I recently read Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. While I have a huge problem with the book’s philosophy1, I have taken one thing away from it in this blog’s approach to advocating for a socialist revolution: work backwards from a goal and a long-term horizon.
I know many people want a socialist revolution now, and they are working toward that goal either through political process or through yelling at other people on twitter. Sadly, I am one small person with limited ability to effect massive changes, and realizing that, I’ve decided to take a different approach.
I’m issuing the #solarpunk2050 challenge. A call to specifically articulate your best case scenario for an ecosocialist utopia by the year 20502, to invision the systemic changes that will need to take place for that outcome, and to prioritizing taking the smartest actions today to maximize the likelihood of that happening. Some would call it incrementalist, but I, personally, see it as revolutionary—just over a longer timescale.
The case for working backwards
Gates’ emphasized an interesting point when discussing how to evalutate different strategies for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. On the one hand, you can pursue a set of policies that can bring the largest drops in carbon emissions by 2030, but which might jeopardize the ability to get larger reductions by 2050. Or on the other hand, you can pursue a set of policies that are much more likely to bring even greater reductions by 2050, but which may rely on delaying implementation after 2030 to avoid implementing something that sets back the long-term goal.
In an even more extreme example, you might consider how can I reduce carbon emissions as much as possible this year, but this might actually have a backfire effect over the longterm. In the specific case of climate change, reducing emissions a little bit over the short term isn’t helpful if it messes up with reaching net-zero over the long term. Therefore, you wouldn’t want to pursue a strategy that emphasizes short term gain.
We can look at a lot of things in this same light. And in particular, I want to approach the construction of a sustainable, human-centered society in this way. To do this, I’m going to work backwards from where I imagine the world could be, and give myself a suitable time-horizon to make it happen.
The challenge is to break a solarpunk revolution down into 3 parts:
1) what would define success,
2) what big systemic changes need to take place to allow that success to happen, and
3) what do I do today and every day, for the next year, and 28 years from now to make that change happen.
What would define a solarpunk revolution
For climate change, Gates’ easily identifiable goal was carbon neutrality. For an equitable and sustainable world, the endpoint is harder to identify. There are competing issues that need to be rectified, and, honestly, it isn’t up solely to me to identify what those are.
Nevertheless, for articulating my own plan of action, I need to pick some endpoint that I think matches with the ideals that I think satisfy my fundamental principles of equity and sustainability. My four points to define a successful solarpunk revolution are as follows.
1) No one consuming more than a sustainable share of Earth’s natural resources, and society collectively preserving the ecological abundance of our planet
2) Increased standard of living so everyone on Earth is living with stability and dignity (at least $30/day in 2022 dollars)
3) Acknowledgement of a fundamental right to an equal share in both political and economic decision making
4) That the above be both objectively true and perceived as true by almost all of the population
Socialism in 28 years, broken down
So what are the big society wide shifts that would have
I think it comes on three fronts: culture shift, economic shift, and electoral politics shift.
I think the absolute most necessary change for creating a socialist society is the ongoing cultural shift towards collectivist morals. Ultimately, I don’t believe there can be any change without a shift in people’s values underneath. In fact, I think that the backlash to change is even more pronounced when someone tries to make change prior to the underlying cultural shift.
But how do you take action for a culture shift? It seems like culture shifts are assumed to be organic changes, but I believe there is a way to impact culture even if it’s slow moving. There are two core parts to this: change the focus of conversation to shift the Overton window, and shift social status from capitalist values to egalitarian ones.
Shift the conversation
There’s an idea of what is “acceptable” to talk about in polite society called the Overton window. The idea is that certain things are considered very mainstream, certain things are on the edges of the mainstream but still “normal,” and certain ideas fall outside in the “fringe.” Shifting the Overton window means shifting what falls directly inside the mainstream and bringing things that are fringe into the edge of the mainstream. The most important thing about this theory is that it assumes since we are highly social that what falls within that window is directly set by how often we encounter certain ideas in our life. In other words, if we see certain ideas repeated from 10 sources it becomes defined as mainstream, while something we only hear from 1 person is assumed to be fringe.
