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Wiki Guide to Bright Green Living
Alex Steffen, 13 Sep 04

Earlier, I wrote a little screed Why We Really, Really Need the Definitive Guide to Bright Green Living in which I pointed out what I saw as a major gap in our intellectual infrastructure here -- the lack of a comprehensive source of information on how to remake my life in a bright green manner:

"I want a resource which will not only tell me to buy a hybrid, but give me comparisons of the performance and price of the various models out there; which will not only encourage me to undertake a green remodel, but show me some examples of what others have done and evaluate the materials they used; which will not only encourage me to "commit to environmentally friendly purchasing practices" at work, but clue me in on how to pitch that to my boss (assuming I had one). I want access. I want well-informed opinion. I want stylish inspiration. I want one-stop shopping for information.

"Now, I know that all of this information exists out there, piecemeal. But that's exactly the point: I have to hunt for it, evaluate the credibility of each source, suss out whether I agree with their criteria and aesthetic. I have to work. I don't want to work that hard. I'm an American."

We may have hit upon the solution: a Wiki on Bright Green Living.


In a small flurry of comments and emails (with key contributions by Jason Michael Smithson, Emily Gertz, Vinay Gupta, Enviropundit's Jacqui, Susan lloyd, River Hume, Anna Sinter, Christina Cobb, Dawn Danby, Jamais Cascio and others), we've sketched out the idea this way:

1) Write a defining mission statement. To my mind, the goal of such a site should be to provide -- free from fear or favor -- the best information available on how to live both better and more sustainably, but that's hardly the last word.

2) Create a structure. In this case, a public wiki on bright green living. Catchy name still to come, but for now, let's call it Bright Green Wiki (BGW). Licence the information appropriately as an information commons, to protect it from commercial exploitation.

3) Create a social contract. Formulate an editorial policy for BGW which directly models from WikiPedia. Aim for a neutral stance, conflict resolution procedures, and firm rules against abusive behavior. Clear rules, open minds and live-and-let-live mentality can take a group of folks a long way.

4) Create a taxonomy of sustainability. This might well be the hardest part, as systems of classification are themselves, well, subject to contestation, as the academics say. Take a look at, for instance, the excellent Pattern Language for a Conservation Economy and ask yourself what's missing and what you disagree with, and you'll see how deucedly difficult it can be.

At a minimum, I'd think, such a site ought to cover the basic categories of energy, water, waste, shelter, transportation, food, clothing and consumer goods like furniture. But it might also be interesting to approach the matter by asking two questions: what aspects of current developed world lifestyles leave the biggest ecological footprints, and on what things do folks spend the most money?

There is also the question of scope. Are only home/consumer/individual tools reviewed? What about workplace sustainability? Or community-level solutions? My personal preference would be for a site with an explicit focus on what I, myself can accomplish. Again, there may be excellent reasons why I'm wrong.

5) Invite participation. One of the better ideas on this front was to explicitly court the involvement of university students in design, planning, engineering and the like, inviting them (and their professors) to use blank/ missing categories as a prompt for their own research and work.

6) Create a community for discussion of broader issues. There is bound to be vehement disagreement, for example, over the question of smart breeding -- is it a sustainable technology? I think it is. Some of my friends violently disagree. That discussion would be valuable in and of itself, I suspect, espcially if respect and tolerance are enforced.

7) Promote the resource. Get the word out. If it's good enough, that should be easy.

Okay, there's the idea, in a nutshell.

What do you have to add? What would you change?

Most importantly, who wants to pick this up and run with it? I'll happily cheer from the sidelines, and chip in where I can, but I'm already pretty over-extended when it comes to volunteer projects. Someone needs to say, "Me. I can do this. I'll make this happen."

Who's up to the task? It'll take a lot of time, and not a few hassles, but you might just change the world.

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A SPLENDID idea! But a "Wikipedia" is by nature descriptive. Don't we need instructions in addition to descriptions? Pattern Languages are powerful design tools because they contain descriptions AND instructions. The Pattern Language of a Conservation Economy is a noble start, but needs a lot more work, extension and dissemination. It seems that your Point 4: "Create a axonomy of sustainability" is the central task. Your ask, too, about the proper scale for the effort - should it be personal, neighborhood or community based? One advantage of a Pattern Language is that it links workable design solutions across scales, so efforts at one scale complement those at others. Several of us, including one of the originators of Ecological Footprint, have been discussing this very idea since last May. This is an exciting idea, and I, for one, would like to help.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Sep 04

Well, hrm.

I have some database technology which would be *ideal* for this, now I think about it. Wiki-style editing of complex data objects - records with both text areas, but also structured elements like pulldowns and checkboxes and inter-record relations.

I don't know if that would be helpful in the early stages or not, but if it would, I wonder if this might not make a good demo application for my company?

Posted by: Vinay on 13 Sep 04

Excellent summary Alex! I think I'll steal it...

Just to get something started I went ahead and installed MediaWiki 1.3.3 at

No it's probably not the best name but it will give us a workspace to perhaps hash out something better.

Wikipedia is by nature descriptive, more accurately, it is encyclopaedic, but a wiki, and mediawiki specifically, does not have to be. For instance all of the documentation for the Wikipedia project, a lot of which are instructions, are all on the site. So are many discussions on Talk pages.

The latest version of the software has a ton of features that I got distracted playing with Sunday night and as a result didn't get any real content up.

I welcome everyone to sign up an account and I'm more than glad to hand out Sysop access so folks can poke around on the innards... sudo access on the machine itself can be had for the brave and willing...

Vinay: I'd certainly be interested in seeing your database technology, I have a number of concepts for a sustainability website that don't fit into any current wiki... while I may bang the wiki drum loudly I'm very interested in the right tool for the job.

I'm going to go write on brkst now...

Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 13 Sep 04

I would like second David Foley's (full disclosure: he's my brother) comment. This is a GREAT idea, but it might be even better if it went beyond "describing" the situation and went about proposing a template of solutions.

The "Pattern Language" structure -- that is, offering a series of generalized solutions to common problems at different scales -- would be ideal for this.

I would be willing to help with this as well. Our research center focuses mainly on global environmental research problems (see the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin -- We also host the "Atlas of the Biosphere" web site, which might be a small contribution to the effort.

Anyway, this is fascinating, and I would love to see how this develops!

Posted by: Jon Foley on 13 Sep 04

Here are some questions, just to be provocative:

What are "emergent properties" of sustainability? Given what you know about sustainability, what changes have you made to your personal life? What changes would you like to make, but haven't yet? What prevents you? Is the problem at a scale that you can affect? If not, what would be the best scale to change conditions that stop you from living more sustainably? Who has influence at that scale? Can you describe actions that move toward sustainability in a way that other people can understand and repeat?

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Sep 04

I'd like to suggest that we also start a products section of the wiki: simply call it "Best In Class" and catalog by simple, obvious purchase categories - "Light Bulbs", "Cars" etc.

If we wind up with debate about if A or B is BIC for a given application, for the moment, let's list both and work it out from there?

Posted by: Vinay on 13 Sep 04

I also think it is an excellent idea. Jon Foley and I were talking about something similar this summer.

I currently coordinate an undergraduate research course in the McGill School of the Environment, a wikipedia could be a great place for students to publish portions of their research results, because there are:

a lot of students
they have do research
they are smart and up to date
but they frequently lack depth and often rigour

The cummulative and error correcting nature of a wiki would work great with student projects.

As for organizing ideas -

I think the presenting alternatives along with evidence for or against each alternative would be very useful. Especially if the discussion of alternatives included a comparison of the strengths or weakness supporting each alternative that indicated how speculative each alternative is, and then used this uncertainity to identify research or development that could reduce these uncertainties.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 13 Sep 04

The Wikipedia:Neutral point of view policy is well thought out on these issues.

I believe this is best used for factual articles. Well written opinion pieces, or arguments for or against, can easily be included in the page, or as See also links to other pages that are strictly essay or opinion.

A good example of a for/against article Wind Turbine

I think as we get more resources built up about "what is sustainability" we can qualify and quantify many of the arguments. For instance I would like to see an Advantages/Disadvantages section that had each Advantage that could be agreed upon listed linked to the discussion of why. For instance (pardon the wiki markup):

* [[Bird Kills]] negligible amount compared to automotve bird kills.

Bird Kills would link to further research and Qual/Quant info.

Something like that.

As far as products go, definately! This is a great opportunity for google ads etc to generate profit for that elusive "business model". In the end conservation is key, perhaps consultants would be willing to list for a fee. I've got a great graphical Google ad on a simple page on compost at compost

If anyone wants to do some coding, I have a longstanding and well designed web project relating to light bulbs that I simply am unable to code... I'd be more than glad to work with the willing...

I've sketched out a bunch of stuff on to get people thinking and challenge, someone in another time zone pick this up and run with it as I have to sleep now. Edit Boldly and Refactor Mercilessly.

Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 13 Sep 04


We've been doing some of things mentioned on my site - that is, researching and highlighting what we consider the most sustainable products and techniques out there.

Posted by: Justin on 13 Sep 04

Would be happy to support it

Posted by: Ross Mayfield on 13 Sep 04

Completely approve! I can contribute some time.

Seems to be the two immediate next steps need to be:

1) get ourselves a wiki. Looks like Jason has already got this semi-sorted at Can somebody tell us how easy it is to migrate content from that system? If it's easy, we can just begin slamming things up there. If it's hard, we should have a longer discussion about what wiki system to use.

2) work out how to keep in touch. Some things can be decided on the wiki, but I suggest we get ourselves an email list as well. So I've set up the yahoogroup BrightGreenWiki (, or to subscribe email If anyone objects to yahoo, and would rather offer an ad-free list somewhere else, that'd be fine by me. Otherwise, please subscribe!

Posted by: Dan on 14 Sep 04

The MediaWiki software allows fairly useful XML export of both current pages and their page histories, you can visit Export pages and type in the name of a page to see the XML. I believe there is a way to do this en masse as well, if nothing else through an SQL data dump, Wikipedia for instance offers their entire database for download. I'm not aware of any other wiki engines that even have an export feature other than copy and paste. The bigger issues are:

Wiki markup differs between wiki engines to greater or lesser degrees. While there are some conventions there would still have to be conversion, some able to be scripted, and manual massaging of most of the data. MediaWiki being one of the more feature rich and specialized wikis has some of the more deviant wiki markup. The upside is that MediaWiki can look very good especially compared to a lot of other wikis.

The other issue is one of copyright. I lean heavily towards Primarily Public Domain as it is the most agressively free out there... while this doesn't protect against commercial exploitation it does free end users from having to interpret the issues with the GFDL. In the long view, wouldn't commercial exploitation be ideal anyway?

There are many wiki engines:
Some quick reviews by a friend:

The only engine I know of that might be better suited than MediaWiki is TikiWiki:

It's several times more complex still.

In any case I'm going to work on moving this discussion to the brkst:Community Portal

Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 14 Sep 04

Great! Great responses here, more great responses via email. Working on getting some things in motion, and will post again as soon as we know more.

We may want to get something set up quickly to serve in teh interim before we're fully ready to go...

In the meantime, I think these comments are right on the mark:

David Foley: "Don't we need instructions in addition to descriptions?" Yes. And while I'm not sure how to merge a pattern language approach into a wiki, I'm pretty sure it can be done...

Vinay - let's here more!

Great points about students, Garry. I think getting undergraduates involved could prove a key source of energy, inspiration and ideas...

Dan: thanks! Your cautions about yahoo groups are well-recieved. Working on getting another (ad-free) listserve set up. Stay tuned.

Jason's ideas about iterating the positive and negative of each approach sounds pretty brilliant to me...

more soon

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 Sep 04

I've got quite a bit more up my sleeve, resources permitting. :)

Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 14 Sep 04

Hey, folks, I'm eager to hear about this project. I've been organizing a project to do something very similar- I've been calling it "ecowiki" until I do some better branding/brainstorming. I'm running MediaWiki as well, and am applying for a grant to expand the program to encompass promotional materials and possible print publishing. But my timescale is a little slower, as in, funding may become availible in January, by which time I hope to have worked out the site's information design and aesthetics. I'm including in my proposal the possibility of integrating contribution to this site into the curricula of various classes both here at Yale and at other schools.

Of course, hearing about you're project, things may change... What do you guys think about the audience of your site? I wouldnt want to create a redundant site, so should I join up, or if we continue separately, how do we distinguish ourselves? I'm very open to ideas...

Posted by: Jeff Warren on 23 Sep 04



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