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Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green, Gray: The New Environmental Spectrum
Alex Steffen, 27 Feb 09


People ask me with increasing frequency to explain what I mean by "bright green," and what the differences are between bright green, light green, dark green and so on.

I can understand the confusion. The term is being used more and more widely, but the available explanations aren't very helpful: the Wikipedia entry on the topic is far from clear, and with a handful of exceptions (like Ross Robertson's excellent article), most of the media coverage so far has tended to muddy the water in one way or another.

What is bright green? In its simplest form, bright green environmentalism is a belief that sustainable innovation is the best path to lasting prosperity, and that any vision of sustainability which does not offer prosperity and well-being will not succeed. In short, it's the belief that for the future to be green, it must also be bright. Bright green environmentalism is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.

It's been pretty amazing to watch "bright green" take off. Since I first coined the term, thousands of organizations -- businesses, NGOs, blogs, student groups, even churches -- have adopted the label. For this year's COP-15 climate summit in Copenhagen, both the parallel expo and the lead-in youth summit are calling themselves Bright Green. I've even started to see the term bubbling up in pop culture, used by people who clearly get it.

Of course, not everyone talking about sustainability is bright green. I contrast bright green thinking with three other prominent schools of thought: light greens, dark greens and grays. All have some overlap, and in reality, even dedicated sustainability advocates tend to adopt different approaches on different questions. But here's a brief run-down:

Light green environmentalists tend to emphasize lifestyle/behavioral/consumer change as key to sustainability, or at least as the best mechanism for triggering broader changes. Light greens strongly advocate change at the individual level. The thinking is that if you can get people to take small, pleasant steps (by shopping differently, or making changes around the home), they will not only make changes that can begin to make a difference in aggregate, but also begin to clamor for larger transformations. Light green environmentalism, as a call for individuals to change, has helped spread the idea that concern for sustainability is cool. On the other hand, it is the target of much of the "green fatigue" we're now seeing. (My own thinking about this approach can be found in these three articles: Privatizing Responsibility, Don't Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It, and The Problem with Big Green.)

Dark greens, in contrast, tend to emphasize the need to pull back from consumerism (sometimes even from industrialization itself) and emphasize local solutions, short supply chains and direct connection to the land. They strongly advocate change at the community level. In its best incarnations, dark green thinking offers a lot of insight about bioregionalism, reinhabitation, and taking direct control over one's life and surroundings (for example through transition towns): it is a vision of collective action. In a less useful way, dark greens can tend to be doomers, warning of (sometimes even seeming to advocate) impending collapse. Some thinkers, of course, (for instance, Bill McKibben and Paul Glover) blend a belief in the rural relocalization efforts of dark greens with the more design- and technology-focused urban solutions of bright greens. (Some of my own thinking can be found in these pieces Deep Economy: Localism, Innovation and Knowing What's What, Resilient Community and The Outquisition.)

Grays, of course, are those who deny there's a need to do anything at all, whether as individuals or as a society. They range from the most blatantly dishonest and self-interested people (climate scientists who take oil company money to dispute the clear scientific consensus on climate change, or "contrarians" like Bjorn Lomborg who make up specious "skeptical" arguments in order to make money) to principled, smart people who lack the facts (an increasingly small minority) or whose worldviews are just too set in an earlier way of thinking to understand the present-day realities of living on planet in overshoot. The epicenter of gray thinking is the nest of lobbyists and industry-funded think tanks on K Street in Washington, D.C.

Obviously, you can't divide people's thoughts neatly and simply into categories. Certainly one can believe simultaneously in the need for changes in systems, individuals and communities. I suspect that almost anyone who thinks seriously about the big planetary problems we face tends to pick and choose various ideas from all three schools of green thought and blend them together.

The point in defining these classifications isn't to be divisive, because infighting among those in the fold will only harm the chance for progress. But understanding the spectrum among us can help us think more clearly about our choices. That might be exactly why the bright/light/dark green discussion has gained so much momentum.

How would you classify your own thinking? What shades are you, and why?

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Flickr users steeleman, Paco Lyptic, skydear and benefit of hindsight. Creative Commons license.

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I would certainly consider myself a bright/dark green. I believe in relocalization not only for the environment but for our psyches. Resilient communities support resilient individuals.

I am a tech oriented person myself and am building these localized communities using a globally available social network - However, I don't believe that every engineered solution is a good one, nor that the market can adequately sort through the options in a way that benefits us all. It's just too easy for a mega corporation to by a worldchanging innovation and bury it in a vault so that it doesn't threaten the way they have always made money.

Yardsharing is for me about a lot more than growing our own food, though I am a foodie and tastiness is very high on my personal list of very important qualities food should have. I am embedded in many healthy communities online and off. And know that our ability to confront the changes we are anticipating and living through is the health of our face to face networks.

I guess I want to say I don't *only* see my self as a 'green' but as a 'communitarian..?" for lack of a better word.

Do I see the future in doom and gloom terms? Yes, I believe if we fail to adapt well, we will fail to thrive. A subset of us will survive. Survival is one vision of the future, thriving another. I do strongly believe the future is what we make it and that we can thrive, but we need to do a lot of things very differently.

I think the way you describe dark greens, implies another category... the very very dark greens. I would describe them as the neo-primitivists - back to the mud hut types. But maybe the numbers that identify that way are too small to count.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.


Posted by: Liz M owner hyperlocavore on 27 Feb 09

I would classify myself mostly as dark green, if only because it's my own connection to where I live that has brought me into environmentalism and guided so much of my participation in it. It's hard for me to think about environmental issues without thinking about relocalization, a connection to place, etc.

In theory I like bright green, but then I'd wonder, who gets to define "bright"? A "bright future" can sound desirable to a lot of entrenched interests who don't really want to see anything change, because their "bright future" includes SUVs, healthy stock options, overseas travel twice a year, and so on. Whereas when I think of a "bright future" I imagine one that is mostly, well, dark green. Whose bright future are we working towards? What's "prosperity"?

Posted by: Andrea on 27 Feb 09

Thanks for the invention!
I definitely consider myself Bright Green since I do believe that we can shape a green and desirable future. Not only that, I think it's imperative that we do, since the positive has a mobilizing quality. I agree with Alex Steffen, that it's not possible to neatly divide people into categories, however I sometimes find it useful just to straighten my own thoughts and be more aware of where I stand compared to others.

As an example I, was working as co-researcher in a rather large study that was about creating positive images of future sustainable cities, and I constantly ran into conflict with some of my colleagues on various issues, especially the role of technology. I was considered too optimistic by them and I considered them of having gloomy view of what a positive green future could look like. Had I read this article i would have been helped just by knowing someone out there calls guys like me Bright Greens. As it was, I came up with an image of my colleagues (not all of them!) as living in a green bubble with a pre-defined agenda of solutions.

When I realized how to position myself towards these guys I eased down and it became easier for me to listen to them and when I listened to them, they also started listening to me.

Since I mentioned it: The project report is called Bilder av Framtidsstaden. It's written in Swedish but a translation to english is due this spring.

Posted by: Björn Granberg on 28 Feb 09

I think the clearest way to oversimplify the distinction is just to say that for all of these greens the ends are the same - sustainable society - but the means are different. It's an incredibly essential conversation: how best to get there, how to get society 'on the path' (horrible phrase, sorry).

The reason I'm a 'bright green' is my belief that in the inter-relationship between individuals and their systems, systems effect behavior more strongly than the other way around. Therefore changing behavior to change systems (light green) is the long route; changing systems to change behavior is the most direct route to large social shifts. The downside is, it can be wrenching.

The place where dark green contributes most is its questioning of growth. We are so dedicated to the idea of growth that we have never seriously considered alternatives, or allowed ourselves to accept decline. Dark green pushes a more ecological worldview, and a less technological one.

I think when we can imagine re-localization and connection to land in a modern, urban context - rather than a strictly rural/small town context - we'll have successfully married the two. We'll need a new phrase!

Posted by: Justus on 28 Feb 09

In my work with teachers and educators in different parts of the world I find the predominant attitude to be overwhelmingly 'light green' with the more passionate in a dark green mode. I find myself in some pretty lively conversations when the bright green approach comes up. Schools seem to like the personal responsibility angle - it fits with school in the same way as responsibility for personal hygiene and 'playing fair' does - and the idea of systemic change, and the economics of it initially causes puzzlement and scepticism.
When these barriers are overcome there is often a sense of relief, odd to record, that there may be a design led, intentional way out. However, I am seeing more of the Lovelock inspired, 'oh forget it, its too late' doomer approach which I usually argue has no business in a constructive education for sustainability except as a counterpoint to the bright green argument, and I am doubtful that some educators' calls for an 'education for sustainable contraction' is very helpful either. Hey kids lets riot for austerity? Some hope! Some betrayal too from our generation.

Posted by: Ken Webster on 1 Mar 09

Probably light, but with an eye to the bright.
When the greys have been holding the reins so long, it seems that the only practical response possible has been 'light'.

The approach at my former workplace was well-meaning, but most emphatically light.

It's quite clear that a more systemic approach is essential if real progress is going to occur

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 1 Mar 09

By your definition of bright/light/dark green, I identify most with the first and the last. But I also think there might be a problem with the way you're structuring your definitions. I do commit to lifestyle changes (using biodegradable and recycled trash bags, composting, green laundry detergent), but I see it as fundamentally elitist, a tiny step in a transition to a natural economy (Worster, Wealth of Nature). The actions are light green, the motivations are dark green and the result is almost bright.

There's a melding of the perspectives, as you noted, but the way you have structured them clearly demonstrates a bias toward bright as the ultimate combination of light and dark: the latter being too revolutionary and the former being too much fluff. The way you pose them, bright green is the other two plus some natural selection - it takes the best of both.

Posted by: mgrant on 2 Mar 09

Perhaps there can be another, perpendicular dimension added to this discussion of four colors: it is blurring, or better, "striping". I think a very healthy approach quickly adapts between the valid viewpoints of bright, light, and dark green. And rather than support duality and the negative only, I see "gray" as representing an often unstated belief that we are complete as we are. In a psychological or moral way we are indeed complete just as we are - we just can not let that blind us to the physical needs of the planet, can we?

Posted by: David - green planet on 2 Mar 09

Bright Green!
Thanks for the article. I talk about this all of the time without labels. I focus on bright green because I think it is the only set of solutions that will inspire grays, and therefore reach the critical mass necessary to become sustainable.
Light/Dark green ultimately require people everywhere to voluntarily choose those paths... which will never happen.
So while I agree that in-fighting is bad, I have to say the the especially the dark greenies threaten us all by building resentment in the general public. Whatever - they never listen to anyone else anyway.

Posted by: Bill on 3 Mar 09

I prefer the term 'deep green' to 'dark green'.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 3 Mar 09

is there such a thing as a gray-green? i believe there's something deeply wrong (and with it a huge opportunity), but i'm also a considered skeptic in the self-transformative ability of society (we're talking well over 300 million in the US alone, and essentially the whole of china, india, etc.). the teeming throngs worldwide generally have many "better" things to do than think green (this is nothing new...think easter island).

one has easy access to what ought to be overwhelming evidence that bright green is the best way to remain vital in the world, yet the huge majority of humans, given the option, would pursue the cheapest option even if it meant deforestation, strip-mining, etc. i'm not trying to throw cold water on the green movement that i consider myself as having participated in for over half my life. rather, i'm concerned that the message of a bright green future isn't persuasive enough. toward that end, i'm going to do a small bit to help -- post a link to here on my facebook to help people see that there's an option, that there's a name or a virtual flag to rally around. sure, it's a small step, but a lot of small steps do eventually make a difference. unfortunately at present i'm not sure what else i can do. (write to the auto manufacturers and ask why i can't buy an ECOnetic or TDI or a fortwo...? puh-lease.)

back to my semi-rant with an example. the US auto industry is floundering at present. we all know this at least from news reports, if not from personal experience. and i bet at least a few among us applaud it like the toppling of a trojan horse. however what will arise as a result of this collapse? i believe we will *not* see 65-mpg cars magically appearing here anytime soon, to rescue the ailing industry. one can buy these in europe, and why can't we here? the party line *still* is, americans aren't interested. so, let's assume this is true for the moment, that americans really like getting 16 mpg or 24 mpg and given their choice of grocery-getters, want to spend their money on low-mpg vehicles.

in this scenario, those of us who would prefer to buy and drive high-efficiency vehicles simply have to wait until "the market" (meaning, this un-persuaded public and its equally un-persuaded auto manufacturing industry and very uninterested oil and gas industry) demands high-efficiency vehicles (unless we want to pay enormous import taxes to have one shipped from, e.g., england).

using this sort of inductive logic, i have a hard time being bright green, even though i want to be. i'm not gray -- i don't deny the mess -- but i'm demoralized. how can one be bright and demoralized simultaneously?

Posted by: Leif on 3 Mar 09

Leif - The question is not where we are but where we are going. So, yes small steps make difference - when everyone takes them. And yes, buying locally makes a difference when everyone does it. When something 15% of the population (and I being quite generous I think) does it, there is slightly noticeable slowing of the destruction.
The point is that the bright green future is one where we can build the political will to make economy-wide commitments to sustainability. In this space, people who drive SUV's are not bad (though I do resent my Neighbors new BMW X5 on many levels, the worst being that I want one), we are just victims of bad choice options. The Bright Green future requires an unprecedented political effort to "get the market signals right". There is no way around the need for that political effort, but once we do, no other option has the ability to harness the innovation of the market to solve the problems we face.
So while I understand that the market does not get it right now, there is reason to be hopeful. Huge players are already starting to see the bright green future. It makes sense for everyone... especially business. They are pinched on both sides - the demand for their products is hurt by people that want us to consume less and avoid the global system (i.e., buy local), and the supply of materials is increasingly expensive.
My point - I probably live a gray life right now (few in the U.S. don't) despite my recycling, Prius Driving, organic (and local, barf) buying ways, but I push for a bright green future. I imagine it every day. Many here do too. It is that imagination of how the world can become bright green that is so critical. Because the more we imagine it, the more we can inspire others to grow beyond the old paradox of lifestyle vs planet. When that happens, the old debates go away. Everyone wants a healthy environment... they just want their SUV's too. We just have to get the market signals right and innovation will follow.
Just imagine life 200 years ago - might made right. People decided that was inefficient at producing what we wanted. People probably said "our empire will collapse and everyone will starve if we give everyone basic rights". Turns out, if you give people basic rights they work harder, long and smarter! I bet the same is true - if we coordinate the economic system to reward greater consumption with less energy/degradation, then people will consume more faster.

Posted by: Bill on 5 Mar 09

Over the last 40 years or so (I'm 61 now), I've alternated between activist bright green and activist dark green, with a vein of light green remaining a spiritual (but wholly pragmatic constant.

As better information becomes available and the world gradually descends into the crapper, it looks impossible for a bright green to not have somber periods of dark green (rosy scenarios for the future d-o n-o-t g-r-o-w o-n t-r-e-e-s), but a dark green psyche is a pretty cheerless place without some bright green shoots pushing up through the hardpan.

So I'm thinking your classifications are cool, probably useful, but I can't imagine any thoughtful human beings actually fitting into any of them. And that is almost certainly a good thing.

Posted by: Denny on 6 Mar 09

i think the hardest thing is tempering optimism with reality, and vice versa. the reality from such posts as alex's recent one on geoengineering (and its comments) is close to catastrophic. some of us hear it, but many look out of the window, see the sunshine, and dream of the next holiday. that is because they cannot remain sane living in the gloomy dark and need optimism like they need sunshine. too much brightness avoids reality and too much darkness kills optimism, which is the spark humans need for going forward. but is there ANY room for a balanced way in the middle which allows sufficient urgency to make seriously meaningful strides forward, without at the same time completely putting off all those who are needed for buy-in?
most people are just not able to live with gloom. if their house is inundated by a disaster they will roll up their sleeves and shovel out the mud. if it is a bright sunny day, the neighbour is mowing his lawn and cooking a steak barbeque, how can they sit under a cloud they have been told about but can't see?!

Posted by: davidtr on 6 Mar 09

You have categorized us greens, and in a useful way. My personal position: all of the above. I tend toward the light and dark green, but I also want to see civilization's future as bright green. The bright green position is attractive, but I fear that it encourages people to believe we can achieve a sustainable future without any changes in our personal lives, our consumption, our way of organizing our communities, and our transportation systems. Personal changes are essential; technology and innovation, though much needed and helpful, will not get us where we need to go in achieving what Joanna Macy calls a "life-sustaining civilization."

By the way, I highly recommend Macy's writings on "the great turning"--from our industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.

Posted by: Larry Chamblin on 6 Mar 09

I am a bit of all greens. Bright because I believe it is more than possible for a society to be both abundant and sustainable, light because I have only made small lifestyle changes and talks to help achieve it. And dark because sometimes I seriously doubt that it will happen, and that if it doesn't the world as we know it will decay and rot. Dark green's as you mentioned believe that changes must happen at the community level and I do to. I think one of the biggest things we can do is utilize alternative energy and recycle. My point to anyone who is "gray" out there is these three things. One, is global warming is real and a serious threat. Two is that we don't need to destroy our lifestyles to become sustainable, we simply need to work with rather than against nature. And three is that if and when we do, it will help the economy and not hurt it.

