In the early 90s, my parents moved to a ranch in Wyoming to prepare for the end of the world. “Earth Changes” were coming, my mother told me, citing prophecies of geologic and climatic upheavals from books by Edgar Cayce and Lori Toye. The world was about to look radically different, and the only way to survive when the systems around us broke down was to get away from the city and back to the land, re-learn how to grow our own food.
It’s not like we joined a cult or started a commune, though perhaps we should have. Things might have gone differently during those rural years if we’d been surrounded by people who shared a common vision of the future.
In moving us to Wyoming, my mother was imaging a future with major upheaval and attempting to create a better way to live within that type of a world. Knowing this part of my history, it should come as no surprise that I gravitated toward solarpunk, a niche of science fiction that imagines how we might create a better world in spite of climate change. Rather than a pure back-to-the-land movement, solarpunk envisions a balance of nature and technology, a future in which technology might actually help save the world, or what’s left of it. For example, transporting endangered animals in airships, like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, or protecting whole cities from extreme weather with high-tech domes like in Lauren C. Teffeau’s Implanted, or rewilding damaged land with ecobots, like in Brenda Cooper’s Wilders. Solarpunk is a type of fiction, but it’s also a community of people with a shared vision of the future, many of whom are making changes in the ways they live and think to work toward that future.
My childhood memories of our Wyoming ranch are mostly positive, often centered around the animals we raised and the vegetable garden we planted. Of course, I didn’t realize until much later that the real reason my afterschool dance lessons were 70 miles away was so that my mother could drop off paperwork for her third part-time job. I didn’t realize that when my father was gone for a couple of weeks at a time, he was actually working down in Denver and sending money “home.” Or that their relationship had been rocky even before the move.
Only a couple of years after buying the ranch, they divorced. Sold the animals and left the garden, stopped working toward that particular vision of the future. Earth Changes might still be coming, but we’d just have to weather them like anyone else.
Now, I’m nearly the same age as my parents were then, and it feels like the world is ending. It isn’t, of course, but I write this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. My husband and I panic-bought hand sanitizer and toilet paper and canned goods just like everybody else. People wiped out whole shelves with the anticipation of being stuck in their homes for weeks. Security guards limit how many people are allowed inside grocery stores now, and rations are placed on high-demand items, such as disinfectant wipes and cold medicine. Schools are closed, events canceled, workers sent home. Normally busy and bustling places are abandoned. Despite the pleasant spring weather, this looks a lot like what science fiction has shown us the start of an apocalypse looks like.
Like many other cities, mine is now under “shelter-in-place” orders, meaning people are only allowed to leave their homes for health care and emergencies and supply runs. Even before the restriction was official, I tried to stay home as much as possible, to avoid becoming a disease vector that furthers the spread in my community. Going anywhere public right now is stressful, trying to avoid touching any doors or surfaces, like some twisted game of “the floor is lava.” I’m privileged enough to be able to stay at home, to be able to buy a kitchenful of groceries. But I realized, staring at all the canned and frozen foods in our kitchen, that in this strange timeline I’ve found myself in, getting fresh produce is going to be a lot harder, and a lot less frequent. Suddenly, the people who have backyard or windowsill gardens are looking pretty smart.
So one of the other things I panic-bought was a small indoor garden system. It has timed LED lights and promises to alert me when it needs water and fertilizer. That technological support appeals to me because I don’t remember how to grow anything. We had a half-acre garden plot in Wyoming, but that was decades ago and nearly a thousand miles away. I’m so out of touch with nature that I can barely keep a houseplant alive, much less something I might be able to eat.
Yet gardening is one of the first skills I usually give my protagonists, especially when imagining a world affected by climate change. I usually imagine futures where the large-scale corporate farming we have now has failed and agriculture has moved cityward, to indoor vertical farms or community gardens, where produce (or even livestock) is grown more locally and sustainably because a decentralized food system could decrease both carbon impact and cost. I imagine ranches that rely on apps and bots and drones because technology already impacts the way food is grown, harvested, and distributed, and more changes will certainly arise as circumstances become more extreme.