It can be really troubling to think about ideas and beliefs as being so strongly tied to social convention, especially when we come from a place where we think that all of our ideas are strictly based in fact. The way I think about this is recognizing that people living in the distant past had no way of knowing how wrong their ideas were based on modern standards. It would have been completely outside their imagination to discuss whether the king really had any right to their taxes. In the same way, it’s probably impossible for me to imagine what society will accept as truly moral in 100 years. All I can do is try to shift the conversation in the little interactions I have day-to-day.
Now I believe that everyone wants to know the truth and is looking for the right information. Therefore, I think the big barrier to shifting the conversation is that people just don’t have the free time and energy to become informed. This is why I think that we have to make spreading information and ideas a much more enjoyable part of our lives. It should be possible to tie this kind of information sharing to our recreation activities.
I’m calling this people-powered education and information citizenship. In this situation, everyone is responsible for promoting factual and truthful education, and we all treat our own education and discussion of ideas as a hobby. I already see this taking place on TikTok and social media, regular people are speaking about what they know and what they think they know. But for this to really take off, I think we’ll have to move past individual moments of activism to a place where our regular lives are about sharing ideas and promoting conversations.
I think this will have to grow and become a standard of our social interaction. When you meet a new person, you’ll still have some small-talk standards like today, but it’ll have to become much more common to discuss a new piece of information, your sources, or to riff on imaginative ideas we have about how the future should look.
A second huge part of a culture shift will be shifting the definition of what brings us social status. The key is going to become very very vigilant about only holding people in high regard who embody the principles you want to see. For a socialist culture shift, you have to want to be friends with the people who share their resources equitably instead of using them to get richer and people who do real work instead of leeching off of others just because they can. I think the most important part of that is having ideas of solidarity be completely central for giving people elevated social status in our life. Making morality cool again, and enunciating the imperative for a moral life to be just to those who have been disadvantaged by the state of the world.
I think most people are inherently good and want to go along with this values shift, but everybody is scared to take the step alone for fear that they’ll be thought of as a “weird” person and miss out on the material advantages of our greed-centric culture. This is why I’m willing to stick my neck out and try to push for this shift: because I want to pave the way for more people to follow as it becomes more normal.
The biggest problem is trust. Getting people bought into this new culture can only happen as fast as you can convince a friend to make this same change with you. Imaginging that I just start with myself, and assuming I can convince 1 friend per year, and every person can convince 1 person per year, then it would take 28 years to pass 200 million people bought in. Of course, that isn’t really how culture changes, but the idea is that if on average every person can bring one person over to the good side each year, then by 2050 we’ll have the majority of the US subscribing to a equitable and sustainable culture. And fortunately, there are already millions of people who believe in a better future today.
Material: Mutual aid and the solidarity economy
The truth is no amount of idealism can really change what we need to survive. Even if we only like people with good values, if we still need people who are cutthroat in order to keep our economy running, then they will continue to hold all the power. So the second part is helping everyone shift their consumption to a new economy based on mutual aid, reciprocity, and solidarity with the people that do the work.
There’s never been a better time to do this. Technology-wise it is super easy to make our economy completely transparent. And there’s never been an easier time to let regular people connect with each other and share things that agree with their values. So creating a parralel economy that avoids exploitation seems to be possible for the first time.
But it’ll still be next to impossible to move the big, monopolistic juggernauts that dominate our economy. Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the military industrial complex, Big Ag, Big Pharma, and all the other “Big” players make it very hard to do large scale things. So I see this rolling out in two phases.
First, we’ll have 10 years developing more and more solidarity economic solutions for the most fundamental features of our life. Farming, childcare, eldercare, food service, and housing will need a transition to just and community-oriented businesses. But this will be hard, because price is the biggest decision maker in our standard economy. We’ll have to find a way to keep the prices low in the cooperative economy, while driving prices up in the exploitative economy through stricter labor laws and good union support.