Posted by: Cullen Kappel on 7 Mar 09

I guess I'm a dark Green, though I usually call myself and friends Deep Greens. but there is something to Dark-- in the tradition of Shakespeare and Sophocles, it recognizes the role of hubris (something I find lacking in many bright, shining happy Greens) and tragedy. Perhaps I'll reclaim what had been meant as a little bit of insult or chide.

If there's a housing bubble when everyone and their bother is watching the film The Secret, it doesn't mean the bubble won't burst;
if the levees are inadequate when the Chamber is talking of how safe the town is, it doesn't mean the levees won't break; if it feels really good to be drunk too often, it doesn't mean you might not hit bottom.

I try to be an optimist of the spirit, but hardheaded when looking at reality, to misquote someone brighter than I.

Posted by: Jim on 9 Mar 09

It's interesting what we base our measure of proposerity and wellbeing on things like the ability to walk around our flats in t-shirts in the middle of winter (we used to wear jumpers and heat less), access to material goods (do we really need a 40" flat screen TV or a gas-guzzling 4WD for our wellbeing), the ability to buy so much food that we end up throwing half of it away (along with the layers of unnecessary packaging that invetiably ends up in landfill even if it is recyclable because so many of us don't recycle). How many rich people could truly be considered blessed with wellbeing, despite being able to buy the latest and greatest things?

Perhaps we should adopt a more holistic measure of prosperity and wellbeing like the Global "Gross National Happiness" index based on: (1)Economic Wellness (2) Environmental Wellness (3) Physical Wellness (4) Mental Wellness (5) Workplace Wellness and (6) Social Wellness (7) Political Wellness (see Wikipedia for more information).

I guess my shade of green is self-evident.

Posted by: Karen Thurman on 10 Mar 09

"formal green": the curve turns down via courts, clerks, public coordination & big concerted effort

Posted by: hapa on 16 Mar 09

It probably depends on the day how I might define myself in these 'green' terms. Overall based on what I've chosen to do for a living I consider myself 'bright green' because urban planners and planners in general have to see that bigger picture of the innovation and new ways of thinking that will help our species move forward to a sustainable future. Other days, I'm probably more light green though I always try and educate others and not just hope something happens because I bring my own bags to the grocery store (and have for the last 15+ years). Sometimes I think dark green, though not dark in a negative way, but rather think I would like to live on a plot of land somewhere not too far from where I live now in a simple structure (a yurt or something like it) with a garden and composting toilet, solar panels etc., but then I remember my wife & I have jobs and wouldn't want to have to drive a long distance to work everyday spewing more pollution into the already polluted air. In short I think we are all somewhere on the spectrum of green, though there are the greys out there too, but I don't know that anyone is ever always 'bright green', or light or dark/deep etc. There are some truths that need to be taken into account such as the fact that not everyone works or lives in an urban place where much of the 'bright green' initiatives are taking hold because someone does have to grow our food, and process/package it for selling or at the very least transport it to centralized locations like farmer's markets to sell, so there is room for the other ethos of 'green' but we need to include the entire spectrum of people to convince them that the only hope for the planet, our and our children's future is 'shades of green', but 'green' none-the-less.

Posted by: Barbara on 18 Mar 09

Idealistically I fall more toward the bright green; that is what brought me to this site in the first place. In action I fall more into the light green. I've made a lot of small changes that make me "greener than thou" compared to most around me, but not enough to come close to sustainability. I'll do the easy work of bright green, i.e. writing letters and blog posts about needing a large-scale overhaul. I'll talk about it a bit. But since my actions are not yet leading me to a strong advocacy in the places where I can make a difference – in my faith community, in "volunteer groups", in my office – then I must admit that my efforts are a bit duller than my ideals. Assignment to self: determine a next step that can make my actions a little brighter. Perhaps Earth Day as excuse for advocacy at the office and/or local Baha'i community.

Many great points in the comments; I was particularly struck with mgrant reminding us that the reality of light green can easily become elitist because of the extra cost often involved (but that's not a reason not to be green).

One more note: how do we make sure we don't get caught up in an echo chamber of bright green here – that we listen to, and respectfully consider, the views of the rest of the spectrum?

Posted by: stephen on 20 Mar 09

Great idea. Give every way of thinking a color shade. In graph design the idea of green shades related to a way of thinking is growing strongly.

Posted by: Tim on 29 Mar 09

I have bands of all of the green shades within my own mix, but I'm heavily weighted toward the dark green and am really supportive of relocalization of our economies, food production..., and the Transition Movement. Peak oil is at least as urgent as global warming and other eco- issues. At least for us humans it is.

Posted by: J. River Martin on 20 Nov 09

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