by Aishwarya Shah (Gemtrack Travel)
Picture a lush green landscape with rice terraces sloping off a hill. On top of this hill lies a village with a name that takes you three tries to get right, a village where fruit trees effortlessly line the uneven road, where the houses are made of bamboo and coconut leaf and the food that you eat grows abundantly around you. Children play at the fringes of the forest and siblings look after each other. The air is fresh and there is a song for every season.
Now picture a seaside town that got thrown onto the map by an unnamed surfer from a Western nation. This town was forced into a whirlwind of modernization and for a while, it seemed that gentrification was written in its destiny. Slowly but surely, the process of opening up to the world brought in some positives, like local women picking up surfboards and charging into the lineup, a greater awareness about the perils of plastic and a stronger sense of stewardship over the land and sea.
While these two scenarios might appear to be totally different on the outside, the one thing they have in common is this: they are both solarpunk narrations of travel! The term solarpunk often crops up in speculative discussions about the future, when optimistic projections about the future of humanity are made with regard to environmental concerns. Whether it is the architecture of Bjarke Ingels, the art of Olafur Eliasson or the literature of Ursula Le Guin, there are countless figures that have devoted their work to supplanting existing notions of things as they are and rousing us into a multisensory awareness of things as they could be.
Solarpunk focuses on the dynamic possibilities of bright futures and how we can get there. High tech, low tech, no tech, all have a home in this way of seeing. It encompasses whole systems thinking, a variety of ecocentric and biocentric philosophies and various calls to action saying more or less the same thing: the world we want to have is possible, all we need to do is join hands and bring it to life.
A new kind of normal
When it comes to the travel industry, solarpunk has been part of the discussion for a couple of decades. Typically fronted by the terms sustainable, responsible or ethical, solarpunk’s manifestation in travel has been steadily amplifying over the years. The opening paragraphs of this article show you two common forms taken by solarpunk travel: the first, a picturesque, remote, untouched destination, for your romanticization and respect; the second, a close shave, a story of redemption and hope. While both are veritable and meritable depictions of solarpunk, the benefactor is different in both scenarios.
In the first, it is the traveller whose gains loom large – the freshness and authenticity of the experience offer inspiration, meaningful encounters and an affirmation of the dream that the simple life is the most honest one. Powerful seeds are planted in the mind of said traveller and from this sprouts the desire for a new kind of normal.
In the second instance, the town whose sudden international acclaim blows it off its otherwise undramatic course is suddenly exposed to a variety of big changes: some adverse, some uplifting. However, what is midwifed into existence here is a stronger impetus towards regeneration and the acceptance of a new kind of normal. It is solarpunk’s ability to invert reality on its head and impact both traveller and destination in enriching and empowering ways that gives it its identity. Solarpunk travel is characterized by an impact driven kind of travel that puts the growth of the traveller in harmony with the growth of the destination, its environment and community.
All in all, solarpunk travel thrives on the same totems as any of its other conceptions in various industries: community resilience, whole systems thinking, local empowerment and balanced resource management. The values that underpin it are compassion, hope, creativity, empathy and respect. The aim is singular: to create a simultaneously beneficial experience for all the parties involved, be it traveller or destination.
How can we make solarpunk travel a reality?
Much like all other expressions of solarpunk, this too is already a reality! Solarpunk travel has been around for a while, just on the fringes. In the aftermath of the ongoing pandemic, we need to conspire to bring it into the mainstream! For too long, the face of travel has been the booze cruise or hotel chain monopoly. Small sustainable travel businesses remain anomalies in a monochrome of decadent operations that despoil the natural world. However, as COVID-19 exposes the flaws of every outdated system and every obsolete modus operandi, we are poised at the threshold of change.
The first order of business is ensuring the survival of these fringe businesses into the future. With campaigns like #SupportYourTravelGems, you can provide direct relief to small sustainable travel businesses. As citizens of democratic nations, you can also endorse petitions and keep the pressure on your governments to provide compensation to mitigate the effects of forced closure on several of these businesses.
The real battle however, will begin once travel bans are lifted and there is a corresponding surge in mobility. Weeks and months of an undeterred, lockdown-crazy population might descend upon every cruise, flight and ferry to take them into distant lands. The relief of rediscovering our freedom must not lead to a selective amnesia of our learnings related to systems change. We have been given the gift of foresight, a real chance to amend the wrongs of the past and an opportunity to reimagine how mutually empowering the experience of travel can be. As consumers in this dichotomy, we need to keep in mind that the broad movement towards a sustainable future is only possible with every single industry changing its practices. Our role is to keep the demand for sustainable alternatives strong, support them with our purchasing power and patronage and share their stories in our networks so that they can move out of the fringes and take the reins of the mainstream. It is only when sustainability is the default that we can say that the promise of solarpunk has been realised.
Feature Photo by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay