Solarpunk works give a lot of emphasis to plants, and that’s great because plants are incredible and fascinating and amazing. Their presence in our environment makes humans mentally and physically healthier.
But you know what else is just as cool?
Fungi. Mycelia. Mushrooms
These members of the third main branch of the tree of life often seem to be neglected visually because, well, they often look really alien when viewed up close.
This I feel is a bad oversight because functionally they are fascinating.
They are a vital part of any ecosystem. They are one of the main elements that make the difference between healthy, living soil and just dirt. They form powerful symbiotic relationships with plants and trees that allow entire forests to act as one big cooperative unit; redistributing nutrients to those who are struggling and also passing information, allowing trees to ‘talk’ to one another. Most fascinating of all is their unique digestive systems, which can handle and break down forms of matter lethal to most other forms of life. They are natures best recyclers, and masters of decomposition.
For the purpose of solarpunk uses there are many ideas for our fungi friends:
Industrial cleaning and land restoration
Mushrooms can absorb and digest toxic materials in way other organic species can’t, and they are incredibly efficient at it. With the help of the right mix of species, land deemed too polluted to grow food for consumption can be brought down to safe levels in a couple of months. In a world where the amount of soil is becoming increasingly unusable, mushrooms provide a way to kick-start the healing and restoration process.
For a real-life example of this you can read all about it in this article here: https://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/dirt/food-natural-way-clean-toxic-soil-mushrooms-20190415
Another property of fungi is many have a unique structure that means they can be tough and versatile. If it’s a species that produces a mycelium matt, this gives a sheet of material that can be carved, sculpted and cured into many viable forms, everything from bricks for building to replacements for animal leather. You can even grow it inside moulds, so it can be cured into a singular shape, like a chair or table.
There are several companies right now looking into pushing this as a reliable material for general use in society. Personally, I hope they don’t try and patent what is essentially a resource of the commons, but I’m glad the research is being done.
There’s some great work being done in this field and if you want some examples, these two articles cover the tip of the iceberg
What would be really cool is if a species was found that could fit both the construction material and the previously covered clean-up function. imagine it. you find a patch of ex industrial brown land, sprinkle the spars over it, wait for the mushroom to grow and clean the land, and then when your finished carve up the leftover material to build homes or barns or tables with.
Mushrooms have been used in old schools of medicine for centuries, just as much as herbs. They are amazing little factories of many complex an interesting chemicals, yet plants have been our go-to place to look for the basis of our medicines. I believe there are untapped medical uses, especially in the field of finding alternatives to prevent antibiotic resistance, as mushrooms have evolved unique ways to fight bacterial infections.
Beyond physical biology, mushrooms may also represent one of the most powerful mental medicines we have. After a long hiatus due to social stigma research into the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens is regaining traction and interest. The early research is insanely promising, and the compound of psilocybin, the thing that makes ‘magic mushrooms’ so magical is one of the most talked about.
Hallucinogens have shown amazing results when treating depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance addiction. They work on 2 layers. The first and most obvious is the hallucinogenic trip, when guided by a professional, can be used to confront deep psychological issues. But afterwards, they are known to massively increase the brains neuroplasticity, allowing ease of new and healthier behaviour patterns to replace old destructive ones.
This potent mix is perfect for facilitating personal growth and change in oneself. A society that strives for mental and emotional health just as much as tending to the physical is something we need, and this could be a very usefull tool in the toolbox.
Just being amazing
Throughout this article I’ve talked about how mushrooms can be used as a technology. But i think its important to explicitly state, mushroom’s value doesnt come for what they can do for us as a species. Mushrooms are a vital part of the eco system, and are a vital and beutifully unique form of life. When we in the solarpunk community make our art and stories, including mushrooms as part of lush ecological visions of the future would be a wise thing to keep in mind.