Bright Green Environmentalism

Technogaianism by Suzanne Treister

green technology

Bright green environmentalism is an ideology based on the belief that the convergence of technological change and social innovation provides the most successful path to sustainable development.

The term, first coined in 2003 by writer Alex Steffen, refers to the fast-growing new wing of environmentalism, distinct from traditional forms. Bright green environmentalism aims to provide prosperity in an ecologically sustainable way through the use of new technologies and improved design.

Its proponents tend to be particularly enthusiastic about green energy, electric automobiles, efficient manufacturing systems, bio and nanotechnologies, ubiquitous computing, dense urban settlements, closed loop materials cycles, and sustainable product designs. ‘One-planet living’ is a frequently heard buzz-phrase. They promote a combination of well-built communities, new technologies and sustainable living practices, and believe quality of life can be improved even while ecological footprints shrink.

Alex Steffen describes contemporary environmentalists as being split into three groups, ‘dark,’ ‘light,’ and ‘bright’ greens.

‘Light greens’ see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility. They fall in on the transformational activist end of the spectrum, but light greens do not emphasize environmentalism as a distinct political ideology, or even seek fundamental political reform. Instead they often focus on environmentalism as a lifestyle choice. This is different from the term ‘lite’ green, which some environmentalists use to describe products or practices they believe are greenwashing (promoting a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly).

In contrast, ‘dark greens’ believe that environmental problems are an inherent part of industrialized capitalism, and seek radical political change. Dark greens believe that dominant political ideologies (sometimes referred to as industrialism) are corrupt and inevitably lead to consumerism, alienation from nature and resource depletion. Dark greens claim that this is caused by the emphasis on economic growth that exists within all existing ideologies, a tendency referred to as ‘growth mania.’

The dark green brand of environmentalism is associated with ideas of deep ecology, post-materialism, holism, the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and the work of Fritjof Capra as well as support for a reduction in human numbers and/or a relinquishment of technology to reduce humanity’s impact on the biosphere.

More recently, ‘bright greens’ emerged as a group of environmentalists who believe that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes – and that society can neither shop nor protest its way to sustainability. ‘Bright green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the tools, models, and ideas that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions.’

The Viridian Design Movement was an aesthetic movement focused on bright green environmentalist concepts. The name was chosen to refer to a shade of green that does not quite look natural, indicating that the movement was about innovative design and technology, in contrast with the ‘leaf green’ of traditional environmentalism. The movement tied together environmental design, techno-progressivism, and global citizenship.

It was founded in 1998 by Bruce Sterling, a postcyberpunk science fiction author. Sterling always remained the central figure in the movement, with Alex Steffen perhaps the next best-known. Steffen, Jamais Cascio, and Jon Lebkowsky, along with some other frequent contributors to Sterling’s Viridian notes, formed the Worldchanging blog. Sterling wrote the introduction to Worldchanging’s book, which is considered the definitive volume on bright green thinking. Sterling formally closed the Viridian movement in 2008, saying there was no need to continue its work now that bright green environmentalism had emerged.


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