Second, there is going to be a big shift happening at the same time as this across the US towards automation. Automation is fundamentally good, but it comes with the big downside that the people who benefit will always be the owners at the expense of the workers. Consumers don’t see much change, as they still pay close to the same amount, but owners start taking more profit and firing their employees. So as this shift to a solidarity economy occurs, we’re going to need to stand in solidarity with each other and reduce our total work and total pay rather than overproduce. Because if we overproduce we’ll devalue what we make. The only other way I can see this to work out is if we keep working the same amount but some people have to relocate to other parts of the world to share their knowledge there.
I also think it’s important to think about financial transparency and how much actual work we all do. Making income, expenses and hours of work public information might seem scary because it leaves us open to judgement from others. But wouldn’t it be better if we could check our standing and make sure that our neighbors and colleagues aren’t trying to put one over on us. I also think it’s important to create metrics to distinguish what is our essential work that keeps us all living just and dignified lives and what work is just superficial that we’ve invented to ensure that some people look busy.
No matter what, it’s going to be a challenge, but without a backup economy, I don’t see a way to shift power away from small groups back to all citizens.
Politics: Elections are crucial
Even though sometimes it feels like electoral politics is a dead end, the truth is it’s only ended up this way because we hevent’ kept up the focused time and energy needed for shaping the way politics works. We need to get started putting things back right.
There are major issues that aren’t really solvable through cultural shift or meeting material needs. By my estimate, the following are the important issues that must be solved at the political level in the near term:
- regulating environmental impact and enforcing polluters to pay the cost of their damage.
- keeping the social safety net intact.
- outlawing intentional disinformation (should be curtailed just like defamation), this will lead to the ability to legally hold news outlets accountable and ratchet down on political lying.
- better education and literacy standards, allowing people to continue education until they reach a threshold for informed citizenry.
- regulation of paid advertising (aka capital sponsored mind control) especially in the political arena.
We’ll need to put a lot of work into the political arena, especially given how broken our representation works. There are so many good alternatives to the gerrymandered 2-party oligarchy that we’ve developed. We’ll almost certainly need to implement better systems for representation, but fortunately other countries have developed extremely fucntional ones already, like ranked-choice voting or proportional representation. Sadly, these kinds of changes will probably have to come from grassroots efforts as the 2-party system in the US has reached a point where it’s power has become self-reinforcing. I belive we’ll need to organize constitutional amendments on how elections are run in the purple states to break this gridlock. At least for the executive branch, there’s already a plna afoot to transition to the national popular vote. https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/written-explanation
Finally, I personally believe that we’ll need to dismantle economic authoritarianism in the way our businesses run, meaning we can’t have a small group of utlra-wealthy owners and corporations making all the decisions for our economy operates. At first, this will come through co-ops and strong unions side-by-side with capitalist-owned companies, but I expect that by 2050 we’ll need to have laws that make workplace democracy mandatory. It’ll be quite a challenge to figure out how that will be regulated, but absolutely imperative for making lasting change.
In short, the political/legal world isn’t going away, and it’s absolutely important to think strategically about how to navigate from the politics we have to the kinds we want.
My personal action
The final step is connecting the big social changes to my own everyday actions.
The theme of my culture change actions is about staying active in people-powered education and honoring those in my life who embody humanist values.
For people-powered education, each week I plan to create at least one informative work on leftism, cooperative businesses, or sustainable travel, and I will switch all of my fiction writing to being positive and utopian. For honoring humanists, I will be intentional about directing my respect to those who embody humanist principles, and preferentially sharing my time and energy with those who work for others. Another really important part is continuing to educate myself and promote the voices of the amazing people I have learned so much from on this journey already.
Another key factor is living my values in a public way and promoting others to do the same. I have switched to veganism, and while this is a good step on its own, individual action does nothing. It might seemhard at first, but I believe that making my decisions public can help others see that taking moral actions in this time is a normal (and dare-I-say even popular) step to take in these times.
