Three Shades of Green

By Adam Brock

Soon after starting WGY, I developed the “Three Shades of Green” to describe what I saw as the main approaches to sustainability. The framework has been useful shorthand for identifying different sets of verdy values, and it’s become an integral part of my thinking about the regeneration.

But, like any metaphor, the original Three Shades didn’t quite capture the way things really work: by positing them as a hierarchy, I’d fallen into that perilous and outdated trap of linear thinking. What follows is an update of the Lime, Grass and Forest spiel with a slightly more integrative perspective.

Sustainability is shaping up to be the buzzword of the decade. Global warming is now an acknowledged crisis – one that seems to be happening more swiftly than any scientist could have anticipated – and we’ve finally begun a public discussion about how (and how much) to cut our greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.

Still, a fundamental question remains unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? General human happiness? Biodiversity? Ask ten different environmentalists and you’ll get ten different answers. But while there’s hardly a consensus on the kind of sustainable society we’re trying to build, there do exist certain patterns in the way environmental thinkers tend to group themselves. I’ve identified three such patterns, given them cute names, and called them the Three Shades of Green. Here goes:

First up is Lime Green – or, if you prefer, “sustainability lite.” The Lime Greens, whatever their conventional political affiliation, can be considered the conservatives of the regeneration: they’re trying to sustain as much as possible of the world we currently live in. You can count most corporations and national governments in the Lime camp, as well as everyday citizens just becoming exposed to environmentalism. Lime is the color of institutions going green for the brownie points, as in this recent ad touting Chevrolet’s green cred: “The environment and your commute. Can’t we all just get along? It’s as simple as driving a more fuel-efficient car.”

Ahh… if only it were that simple. But while Lime-colored solutions like hybrids and carbon offsets can provide crucial gateways into greener ways of living, most sustainability thinkers contend that these solutions simply won’t be enough to avert the planetary devastation we’re currently experiencing. Instead, creating an ecologically integrated society will demand much more fundamental shifts: in our politics, in our systems of production and consumption, and in our attitudes towards nature.

Enter Grass Green, the middle shade. Grassies are trying to sustain the best parts of our current way of life – material prosperity, personal freedom – while reinventing the institutions that have led to our current social and environmental devastation. They embrace zero-waste production systems, open-source technologies, innovative new materials and progressive government initiatives: think Cradle to Cradle, nanotubes, and carbon taxes. Compared to the Lime mantra of “more of the same, only greener,” the Grass approach offers something truly substantive: a marriage of industry and ecology, one that promises to provide us with ever-rising standards of living while simultaneously healing the planet.

Yet there are many environmentalists who would call even this vision nothing more than a deranged fairytale. Our pursuit of technology and economic growth, these folks claim, are themselves a product of our dominating attitude towards nature, and we can’t achieve sustainability until we leave them in the dust. These are the Forest Greens – the revolutionaries. Instead of dealing with climate change, social inequality, and peak energy one by one, say the Foresters, we need to cut to the root of our problems and “solve for pattern.” This means leaving behind our current mechanistic, rational way of thinking, and beginning to see ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, ever-changing system. Oh, and we’ll also need to localize our economies and drastically reduce our levels of consumption in the process. In short, the Forest Greens want to sustain the web of life – and they’re willing to rethink some of the basic assumptions of human civilization in order to do so.

As the most radical shade, Forest Green isn’t without some serious limitations of its own. For one thing, its purism often renders it utopian and unrealistic: whatever you happen to think of Forest Green theory, at the moment it’s pretty hard to put into practice outside of ecovillages and backyard gardens. Also, it’s traditionally been a rural movement, and therefore not very applicable to the cities in which most of us live.

It’s tempting to see these three shades as a competition, with each one vying for their place in the sustainable future. But thinking about which shade is “better” is like asking which species of frog is “supposed” to be in the rainforest. The truth is, the Three Shades of Green are as interdependent as anything else in nature, and we’ll need all of them to get us through the next few decades.

Sure, green consumerism might ultimately be a dead end – but right now, it’s the only force that can start shifting attitudes on a society-wide scale. Sure, the Grassies might have a misplaced faith in technological progress – but they’re bound to come up with some truly worldchanging stuff in the process. And sure, the ecocentric outlook of Forest Green might not work for most of us as a way of life. But it can provide valuable guidance as we move away from our 20th-century consumerist habits, and towards something better for ourselves and the planet.

So don’t fret too much if you think you’re not “green enough” – the fact that you’re even wondering if you’re green enough means you’re on the right track. Instead, pick a shade, any shade, and get to work. We’ve got a lot to accomplish together.

Photo credit: flickr/shakkai

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4 thoughts on “Three Shades of Green

  1. lamarguerite says:

    Thanks for a very deep article indeed. You and I are thinking in parallel these days! Just a few days ago, I wrote about ‘The 3 Green Zones’, and also ‘The Danger of Perfection’. I like how you have been able to capture the complexity of the green landscape.

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    Another dimension to consider is time. We’re at the very beginning of the energy descent; we’ll be moving into a series of transitional periods, with different resources available as well as different challenges.

    For one view of this, see http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/09/civilization-and-succession.html
    and subsequent posts on the same subject on John Michael Greer’s website. Also take a look at his Theory of Catabolic Collapse, linked to on the site.

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