Shades of Green

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One of my former PhD students, Andy Hoffman, now at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan is authoring a series of columns this week on the OurValues website. The topic is the competition, not always friendly, between what have become called the "bright" greens and the "dark" green. The first of his columns opens with:

There’s a schism emerging between two camps within the environmental movement.

On the one extreme, the dark green groups—such as Greenpeace USA and Friends of the Earth—seek radical social change to solve environmental problems, most often by confronting the corporate sector. As Alex Steffen explains it, they tend to “pull back from consumerism (sometimes even from industrialization itself).”

On the other extreme, the bright green groups—such as Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund—work within the market system, often in close collaboration with corporations, to solve environmental problems. Again, as Steffen explains: This “is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.”

Steffen coined these terms in 2003. Now, six years later, this division now is widening and resulting in serious sniping.

The three columns that have appeared so far make good reading. This issue concerns me because I have moved toward the dark side over the years. But I don't think the real issues have to be as starkly oppositional, as Hoffman and others observe. I would put myself and my ideas about sustainability in the dark green spot on the palette, arguing as others do, that radical culture change is critical. But I would not agree that confrontation is the route to that change. Confrontation can certainly keep the issues on the news shows and maybe wake up more people, but it is rejected by the mainstream on both substantive and procedural grounds.

Hoffman argues that the dark greens can serve as a foil to the bright greens and make their cause appear more reasonable and politically acceptable. I think he is correct about this. (He is, after all, a former student and was very well taught.) But that is not the whole story. I don't think the bright greens have got it right. Their agenda is almost entirely technocratic and remedial. They are, in my words, working to reduce unsustainability. Certainly something important, but only a temporary respite, even if successful.

The root causes of unsustainability lie deep in our cultural story, as I have written. The dark greens have gotten part of that story correct, but only part of it. They rail against capitalism, but fail to go deeper into the culture all the way to the concepts of modernity on top of which capitalism took root. Fixing capitalism may certainly move us closer to what I call sustainability, that is, a global system that produces flourishing. But such a change would fall short of getting to the very bottom of the barrel and, although a change of astronomical magnitude, would still be only a temporary fix. Given shortcomings in both confrontation or co-optation/cooperation, I argue for a slow, incremental, subversive change process that, first, reveals the human core values of caring at the individual level and, then, enlists everyone in reconstructing our global social system.

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