The last part of the culture shift is spending my energy on helping others have the space and energy themselves to promote their ideas on collectivist. I already support a number of educators, but I plan to provide more material support in the next year, which brings me to the next section.
Our economy makes its decisions by where the money flows. I’m going to remember this in my economic decision making this year. For environmental causes, I will continue another year of car-free and airplane-free life, and in addition, I will be converting my diet to be fully vegan. And while these individual actions do have an economic impact exactly equal to the scale of my consumption, I know that alone, they accomplish only little. I need to take my economic “votes” to a better solution for our environment and people.
The solidarity economy needs support. I’m pledging to use every opportunity I have to donate to mutual aid and patronize businesses that function in this economy.
In addition, I’m continuing to work on my own member cooperative effort to built the Trail Cooperative, a network of travelers supporting sustainable travel in the solidarity economy. While working on this venture I will also be volunteering to work on local farms and infrastructure projects as I travel by bicycle.
Politics is hard, and something I’ve never particularly liked. Still, I know I must be politically engaged and be intentional about how I do so. I still believe that nonpartisan grassroots has the potential to reshape our country and I will involve myself with those groups this year.
I am already in the Democractic Socialists of America and I will become more active with the Madison chapter in the next year. I don’t know the best path forward, but the only one that I think I see is saddling up to the democratic socialists and making incremental shifts to the Democratic party. This will need to occur on multiple fronts, but hopefullyt the demographic changes, and the rising education levels of younger generations should help. I think the biggest leverage point is getting leftists into positions of power in state legislatures. I think progressive and socialist candidates are already set up for local government positions, but statewide legislatures have been historically dominated by the right wing party. And of course, the fight has to continue in the US federal branch as well. All levels are important, and I’m certainly not in a position to suggest that we cede anything.
For myself personally, I’m going to continue campaigning with the lesser of two evils when I have to, and always advocating for the most left leaning candidate anywhere.
Even though these long-term shifts need to be worked on now, there are still pressing needs that need to be addressed much more quickly. For that, I plan to involve myself more deeply with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby to try to get a carbon tax and universal dividend passed. This group is working on the closest bills to providing a serious mechanism to curb carbon emissions. I’ve researched them before, but never done campaigning work. This year I will start.
The long game is just a series of short games
The most important thing to remember is that just because the endpoint is 28 years out, the work is going to be carried out in a million little battles along the way.
To recap I will be
- not traveling by car or airplane, and eating a purely plant-based diet
- making 1 educational video per week all year
- write at least 2 solarpunk stories
- sharing my time and energy with people who embody humanist ideals
- tracking and increasing my inputs into the solidarity economy
- building the Trail Cooperative
- increasing my activity with the DSA
- doing campaign work for the Citizen’s Climate Lobby
This might seem like a lot, but the truth is I’m mostly just helping with people who have spent way more effort making these things a possibility. Fortunately, the whole philosophy of leftism reinforces that it shouldn’t be the undertaking of one heroic person anyway, but the collective small efforts of everyone together that should shape the world. So I hope you can join me.
Briefly, Gates’ thesis is that only an unpredictable scientific breakthrough will save us, that politics is impossible, and we can’t even talk about reducing consumption. I think there’s a lot more on the table if rich people in power like Gates would simply start changing their attitudes, but that is what I’m working towards here anyway. ↩
Why 2050? None of my reasons for picking this year are particularly scientific. First, I think it’s good to mirror the climate rhetoric around 2050 because, ultimately, an egalitarian society is part of making a world that is both sustainable. Second, I think that it is good to have an endpoint that is still within the productive lifetime of my generation. It would be too depressing to have the generation most harmed by capitalism to have to suffer under its yoke just long enough to free future generations but not to enjoy the benefits themselves. Third, although it’s morbid, I think that between now and 2050 many people who are just not amenable to change will die off. And finally, I think that 28 years is enough time to spread the message and make change. I have a broad based plan written below, and I think that 28 years is just enough time to see it happen. ↩