Steampunk and solarpunk are two sci-fi aesthetics that envision a future influenced by past technologies. But beyond their retro-futuristic styling, they promote very different ideals. Read on to find out their similarities, differences and who wins the battle: Solsrpunk vs Steampunk: the gloves are off!
What is Steampunk?
Steampunk imagines an alternate version of 19th century society powered by steam technology.
Its aesthetic style combines period fashion like waistcoats and corsets with anachronistic futuristic technology like airships, robots, and computers.
Historically, it developed as a sub-genre of science fiction in the 1980s.
But it has since expanded into a full-fledged subculture.
Steampunk’s style romanticizes the fashion and technology of Victorian England at the height of its prosperity under colonial imperialism.
As such, its aesthetic tends to gloss over the era’s gross exploitation of natural resources and people.
This has led to some critiques that steampunk ignores difficult historical truths in favor of an exotic escapist fantasy.
What is Solarpunk?
Solarpunk is a much more recent movement that emerged in the 2010s.
In contrast to steampunk’s glorification of fossil fuels, solarpunk envisions a sustainable future powered by renewable energy — especially solar power.
Other key characteristics of solarpunk include:
- Sustainable infrastructure built through the use of eco-friendly technology and architecture
- Accessible public spaces and services to enhance communities and human wellbeing
- Social justice and equity are core principles to create societies that serve all people, not just the privileged elite
- A hopeful vision of a world that has moved past climate disaster and injustice through positive human cooperation
Unlike steampunk’s nostalgia for the past, solarpunk is radically oriented towards the future.
It asks how we can transform modern technologies to build a world of ecological harmony and social prosperity.
Similarities Between Solarpunk and Steampunk
Despite their differences, solarpunk and steampunk share a few key commonalities:
- They are anti-establishment genres that offer alternatives to dominant systems of power and social control
- Both make heavy use of anachronism, fusing old aesthetics with futuristic (or at least novel) technologies not historically found together
- Each has an affinity for a “salvagepunk” style that creatively reuses and reimagines existing objects and materials
- Strong focus on innovative technology and architecture as the building blocks of their envisioned societies
- Interest in envisioning political alternatives to mainstream capitalist democracies in the West
Key Differences Between Solarpunk and Steampunk
However, solarpunk and steampunk differ significantly in the political ideals and futures they promote:
Politics and Economics
- Steampunk either ignores 19th century inequality and exploitation or weakly attempts to reimagine alternate pasts where they were addressed. It rarely reflects on ongoing modern-day oppression.
- Solarpunk structurally opposes all forms of social and environmental exploitation. It imagines overcoming today’s inequalities through grassroots technological innovation coupled with progressive political change.
- Steampunk embraces fossil fuel technologies with little concern for long-term ecological impact. Environmental issues overall get very little attention.
- Solarpunk envisions renewable energy systems powering sustainable, eco-friendly societies in balance with nature. Ecosystem regeneration is a central theme.
Technological Optimism vs Caution
- Steampunk relishes innovative technologies but often in a brash way that presumes technological solutions can fix most societal problems. Risks or negative consequences are downplayed.
- Solarpunk advocates spreading technology, but also responsibly and centered on improving human welfare over profits. It tempers optimism with wisdom to avoid overreach.
Nostalgia vs Futurism
- Steampunk fondly recalls the fashion, culture and technologies of the past. The future receives less direct focus.
- Solarpunk uses lessons from the past to positively transform the future. It rarely dwells on bygone days.
Aesthetics and Style
- Steampunk style heavily features cogs, gears, rivets, airships, gas lamps, clocks, brass and wood materials — evoking the steam and coal era machinery of old. Historical fashion elements like corsets and suits feature prominently. Colors tend towards browns, blacks, golds, and brass.
- Solarpunk style utilizes ample greenery, renewable energy tech like solar panels, innovative architecture and infrastructure planned around communities and sustainability. Colors tend to brighter shades of green, but overall the palette is vibrant and diverse. Fashion-wise, solarpunk incorporates both practicality and creative expression unrestricted by norms of the past. Accessories often feature colorful LED lights or small planters growing tiny herbs.
As these differences demonstrate, steampunk and solarpunk promote very divergent ideals through their aesthetics.
Which vision is most compelling may come down to personal perspective on politics, history, environmentalism and aspirations for the future.
Which Genre is “Best”?
Passing definitive judgement between two complex creative movements grounded in different eras proves tricky.
Much comes down to one’s own values and tastes.
But a constructive analysis can assess the strengths vs limits of each genre’s underlying vision.
On technology and innovation, both genres deserve credit for envisioning new possibilities beyond the status quo.
And both tap into a very human desire for technologies not solely determined by heartless market efficiencies.
Politically, solarpunk clearly advocates for more progressive systemic change centered on justice and sustainability.
Its structural critique of modern capitalist democracies contrasts sharply with steampunk’s tendency to downplay past oppression, much less reflect on present inequities.
Most critically, steampunk barely acknowledges the climate crisis threatening human civilization in the 21st century.
Solarpunk situates environmental rehabilitation as utterly central to its vision.
This resolute focus gives solarpunk’s dream greater relevance to the most pressing problems confronting humanity today.
Through its hope in our ability to transition societies to sustainable futures, solarpunk also offers inspiration sorely needed in desperate times.
Ultimately, both steampunk and solarpunk represent worthwhile thought experiments for how technology might shape new social systems.
But solarpunk speaks more boldly to present priorities around injustice and ecological breakdown.
It thus provides the most salient “liberating vision” for transformative futures where all people and the planet thrive together.
Final Thoughts: Solarpunk vs Steampunk
Beyond their aesthetic frictions, solarpunk vs steampunk symbolizes a deeper tension emerging in modern cultural and political thought.
How do we make sense of past mistakes and use lost wisdom to inform present choices capable of carrying our societies into better futures?
Steampunk errs heavily on nostalgia — overlooking historical exploitation while chasing progress heedlessly towards uncertain human and environmental risks.
Solarpunk confronts the precarious present by banding together diverse communities to install wiser technologies, reshape economics, and mend our relationship with nature.
It chooses sustainable optimism rooted in ethical responsibility over humanity and our one shared biosphere.
If we seek inspiration and guidance through tumultuous eras of technological and social change, solarpunk’s prescription is clearly more enlightened.
Only by bravely facing layers of truth can we synthesize hard-won wisdom into workable roads towards better futures for all.
Through that lens, solarpunk qualifies as the “best” choice for promoting societal progress grounded in justice we might actualize in the real world.
For offering hope, moral purpose and pragmatic direction, solarpunk appears the genre most relevant to our current moment of civilizational reckoning.
What are your thoughts? Which is better, solarpunk or steampunk, let us know your throughts in the comments below!