Part 1: The Spectrum of a Movement
The environment movement has, of late, become all but subsumed by the climate movement. I point this out not because climate doesn’t matter, but because it’s not the only thing that does.
I fear that many important challenges are going unaddressed due to lack of attention. And I fear that our tactics are narrowing in scope, shunning direct action and favouring populism. The aim to attract more mainstream attention and support means vanilla tactics dominate while striking at the core of issues is viewed as too radical for popular appeal.
The emerging trend of the environment movement is toward the centre of the bell curve, both in terms of issues addressed, and the means by which they are addressed.
As the movement pulls resources toward the organizations and agendas at the centre of the bell curve the extremities get frozen out, and alternative perspectives get lost. More radical perspectives, once commonplace in the environment movement are now greeted with disdain, and the worldviews underpinning them are not given serious consideration – instead they are often denigrated as extremist. We have become a movement of eco-pragmatists, a position far removed from our roots in ecocentrism, where nature was regarded first and foremost.
This transition has much to do with the emerging pattern of differing shades of green in the environment movement as it grows, lending nuance to the approaches of the various different groups, organizations and initiatives that have emerged to combat ecological crises. Green is no longer unified, if it ever really was. Bright Green, Lite Green, Deep Green and Dark Green tribes form around divergent worldviews, theories of change, and an accepted range of tactics. Each tribe vies for attention to its message in a world of time-constrained news cycles and manufactured consumerism, and competes for the resources – in a finite pool of funding and volunteers – required to make good on its mission statements.
With such intense competition for such limited resources, brand image and recruitment become powerful means for amplifying a perspective, and the movement collapses toward the populist centre, where most of the funding is applied. Current funding favours Bright Green and Lite Green approaches, for obvious reasons: they don’t challenge the received wisdom of the economic growth imperative or anthropocentric delusion, and they don’t challenge existing power structures. It is no surprise, then, that the environment movement has, to a large extent, been declawed by its own mainstream success.
A closer look at the various shades of Green present in today’s environment movement is needed if we are to identify points of common ground upon which to unite and collaborate, and cracks that lead to ruptures if left unaddressed.
The Bright Green tribe dominates the environment movement today, and, as such, it is Bright Green solutioneering that dominates public and political discourse. Bright Green techno-optimists present the promise of a bright future based on human ingenuity and our ability to harness technology, policy and market forces to solve any environmental problem and meet our every economic need.
Big Green Tech and carbon pricing mechanisms are the mainstays of Bright green advocacy, with the overwhelming majority of Bright Green groups, such as 350, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club spruiking support for large-scale energy infrastructure projects such as solar and wind farms and the magic of the invisible hand of the carbon market – in some cases while playing the stock market or engaging in market speculation (and not always winning). Petitions, protests, divestment actions, and media-friendly PR stunts are the modus operandi, with occasional forays into political advocacy.
The Lite Green tribe has seen a slow and steady increase in membership with its embrace of ‘green consumerism’, an appealing new brand for cashing in on a niche market. Once the business world got wind of the potential of the eco-dollar, the eco-friendly alternatives rolled in. Lite Greens believe in voting with their dollars, that their own ethical consumption adds a drop to the bucket of overall change, and that is noble in and of itself.
These are the Prius drivers, folks with solar panels on the roofs of their energy-intensive-by-global-standards suburban homes, folks who delight in organic everything and eschew single-use plastic. Lite Green is a shade that needs no organizing to shine, but is amplified by light-hearted symbolic events, such as Earth Hour, and consumer-based challenges, such as Plastic Free July.
Deep Greens have earned themselves a reputation for being the new radicals of the environment movement for their commitment to deep ecological sustainability and pulling our destructive system up at the roots. For Deep Greens, the environment is the bottom line, and resistance is protection. Think Deep Green Resistance, Earth First or Generation Alpha at the systemic challenge-to-civilization end of the pool, and Sea Shepherd, at the resistor-come-protector end.
Although the current corporate media-induced panic over Deep Green tactics is relatively new, Deep is not a new shade of Green. Deep Green tactics such as monkeywrenching and blockading are frontline norms, and have saved many a natural wonder that petitions and placards have merely bounced off. Deep Greens don’t aim to tweak at the system; they aim to undermine it, disrupt it, and facilitate its eventual transformation.
The Dark Green tribe is a relative newcomer to the shades of Green, and is most strongly associated with initiatives such as the Dark Mountain Project and Transition Towns network. Dark Greens base their approach to the environment movement on the realities of limits to growth, and, in some cases, the prediction of civilizational collapse. Issues such as peak oil, population growth, industrial agriculture, and a perpetual-growth economy, underpin Dark Green theory and practice.
Seeking to remove their tacit compliance with the systems that perpetuate our predicament, Dark Greens are generally downshifters who have escaped the treadmill to the extent possible, moved their lives off-grid to the extent possible, and are working to build resilience and upskill themselves in preparation for the limits-to-growth predicated shocks to our energy supply, the economy, and the environment.
