Spectrum of Thought

What color camp are you in when it comes to green? 


Happy Earth Day. I imagine celebrants looking through green-colored glasses like those donned by Dorothy and pals in the Emerald City. But my green is too vague for the likes of Alex Steffan, author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. Steffan would make these glasses fit his “New Environmental Spectrum,” restricting the lenses to light, bright and dark greens according to the manner in which one sees the solutions to environmental problems. A light-green environmentalist, according to Steffan, advocates taking “small, pleasant steps” toward change that is personal and ultimately aggregate. “Oh honey, it’s Earth Day,” says Light Green. “Let’s use our fabric shopping bag today at Whole Foods.” 

Dark greens, Steffan argues, are interested in making changes on a community level and are not attracted to market-based actions but in fact “pull back from consumerism” and turn toward “direct connection to the land.” I perceive these people to be the original nature lovers. “Hey babe, it’s Earth Day,” says Dark Green. “Let’s pick some chard and sunflowers from the garden for the community potluck tonight. I hear there’s going to be a roots band and a lecture about permaculture.”

Steffan himself aligns with bright greens, who are builders of better worlds and gadgets. Got a failing planet? Design your way back to stasis without giving up any of the toys that bring happiness. “Bright Green environmentalism,” Steffan writes, “is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives. “Wow! Earth Day again,” says Bright Green. “Let’s take the Prius to the sustainable-architecture trade show today. I want to study the blueprints for the proposed eco-city and buy that new metering device for our solar system.”

Steffan, whose work has been recognized by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is clear to point out that his categorization is not intended to divide green thought into camps or suggest that green thought is limited to one of the three hues. Instead, we combine the shades, depending on the circumstance or issue.

My favorite of Steffan’s categories is actually the one he terms “gray,” because it makes a tidy grouping of the dark-siders who insist that there is no such thing as global warming. Among the grays are climate scientists who whore for oil companies to distract public attention from the scientific community’s unanimous acknowledgement of climate change. Also in the gray category are those who take other kinds of money for posturing as science-minded skeptics, constantly considering the present crises as a theory to be analyzed, slowly, over and over again while “you all go on about your business” (that is, don’t take any action).

Steffan locates what he calls the “epicenter of gray thinking” to be on K Street in Washington, D.C., where one finds the “nest of lobbyists and industry-funded think tanks” that provide reading and radio material for graying the thoughts of others. “Aw crap, it’s Earth Day,” says Gray Thinker. “I’ll grab a styrofoam cup of coffee, turn on all the electrical appliances in my house and speed to work in my Hummer. I’ve got to send off those scripts for Rush and draft another global-warming-denial article for George Will today.”

Just thinking about the grays helps me laugh to keep from crying and better appreciate the verdant tones with which we approach our changing lives on a warming planet. Steffen asks us to classify our own thinking, to identify which shades of green we are and why. I live most of the time in the dark-green camp because I feel most at home with natural systems and grassroots solutions. But I celebrate anyone of any color or camp who understands that we have a planet to nurture back to health, be it in baby steps, through community organizing or on high-tech solar scooters. It would be absurd to limit ourselves to one way of approaching a problem. Any contribution is better than denying we are in a crisis. We can leave that drabness of mind to K Street.

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