The Power of Passive

One thing that always bugs me about a lot of the concept art and ideas people have when talking about Solarpunk is when it amounts to simply bolting a lot of solar panels onto everything but keeping the underlying systems the same.

The society is still built around everyone using an individual car. Lots of convenience electronics consuming large amounts of electricity and representing a large ecological debt of resources harvested.

Back in the early 2000’s when steampunk broke into popular consciousness a lot of the members of the community complained about the attitude of ‘just stick a few gears on it and call it steampunk’, wherein the deeper themes of examining colonialism and industry were forgotten and only the aesthetic remained.

This is a problem too for Solarpunk. Slapping a lot of solarpanels and urban greenery on our current way of life with no regard to our attitudes to consumption, work, community or power structures is all solar and no punk.

This lies in tandem with a common idea that Technology will magically save us from the problems our societal systems have produced, eliminating our need for introspection and making tough choices about what we might have to give up.

One aspect of our society that will need to change is electricity use. We currently have lives built around the idea electricity is plentiful and there when we need it. Even if it was possible to fully match our current demand for electricity with renewables, it doesn’t even address the ecological and human cost our subsequent demand for electronics.

The easiest way to reduce the way our societal systems demand for electricity is to stop using it as the go-to solution for issues that can be solved with passive design.

The best example of this is how homes used to be designed before the advent of AC systems. the look and feel of homes used to vary far more by region than it does today, this is because they were designed to best deal with the local climate through passive. However, with the advent of the commercial AC unit and cheap electricity, designers could make homes much more uniform with the implicit assumption an AC unit or central heating would do the heavy lifting on temperature regulation. The 99percent invisible podcast had an excellent episode on this subject.

Even if you do need an AC unit, there are passive solutions available, such as this water evaporation installation that does double duty as an air cooler and art piece.

Even modern conveniences, such as warmer climate fruits in northern locations, had simple solutions that required none of the transportation infrastructures of importation or even the energy-intensive needs of using industrial greenhouses to create an artificial climate. The fruit wall was used between the 1500’s to the 1800’s, and is simply a wall built of material that retains heat well. These made it possible to grow exotic fruits in colder regions but also extend harvest times on native produce. There is a full article on them by the fantastic lowtech magazine. These would be a fantastic bit of technology to bring back for agri-hoods and farming collectives when visualising a better world, both for fictional stories and the real world.

There is an assumption that the move towards electronic solutions is always progress and methods used in the past were therefore primitive, but I have been finding more and more how untrue this is. There are a great number of technologies and engendering solutions buried in the past that could light our way. Combine with modern material engineering non-electronic, passive solutions could keep us in relative comfort without the need for massive energy demands. To build a solarpunk world requires us to truly look at our most base assumptions on how both technology and society need to work.

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