Ethereum culture can be split into three categories: cypherpunk, solarpunk and lunarpunk. I say "can" because some argue the -punk distinctions could happily be folded into one. The problem is, depending on whom you ask, it’s not clear which prefix dominates. It’s the kind of conceptual catnip I love, so here goes.
Paul Dylan-Ennis, a CoinDesk columnist, is a lecturer/assistant professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin.
Cypherpunk is a well-worn path in the history of crypto/Web3. It was a core influence on Satoshi Nakamoto, who chose a cypherpunk mailing list to announce Bitcoin. Cypherpunks have a punkish DIY attitude toward open-source development, usually oriented toward the creation of credibly neutral protocols. They highly value privacy. Ethereum’s cypherpunks are often the hacker-engineer developers who maintain the Ethereum protocol.
Solarpunk is a more recent movement in crypto/Web3, which seems to have formed in reaction to the individualist, libertarian-leaning streak running through Bitcoin. To solarpunks, Bitcoin has at worst morphed into an American-style populism – steaks, cowboy hats, boomer memes – and at best ossified into irrelevance.
Solarpunk is, then, a progressive label you wear to show you are not that type of crypto, not a bitcoiner, thereby deftly avoiding complete social suicide (at least until you bring up non-fungible tokens). But it’s an ambiguous term, which might as well be spelled as “hippy” to critics.
To critics, solarpunk is an empty concept with no meaningful content – little more than an aesthetic, which has roots in a sci-fi microgenre. Despite the term’s ubiquity in Web3 circles, solarpunk is not just another name for etherean, because they also reject the Ethereum-based market nihilism of DeFi degens (short for the degenerates of decentralized finance).
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I cannot blame people for their suspicions about solarpunk because, curiously, nobody has attempted to explain what solarpunk is in our context. So, having sat around hoping someone else would do it, I present to you what solarpunk means within the world of crypto.
Prior to its Web3 debut, solarpunk had a few fuzzy senses:
- Shorthand for a small literary genre with roots in South America between the 2000s-2010s. This first strand starts out quite cyberpunk, where solarpunk simply meant “set in a solar-powered setting,” whether this was positive or negative in outcome. The genre slowly developed its own characteristic themes and became more optimistic. A typical story would be about humanity repairing our relationship with the natural world, crucially, without regressing into Luddism. Notably, the stories are somewhat conscious their world-building might influence the real world, rather than simply existing for entertainment. You can find these short stories in translation in “Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World” (2018).
- The name for a smattering of short stories and art by Western authors and graphic designers who published in blogs and on social media originally, before creating their own collections and magazines beginning around 2010. This is the source of the stereotypical solarpunk “aesthetic.” It is steampunk Studio Ghibli meets early-level Zelda (and things can get a little flowery). Much of this art is Tumblr-quality, but it is also, to be a little basic, quite gentle and nice to look at, begging for some emerging artist to raise the standard, push the medium. The stories are of quite varying quality, but a decent representative collection is “Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers” (2018) and the recently launched Solarpunk Magazine continues on this tradition. This kind of imagery – futuristic architecture populated with trees – has made its way even into Vitalik Buterin’s blog, albeit wryly.
- A post-hoc definition for a microgenre of science fiction by novelists who wrote, from the 1970s onwards, about the creation of sustainable societies and particularly how they can be achieved. Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson are the standard bearers. This microgenre portrays societies that are post-capitalist and ecologically utopic. For example, in Robinson’s “Pacific Edge” (1990) we see a description of a California in 2065 that has managed to transition into a “utopian” society, but one quite grounded and realistic. I say “utopian” because the term implies an unachievable state, but these novels usually present societies that for all intents and purposes feel like “real utopias,” to be a bit paradoxical.
It is worth noting that the origins of the current crypto/Web3 concept of solarpunk remain unclear.
However, within the Web3 context, solarpunk refers to a political aesthetic that promotes positive externalities, positive-sum worlds and public goods in Web3 and beyond – what I call the “three Ps.” Crypto’s solarpunks are characterized by a commitment to collaboration, optimism and are green-pilled.
The three Ps
The three Ps of solarpunk Web3 (as I hope everyone will now call them) are closely related. The first, an emphasis on creating positive externalities, is based on a recognition of tech’s history of producing negative externalities, such as fake news spreading on Meta. Solarpunks are committed to conscious tech building, where you take into account the implications of your project beyond your immediate community.
The textbook definition for public goods, P number two, are goods that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. This means you can’t stop anyone from using them and using them does not diminish them for anyone else. In the solarpunk context, it originally meant a focus on unprofitable but necessary infrastructure for the Ethereum ecosystem, but has since expanded to helping fund good causes beyond Web3 as well.
Finally, positive sum world-building is the guiding star for solarpunks – the effort to build a better world for tomorrow. If contemporary crypto culture is focused on financial immediacies (like rug-pulling or raising funds just to raise funds), solarpunks attempt to break the cycle by actually building public goods with positive externalities that last beyond us, at a civilizational level.
Dark side of the moon
The rise of solarpunk as an aesthetic within Web3 has been met with criticism. Surprisingly, this comes not from outside the industry but those adjacent, the lunarpunks. Lunarpunks do not see themselves as Web3, but they are definitely in dialogue with it, most likely strategically.