I’ll pre-empt premature suspicions of pigeon-holing here with the disclaimer that no one individual, group, organization or initiative is likely to fall squarely in one box. One can adopt a Lite Green lifestyle while advocating Bright Green solutions; one can engage in Deep Green direct action while embracing Dark Green downshifting; one can advocate for Bright Green solutions using Deep Green tactics; one can downshift to a Dark Green footprint via a Lite Green gearshift. And few individuals remain in one category throughout their activism, with many Dark Greens being jaded former Deep Greens, and many Deep Greens being radicalized Bright Greens, and many Bright Greens being mobilized Lite Greens.
My own haphazard journey through the various shades of Green has covered them all. I suppose I was raised Deep Green in all honesty, with the worldview instilled in me that we are but one strand in the web of life and that we must tread lightly upon the earth. My family ensured I was well-versed in the Lite Green rituals of recycling, water conservation and energy saving, and now I’m an ardent plasticphobe who showers with a bucket and goes around switching off appliances at the wall. I briefly trotted out the politically appealing mantras of the Bright Green techno-optimists – that we can have our cake and eat it; and then I learned about peak oil and carrying capacity, and limits to growth – things that should have been intuitive, but required a deconstruction of cultural indoctrination to comprehend.
Now I find myself with a foot in each of the Deep Green and Dark Green camps with the occasional Lite Green flicker of indulgence. That means my activism is Deep Green, my lifestyle is as Dark Green as I’m able to shade it, and Lite Green slips through the cracks in my plans. Please forgive me my biases – I’ve been there, done that, and worn out the t-shirts.
Finding common ground
Despite the differences between the various shades of Green, there are areas of common ground shared between the tribes.
Bright Greens and Light Greens favour populist approaches that have the potential to generate mass-uptake, while Deep Greens and Dark Greens push the envelope in order for the environment movement to progress. While Bright Green and Light Green initiatives are strong on populist messaging for their causes, thus sacrificing depth and breadth, the more holistic messages of the Deep Greens and Dark Greens have narrower appeal.
Where Bright Greens and Deep Greens share common ground is their reliance on collective action, while many Lite Green and Dark Green actions can be carried out by individuals acting alone – it is their collective impact that achieves the desired results. Bright Green activists also take part in some traditionally Deep Green direct actions such as blockades, lending a greater degree of support to the movement’s goals.
Deep Green activists are often critical of the Lite Green approach to the environment movement, however. The notion that shortening our showers and changing our lightbulbs brings about incremental change has worn thin for Deep Greens, and the all-too-frequent response is a failure to reach out to potential allies from the Lite Green camp – who are usually starting out on their environmentalist journey and could use experienced, empathic guidance, not the cold shoulder of know-it-alls.
Dark Green downshifters, likewise, tend to be critical of Bright Green activism, questioning the value of their work in light of the limits to growth constraints and unintended consequences that render many Bright Green solutions moot. While the Dark Greens most definitely have a point, it is a mistake to sacrifice Bright Green relationships – it is only by connecting and communicating across the network that realities such as limits to growth can permeate the movement and couch its strategies in a more realistic framework.
Despite the obvious differences at the surface, many Dark Green downshifters began their journey as Lite Green conscious consumers. Lite Green consumer choices can light the path toward one-planet living that leads one to further questions regarding what mode of living is genuinely sustainable. The rabbithole goes as far as any individual is prepared to go when it comes to downshifting, and a Lite Green thinker can transition fairly rapidly into a Dark Green downshifter given the advantages of a critical mind and access to information.
Bright Green activists aren’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon, despite frequent public appearances in matching t-shirts. Many Bright Greens stand with a foot inside the Deep Green camp, and seek to ramp up Bright Green action in order to be more effective. Many, however, are critical of the radicalism of Deep Greens, and are wary of the lengths some are prepared to go to in order to achieve their goals, while Deep Greens are often harshly critical of the parameters of professionalized activists’ campaign remits, suggesting these limit the movement’s capacity to effect change. The distrust of one another that this criticism engenders bubbles up from time to time, and has the potential to fragment the movement in the absence of communication across the borderlands between the shades, and genuine intention to understand the other’s perspective.
And everyone is a hypocrite hunter when it comes to Bright Greens or Deep Greens who don’t curb their consumption while waiting for technological or political salvation, or the collapse of industrial civilization; or when it comes to Lite Greens or Dark Greens who live cocooned by privilege while ignoring their responsibility toward their broader Earth community.
Across the borderlands
Once the various shades of Green within the environment movement are recognized it then becomes possible to find areas of common ground to work from and develop. A danger with any movement is its potential to fragment into factions once it reaches a certain size – with the various factions competing instead of collaborating – and the potential emergence of a dominant faction that drowns out competing worldviews, theories of change, and tactics. Through this tangled web of worldview, theory and practice there is a need to locate strands of commonalities that can be woven together in a comprehensive strategy. Our collective power is surely much greater than the sum of all our parts.