature is really a progress worth having.

Now to turn attention away from the positive imaginings of eco-fantasy to the dark visions of eco-futurism.

Blue Submarine No. 6

The story of this mini-series, recut into a two-hour movie, concerns a once-respected scientist called Zorndyke who became convinced that humanity was a blight upon the Earth. He subsequently genetically-engineered several species of sapient post-human marine species intended to wipe out the human population. Submarine pilot Hayami and assistant Mayumi team up to defend the existing humans and defeat Zorndyke.
 

Aside from the dark and increasingly relevant eco subject matter, Blue Submarine No. 6 was one of the first anime features to extensively blend 2D cell animation with 3D computer animation, and while not that sophisticated by today’s standards, marks a turning point in technical terms for anime as a medium. It came out the same year as Gary Goldman and Don Bluth’s Titan A. E., an underrated science-fiction animated film which also blended traditional 2D characters with mobile 3D backgrounds.

This is a rare film where eco-collapse has been brought about through conscious effort rather than as an unintentional side effect. While Zorndyke is only alluded to early on in the film, made out by most characters to be some kind of demented sociopath, he is eventually depicted onscreen as a soft-spoken, cerebral, and almost gentle character. While his literally genocidal project is depicted as a step too far, Zorndyke still comes across as a villain with a point. Less Doctor Moreau – which, with his creation of humanoid animals, may seem like the best comparison – and more Doctor Frankenstein in the original novel by Marry Shelly.

A major plot-point is Mayumi seeking revenge upon Zorndyke for the deaths of her parents, with the film building up to a final confrontation between the two. Yet, when she finally meets him face-to-face and is presented with the opportunity of killing him, she cannot take it. Upon hearing the explanation for his actions, she finds herself simultaneously unable to agree with his anti-human philosophy, yet also unable to see him as nothing but a brutal villain worthy of death.

Throughout, Hayami has several encounters with one of Zorndyke’s marine soldiers, forming a sort of non-verbal bond as they save each other’s lives once each, coming to recognise a mutual “humanity” in one another. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Hayami briefly reflects on what the world might be like post-humanity, “for us death, but for you, a utopia”.

The final scene of Zorndyke’s funeral is ambivalent. Whether humanity can live in peace with the Earth’s new nonhuman inhabitants is left up in the air. It is something to mournfully contemplate as we ask, if Zorndyke was correct in his assessment of the human species’s capacity for destruction, what alternative can there be for both people and the planet?

Origin: Spirits of the Past

Personally, while I can see where this anti-humanist sentiment is coming from, and can appreciate it for asking interesting questions in the context of some films, I’m not at all sympathetic too it. Mainly because it treats “humanity” as a homogenous entity instead of the diverse multitude it is, stratified along state and class lines. To imply that humanity as a whole bears collective responsibility for environmental devastation is to effectively say a poor child in the slums of Lagos is as responsible for ecocide as the CEO of Exxon Mobil, simply because both are members of the homo sapiens species.

For that reason and others, I find myself more drawn to the worldview of films like Origin: Spirits of the Past.

The story kicks off through a musical montage which depicts global civilisational collapse due to an attempt at geoengineering gone wrong, which covers the world in sentient trees. Flash forward 300 years and the citizens of an area called Neutral City are caught in a conflict between a militaristic nation-state on one side, and the sentient forrest – which they have learned to live in balance with – on the other.

The finger is pointed more at militarism and statism as being responsible for environmental devastation more than some kind innate species-wide propensity towards wrecking the Earth.

As a film in-itself, Origin is aesthetically beautiful but somewhat lacking in the story and character department. At only 90 minutes, the striking world of the film makes it feel like it ought to be a lot longer, perhaps even a television series or a series of films than a self-contained feature. And in terms of the delivery of its message, it comes across as excessively preachy and unsubtle. Though as for that message’s actual content, Origin succeeds in coming close to what’s called the social ecology school of environmental thought, emphasising human-nature cooperation and balance between the two as a solution to conflict, rather than one dominating or destroying the other.

Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind

In Hayao Miyazaki’s first big film, released in the early 1980s (and boasting an egregiously dated synthesiser soundtrack), a small community of ecologically responsible people have managed to carve out a comfortable existence through renewable technology and living in peace with the Ohmu, giant insectoid creatures which roam the toxic wastelands the rest of the planet has become.

