A World Without Us or Solarpunk?

It is January and gray. The only sounds are the steady scrunching of snow beneath my feet, interspersed with bursts of quieter, faster scrunching as my dog races to catch up, pauses, and then races up again. It feels as though we are the only beings alive for hundreds of miles, though the crisscrossing patterns of hooves, paws, and bird feet in the snow tell me that I’m wrong. And yet, there are metal numbers hammered to a wooden pole – a sign that humans once were here.

Standing Cedars is a community land conservancy in western Wisconsin that protects 1500 acres of land along the St. Croix River in four separate, non-contiguous parcels. The largest of the four – Engelwood – was a ski area during the 1950s and 60s. At 1100 acres, it was the largest single, undeveloped parcel of land on the Lower St. Croix River when it was purchased in 1995. Today, there is a hillside prairie with a wide variety of grasses and forbes, a lush maple-basswood forest flowing down the bluff to the St. Croix River, and scenic stands of birch along the prairie’s edge.

Throughout the property, one can find notes from the past. Tall wooden poles that once carried skiers up the hill now blend with trees in the woods. Two old trucks quietly rot among the raspberries and prickly ash. Deer trails wind lazily across the hillsides and over old stone walls that are slowly being swallowed by the earth.

In his 2008 book, The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman, wonders what would happen to the world if humans suddenly vanished. Within days, the New York City’s subway system would flood with water. In time, foundations would crumble. Asphalt would split and make way for weeds and roots beneath. Weisman continues on, looking backwards from an imaginary future, “With no dredging, Central Park’s ponds and reservoir have been reincarnated as marshes. Without natural grazers — unless horses used by hansom cabs and by park policemen managed to go feral and breed — Central Park’s grass is gone. A maturing forest is in its place, radiating down former streets and invading empty foundations.”

Yet, humans are still here, and barring a few exceptions where old farmsteads and ski hills have returned to woods and prairie, it seems unlikely that we’ll be leaving the world anytime soon. Is there a different pathway to the future in which we humans get to stay on earth but find new and better ways to live in harmony with nature?

In the 2010s, solarpunk emerged as a genre of art and science fiction that envisions a different kind of future where we succeed in solving major modern challenges, with an emphasis on sustainability, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and curbing pollution. 

Scroll through online solarpunk images and you’ll see densely developed cities, green with trees and plants that sprout from every possible surface, both horizontal and vertical. Green walls climb the buildings, and green roofs cap their tops. In place of a concrete jungle, inviting pathways wind among community gardens, ponds, and streams in the spaces down below.

Though solar punk may seem like a utopian future, it draws on technologies that currently exist. Green roofs and living walls exist and are already found in many places. We know how to make energy out of sunlight, wind, and waves. People ride bikes. People grow gardens in the city.

Gardens by the Bay in Singapore matches the solarpunk aesthetic.

Toward the end of my January hike, I scramble up the side of a steep and snowy hill, turn, and gaze across the river valley down below. Sometimes, it feels like we suffer from a collective lack of confidence, so certain of our imminent failure that we’re unable to imagine a future in which we succeed. Maybe it helps to have images to remind us that we can be smart, kind, and creative. We can set aside land for parks and wilderness, but we can also build a better future in the places where we live.

A world without us? No thank you. I say bring on the solarpunk.