A bit of background: Lunarpunk also pre-exists its Web3 form, but in a much more obscure and niche sense as a mystical brand of solarpunk. It was also very nature-oriented, but a little more pagan and witchy. Think psy-trance festival in a small college town. I have not been able to uncover any substantive politics associated with pre-Web3 lunarpunk.
The lunarpunk critique of solarpunk first bubbled up in privacy advocate, DarkFi developer and CoinDesk alumna Rachel-Rose O’Leary’s quasi-manifesto “Lunarpunk and the Dark Side of the Cycle,” which put forward her radical, lunarpunk ideology.
O’Leary presents solarpunk as the naive sibling, who means well but lacks the rugged life experience of the lunarpunk adventurer, who has seen the enemy up close. Meanwhile, back at home, their hippie friend has spent his summer blissfully listening to techno on a terrace in some sun-kissed European city (possibly Barcelona). They have probably joined a decentralized autonomous organization. (You might notice that in O’Leary’s manifesto I’m the solarpunk encouraging people to join DAOs!) This is the lighter critique, the long-running criticism in politics is that the ally lacks discipline. And in politics the ally sometimes gets the harsher words, even more than the enemy.
The harsher criticism is that solarpunk is both naively optimistic and represses the emerging dystopian “dark cycle.” Solarpunks, O’Leary acknowledges, are concerned with building public goods that outcompete the old institutions when writing that “solarpunk hackers are creating transparent infrastructures for funding public goods.” But the introduction of the term “transparency” – not a word commonly used in solarpunk public goods communities (Gitcoin, DoinGud, etc.) – reframes their intent quite dramatically.
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This is an overlay coming from the lunarpunk perspective, which also uses sci-fi-tinged naturalistic motifs, but which equates images of the sun not with optimism but surveillance. Ethereum itself, rather than simply solarpunk, is surveillance-prone, O’Leary argues.
The deeper critique is that solarpunk contains inherently statist tendencies and impulses that are dangerous. The idea here is that the solarpunk interest in building Web3 identity-based systems is intrinsically statist because it follows the Western rationalist logic of Gestell – slowly turning people into documented stock, controllable with bureaucracy.
O’Leary also contrasts solarpunk with the more solemn work lunarpunks are doing in preparation for an oncoming privacy war by building an anonymity-preserving blockchain called DarkFi. This war felt theoretical until recently, but has taken on a greater seriousness since the Tornado Cash sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Lunarpunks see crypto’s clashes with the state as inevitable. O’Leary contrasts this with solarpunks’ denial about this conflict and desire to ignore the ultimate bearish scenario where retail and venture capitalists flee at first sight of the state’s ugly side.
Underlying all this is the idea that the solarpunks, with their taste for transparent systems-building, will have effectively built their own prison.
Perhaps the most prescient part of O’Leary’s essay is the prediction that regulatory clampdowns, like Tornado Cash, will reignite crypto/Web3’s political consciousness. This has certainly proven true, but it has turned out that it is not the cypher- or solarpunks that are willing to flip, but the market nihilist DeFi degens, especially their front-ends, so to speak.
Ethereum’s cypherpunks have spent their time plotting countertactics to on-chain censorship and even raised the old school specter of a Bitcoin Civil War-style User-Activated Soft Fork (UASF).
And the solarpunks? I think any self-critical solarpunk will recognize they have been asleep at the wheel regarding privacy. This is not the same as being ignorant or unaware of privacy. And this is absolutely not the same as being pro-surveillance. Instead, it is simply that when the good times are good it’s easy to forget how vicious the enemy can be. But the enemy is still here.
As my online nym (polarpunklabs) suggests, I’m somewhere in between the sun and the moon. All my life the lunarpunk position has been obvious to me. I am deeply interested in realpolitik and how the world works really. Thinking like this is effectively a curse. You can see for miles and miles, but what use is sight if it’s just a vision of endless deception and brutality?
The image of solarpunk that O’Leary presents us is realpolitik: It equates the sun with transparency, identity and even the open desert. The problem with this, from a political (not realpolitik) perspective, is most people do not want to exist in a Hobbesian war of all against all mindset. You have to offer something better beyond this world and that is what solarpunk is, the world beyond this world. Without it you have no clear aim or teleology, which is the same as being trapped in the present.
The solarpunk aesthetic is fascinating because it is all future. You could ask anyone in the world, anywhere, whether they would be happy to be trapped in a solarpunk picture forever and they’d likely be OK with it.
Maybe, and this is the crucial part, they might be willing to fight for it too, even if it involved decades-long lunarpunk wars of attrition in the forests and the mountains. But if there is nothing beyond war, of a world beyond this world, then that’s what you’ll find, nothingness.
I would argue, then, the solarpunk vision should not be seen in terms of repression. It is a desirable thing to aim for, and shows us in the here and now how much this society lacks. It should be propagandized in increasingly beautiful images, texts, discussions, videos and movies.
O’Leary finishes her piece by saying solarpunk should integrate the lunarpunk unconscious, which is certainly assured now that the space has been privacy-pilled, but she adds the only hope for solarpunk is to “go dark.” Absolutely, in terms of strategy.
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Yet, we should also demand the light, the transparent fullness of solarpunk optimism. This is how I imagine a perfect synthesis of solar- and lunarpunk. A transparent society of utopic quality (demand nothing less) protected by a vigilant darkness.
Without the light what is there to protect anyway? We should never give up the sun to the state.