The collapse here is implied to be the result of nuclear war rather than ecological collapse – more of a Cold War theme from the 1980s – though it still has much of the same resonance today as the issues of human institutional folly causing catastrophe are similar enough to be comparable. The film could just as well be made today with implied nuclear war being replaced with implied human-cased eco-collapse without a noticeable difference.

Our plot concerns a young “princess” called Nausicca (after an ancient Phoenician goddess) as she roams the wasteland in search of materials to help her people and act as an intermediary between the various waring states which dot the still-habitable zones of the Earth. While one state in particular is determined to use ancient weapons from the “old world” (implied to be some form of atomic city-destroyer) in order to scrape the wastelands clean of the Ohmu, Nausicca is determined to find a peaceful solution.

The film is most similar overall to Miyazaki’s later epic Princess Mononoke, with Nausicaa and Ashitaka both being thrust into the role of intermediary between humanity and nature. But while Ashitaka fights against both sides in the conflict, trying to get both to see sense, Nausicaa tries to bring both sides together without recourse to violence. On that level it’s the most anti-militarist, even pacifist, of the films covered here. 

In the end, as Nausicca manages to put her own life on the line to play peacemaker between the militaristic human rulers and nuclear fauna, the audience is shown in the post-credits montage that it is indeed possible for humanity and nature to exist in harmony with one another. 

This film, though the earliest chronologically of these six, embodies all the best traits of the anime films that came after it: ecological awareness, links between ecocide and the militaristic desire to dominate nature, and the aspiration to adopt a cooperative relationship to the natural world instead of one based on hierarchy and destruction. 

Conclusion

As shown above, while western animated features continue to be hit and miss with regard to addressing issues of people and planet, anime contains a wealth of movies grabbing with green themes and leading audiences to think about their relationship as humans towards the Earth, and where possible solutions to the nature/culture divide may lie. 

With regard to both cinematic analysis and social analysis, of the most promising environmental philosophies to look into in the technological age (alluded to above) is the critical theory of social ecology.

Social ecology posits that almost all environmental problems (bar purely natural disasters) are ultimately rooted in human social problems; and those human social problems in turn stem from structuring our institutions and relations upon lines of centralised power, hierarchy, and domination. In the words of social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin “The domination of nature by man is rooted in the domination of man by man”. In other words, the ways we treat each other, through exploitation and violence, become projected onto the ways we treat nonhuman animals, flora, landscapes, and other forms of biotic life.

Perhaps the best course of action filmmakers could take would be to drop the scary visions of possible apocalypse and show bright hopeful futures in which technology has been utilised to restore balance between first nature (the organic world) and second nature (the human-crafted world). A “social ecological cinema”. And as the movies in this festival show, there’s already a lot to draw from in anime. Right now such visions are only really present in films like Origin and Nausicca, which show ecotopias within the context of post-collapse worlds. Perhaps it might be a good idea to show that such societies could be achieved while averting such a collapse in the first place.

About

About

The aesthetic-cultural philosophy of solarpunk and the politics of social anarchism were practically made for each other. This site attempts to combine them. 

“The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking”

– Murray Bookchin

Solarpunk is a new science-fiction and cultural movement dedicated to imagining a bright hopeful future powered by green energy, where technology is used for human-centric and eco-centric ends. It envisions moving us beyond artificial scarcity and toil while helping mend the rift between humanity and nature; looking beyond many of the dark and grim tropes so common in dystopian visions of the future. Artistically it takes influence from Art Nouveau, African and East-Asian art, and other attempts to blend the organic with the synthetic. It is a form of futurism which focuses on what we should hope for rather than on what to avoid.

Social anarchism is an ethical-political tradition which grew out of the fusion of classical liberalism and anti-authoritarian socialism in the 19th century, combining a concern for personal freedom with the desire for popular liberation from social hierarchy, political authoritarianism, and economic exploitation. It seeks, in the long-term, a decentralised directly-democratic polity and an economy of the commons based on direct participant-control of all institutions, while also prefiguring the values of such a society in the here-and-now: individual autonomy, voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, and non-hierarchical forms of self-organisation.

Solarpunk Anarchists continues a pair of disciplines within social anarchism called social ecology and post-scarcity anarchism (PSA), which saw possibilities for freedom through utilising technology for liberatory ends – instead of the profiteering and dominative ends of the capitalist state system – repurposing technics to eliminate dull, dirty, and dangerous forms of labour, while decentralising their scale to allow greater human-control.

We believe the sensibilities of social ecology/PSA fit solarpunk like a glove, and produce written material which tries to bridge the gap between the world we’re stuck in now, and the liberated world we seek to create.