I bought this little high-tech garden out of fear, imagining a near-future when I might not be able to leave the house to get fresh greens, or when the supply chain is so stressed that they simply won’t be available. I bought it because I remembered my mother’s garden in Wyoming, but I don’t have any land to farm. And I also bought it because solarpunk reminded me that growing your own food is a thing, that we can make or grow something rather than buy it, that technology can help us redirect the trajectory of the world. This is my own miniature indoor urban garden, and it makes me feel like I might have some control over my future when everything else seems so far out of my control.
Long before she envisioned growing a garden in the post-apocalyptic plains of Wyoming, my mother envisioned a different type of future: one in which love and peace reigned. In college she was a flower child—not a hippie, she’ll always correct—part of a group of free spirits pushing back against the conformity they’d been raised in, asking for a world without war and hatred. The movement began in San Francisco, but my mother lived in Oklahoma, half a continent away from the epicenter.
In 2018, I took my mother to visit San Francisco for the first time. WorldCon was in San José that year, and I’d asked for her help running a dealer’s room table for my small press, promising we’d play tourist for a bit before the con started. We ate at a restaurant right at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, located the houses where Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead had lived, walked around the park where the Summer of Love occurred. She enjoyed seeing these places, but she also felt a deep, angry mourning as she finally stood on “Hippie Hill,” alone and fifty-one years too late. It was a mourning for her own past and youth, and for the future this movement had wanted to create, which didn’t come to be for so many reasons.
When people first hear about the solarpunk movement, a common reaction is something along the lines of “That sounds like a bunch of hippie crap.” We’re usually quick to defend, to try to distance ourselves from that perception, to explain how this movement is different. But is it, really? Many of the values and aesthetics of solarpunk derive directly from the values and aesthetics of 60s counterculture. Solarpunks value maker culture over capitalist materialism, they participate in protests and marches, they push back against the mainstream narrative that war and destruction is inevitable. Solarpunk stories are often set in rural communes, or in communities that are open to varying gender expressions and family structures. Hippies—sorry, Mom, flower children—placed flowers in gun barrels to protest violence; solarpunks throw seed bombs to protest environmental destruction. People in the 60s lived under the looming inevitability of nuclear war, the same way we now live under the looming inevitability of climate change. Even the use of Art Nouveau as an aesthetic touchstone graces solarpunk ’zine covers and 60s psychedelic rock posters alike.
We don’t live in the future my mother imagined in the 60s, any more than we live in the future she imagined in the 90s. But that movement she was a part of did make a difference. Not the revolutionary change they wanted, but a shift that continues to affect American culture half a century later. So, yeah, maybe solarpunk is the next evolution, the newest expression, of what was started back then. When the world looks doomed, imagining better futures is a radical act, and both hippies and solarpunks have the audacity to do just that. We may not get the full green revolution we want, but even a slight change in trajectory would be a victory.
During the first few days after Covid-19 cases were announced in New Mexico (where I live now), people around me kept saying things like, “This is just like sci-fi.” And it is. We’ve seen these types of scenarios in movies and stories because science fiction is great at projecting what might go wrong. But what it doesn’t always show is the ways that people can be kind during crisis, the ways we can grow and change together when circumstances try to tear us apart. We’re all afraid, but there are various ways to cope with fear. I’ve learned that I’m far from the only one who’s coping with this crisis by planting a garden.
As the human world shuts down, we’re seeing noticeable reductions in air and water pollution. Let us be clear: these environmental positives are not happening because people are dying, but because there’s a cog stuck in the capitalist machine. It’s still running, of course, but not at full capacity. It only took a few weeks to see the environmental impact of reduced travel and factory production—mitigation strategies that climate scientists have been advising for years. The future feels compressed right now. Everything’s changing so fast that it’s difficult to look to next week, much less next year, next decade, next century. But once this pandemic is over, we’ll still be faced with the ongoing crisis of climate change. And just like this disease, climate change will not affect everyone equally. Some will die, some will recover; many will have to make inconvenient changes in their lives.
Earth Changes are still coming. Are already happening, but not in the sudden apocalyptic manner my mother’s books suggested. There’s a strange comfort in the idea of apocalypse. It’s easier to think that the slate will be wiped clean with a sudden disaster than it is to understand the gradual spread of a pandemic or the steady creep of the rising sea levels. So what will we do when we realize that the world didn’t end? What kind of future will we build from the disasters we live through? I don’t know what the world is going to look like by the time I reach the age my mother is now. All I know for sure is that, finally, I’ve planted some seeds, and maybe soon they’ll start to grow.