The word “sustainability” is often derided by those most familiar with it, mainly because it’s such a broad term that it’s virtually meaningless. It’s a crowded party under the sustainable umbrella: the word can be used to justify a huge range of values and ideologies. At the heart of the issue: just what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? Biodiversity? Traditional cultures? General human wellbeing?
Perhaps we should invent some new terms to adequately cover these different facets of sustainability. But more importantly, we need to understand how these various values affect the direction we choose to take as we move towards a greener society. To clarify some of these distinctions, I’ve come up with the following three categories, or “shades,” of green. Like any categories, they’re gross oversimplifications, and don’t do justice to the diversity of viewpoints among sustainably-leaning people and institutions. But hopefully they’ll illuminate what I see as the three main strands of thought surrounding the world “sustainable”.
Lime Green is the color of green consumerism. It aims to make environmentalism cool, continuing to provide the ever-higher standards of living we’re used to, only with a green twist. Hybrid cars, clean coal, corn-based ethanol and CFLs are some of the Lime Green topics circulating in the news these days. To companies with a Lime outlook, sustainability is a consumer trend that may or may not go away, but it’s certainly worth capitalizing on for now. The system is working great, say the Lime Greens – if anything, it just needs a little tinkering. Lime ideology is summed up with quasi-green oil giant BP’s slogan: “It’s a Start.”
Fortunately, the Lime Green ethic is fast being eclipsed by something a little more substantive. Grass Green, the middle shade, treats climate change, habitat destruction, and water pollution as real and dangerously pressing issues, and recognizes that we’ll have to make some serious changes to business as usual if we want to survive much longer. This is the shade of green espoused by popular environmental advocates like Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Bill McDonough, who call for a “new industrial revolution” that will transform our economy from one of inequality and great material waste to one of efficiency and abundance for all. How will this happen? Through ever-improving technology, social entrepreneurship, and sensible government regulation: think Cradle to Cradle, micro-loans, bike boulevards and carbon taxes. A fringe movement only a few years ago, the Grass Green philosophy is fast gaining ground in board rooms across the States: execs from top corporations like Whole Foods, Staples and Wal-Mart have been saying some remarkably Grassy stuff recently, and the cover story of the latest edition of BusinessWeek posits a near future where environmental responsibility is at the top of the corporate agenda.
Finally, there’s Forest Green. Inspired by the Deep Ecology movement of the 70s, Forest people claim that another industrial revolution is the last thing we need. The anthropocentric heritage of western civilization is what led to our current predicament in the first place, and any attempts to make our current system more sustainable are, to use ecophilosopher Rudolf Bahro’s term, “cleaning the teeth of the dragon.” We don’t have a chance at creating a truly sustainable society, Forest Greens argue, until we value the well-being of the planet over and above the flourishing of any particular species – including our own.
What would a Forest Green society look like? For one thing, it would be much smaller than the current one: a couple billion people at most. Levels of consumption would be far less than those we’re accustomed to in the overdeveloped world, with each person’s ecological footprint averaging a hectare or two. Our shelters and possessions would be modest but of high quality, and the production of food would be integrated into our cities and landscapes through design techniques such as permaculture. How we arrive at a Forest Green society is another question entirely; answers range from the enviro-anarchism of Derrick Jensen to the grassroots utopia-building of the ecovillage movement.
Clearly, the three shades of green offer vastly different visions of what a sustainable society should look like. As the media becomes more and more saturated with environmental messages, it’s importantto understand which vision these messages are trying to promote, and for each of us to devise our own visions of what kind of sustainability we’d like to see realized in our lifetimes.
At the same time, though, we should resist divisiveness. The urgent task at hand – namely, reducing our carbon emissions to something approaching a sane level – demands cooperation among all three shades of green in engaging the rest of our country to wake up to the climate challenge. As Grist’s Gar Lipow wrote in a great essay last week, “there is no time for consensus building; we need to engage in majority building.”