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2020/07/12 Solarpunk Economies and Fabrication

Solderpunk did good service to continue a thread on fediverse regarding the feasibility of infotec in the event that petrochemicals enhanced “civilization” ends.

Fediverse Conversation on Solarpunk

I’d like to meander a way through a few considerations in light of the foregoing.

There are two linked states which solarpunk as an aesthetic or genre of futurism addresses. The first is the “long emergency” crisis, the breakdown of the gluttonous empire in a crisis. The second being the dimension of an envisioned end solution to that crisis, which is a solar powered utopia. The link between these states is the proposition that the crisis of petrochemical empire’s demise need not be totally catastrophic, that we would live better without it with a dose of creativity.

These situational states are linked, but they do necessitate different palpable responses.

The technologies pitched by solarpunk are proven to be resilient in short term crises. I’ve volunteered for local emergencies in a small capacity, and been glad of them. A dose of preparedness, self reliance, and foresight help heaps when the normal systems collapse. QED with the pandemic of the last few months. Solarpunk has a lot to offer on the immediate horizon of insurance. A longer and deeper collapse of economy will likewise demand very ad hoc measures and lifeways which solarpunk anticipates.

Could such an estate lead to the solarpunk utopia? How tenable is a green autonomista economy? Possibly, with a lick of sense and patience. Sadly, humans tend to have little of either in crisis. We’ve all seen the paintings envisioning this sort of world: clean cut and able bodied granola enthusiasts bicycling to their solar powered workplace past windmills and organic front yard gardens. An Arcadian delight, surely. The technologies are there to support it, probably. Possibly. But dream it be.

What we need, it seems to my uneducated mind, is the work on the third dimension. To survive a collapse, never mind build the utopia, systems need to be running now. That means scaled sourcing of materials, creation, and deployment. It’s not going to be enough to scavenge the corpse of capitalism, as was pointed out above. And in crisis, people often can do little else. So the systems have to be already running so they can take over and take over. And that is a huge problem beyond most of our scopes.

But here’s some questions and notions:

FOSS hardware isn’t there yet.

Computing materials are exotic and exploitative. Often the hardware respects the possibility of user repair or modification no more than corporate black boxes. And look at the massive amount of volunteered energy going into creating new drivers and software for every new generation; Intel today, ARM tomorrow... Even between Raspberry Pi devices and such.

What if production of the motherboard itself were to take a page from the unix playbook. Take a Raspi and make it bigger. Make standard future forward bus designs to accomodate modest new developments, but also allow for easy user maintenance.

Now, I’ve tried to solder SMA components and have a few tricks. But it’s a pain in the patoot. Part of a Solderpunk manifesto should be the end of miniaturization at all costs. Humans are the measure. Devices should be repairable at the level of board component.

A widespread standard board would allow and encourage alternative economies. A mandate for less exploitation would mean small production cooperatives could build, say, a resistor more fairly and sustainably.

Solarpunk Kit

There are DIY computing resources. And there are suppliers. But there is, so far as I know, no central depot to connect the two. Imagine a site (maybe a Gemini site!) with three parts: educational, referential, and exchange. Glue howto to a wiki to a FOSS alibaba. The links between how-to videos and the acquisition of parts can be shortened. Should be!

Let’s say it is Solarpunk 2038 and I want to build a computer. I go onto Solar.kit at the library and use a wizard to get a board model I feel I can make. The parts arrive slowly, but they are fabricated by light industry nearby. Some I can print at the library. The models to do so are already set by Solar.kit. The sourcing is done by Solar.kit. I can customize all that if I like, but with the standard models I have a reliable Model T computer, built as locally as possible and as sustainably as possible.

This is a utopian outline, natch. But it points up the need for standardization and interoperability as intrinsic to popular computing. Tinkerers may swap operating systems like underwear. But most people want something to “just work” and a for long while. Until now that has been decided largely by conglomerates who push disposability. People put up with the price, the exploitation, and the waste of big tech because they know when they get it, it will do what it says. (And they have no choice otherwise.)

For smaller producers to do that, some basic expectations must be met. The best way to do that is let computers do it themselves so the small producers can work to produce. That doesn’t mean JIT kanban necessarily, but it could. The manufacturer would decide when and how they produce, and how much. The critical thing for both crisis and utopia must be wide scalability. The part timer in the garage making 2 IC chips today must get the same result as the one who makes 100. For that to work, the supply chain and design expectations would need to be of first concern.


Nothing Solarpunk will get built beyond us few isolated crackpots unless networks exist. Like, now. And that means via internet and otherwise. We should expect that in both crisis and utopia, resilient networking is primo. And so far there is not enough of that. We have choices for meshnets: AREDN, OLSR, LibreMesh... We have choices for protocols. We have choices for encryption (still). But until these are widely deployed, and securely, and used, the corporate carriers will continue to shrink the space wherein communities can proffer alternative infotech at all.

Ultimately I think any sustainable infotech won’t be possible until production is scaled to small firms and light industry end to end. That means small groups doing a few things well, a la Unix. 6-50 people. For that kind of, dare I say, anarchy to work, it must needs be disciplined by shared expectation in design. And such wide agreement is always difficult without some sort of disaffection. It would need a spirit of institutional agreement both widely common and almost invisible, approaching the civic, such as FOSS has yet to even have mustered.

Well, enough of my mumbles for now.



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