Thursday, March 18, 2010

Where Dark Green Meets Cleantech (Or, Beyond Shades of Green)

A little while ago, Alex Steffen of World Changing offered a critique of the permaculture-inspired Transition Towns initiative--a grass-roots, peak oil/climate change adaptation movement that has gone viral around the world in the past three years. While Transition Town is centered on local community organizing and action, its focus is not on lobbying or protests, but on building local businesses, institutions and structures that can weather energy-descent. Steffen would describe these people as “dark greens,” a brand of environmentalist who emphasizes local community action but can tend toward collapse-thinking or doomerism. As Steffen puts it:

“Transition thinking seems obsessively focused on coordinating individual actions (like helping people barter their free time or connecting people who want to garden); even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations). Part of this is the legacy of the counter-culture out of which it emerged. Part of this is that Transition Towns aim to offer a way to step out of emotional paralysis by saying вЂjust go ahead and do something, anything.’ Part of it is intentional: groups spread more rapidly when the demands placed on their members are minimal. However, the approach also betrays a far darker mindset.”

That darker mindset, argues Steffen, is a morbid (and he would say delusional) focus on collapse-mitigation rather than visioning a different kind of future. It is an approach, he seems to think, that is not only self-limiting but immoral. “Dark Green” according to Steffen, stands in contrast to “light green” and “bright green” environmentalism. “Light greens,” he says, 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” as a means to broader social change. Steffen is (very rightly, I think) critical of the idea of “privatizing responsibility” for the environmental crisis. “Bright Green,” (the group Steffen self-identifies with) is, by contrast, “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 . . . Bright green environmentalism is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.”

How real—and how significant—is the apparent cultural rift between these different groups? It’s a topic that’s been on my mind a lot recently. A few weeks ago I enrolled in a course for “Cleantech Executives in Transition” held out of New York University Polytechnic and sponsored by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a state agency tasked with promoting energy efficiency , promoting alternative energy and protecting the environment . The course is taught out of NYU Polytechnic’s “business incubator” a program in which green startups are given access to space and resources to help get their businesses off the ground; the purpose of the course is to prepare experienced leaders at the executive level for transition into “green” careers, with a focus on entrepreneurship.

As a permaculture teacher and designer, I felt a little strange in the class at first; I don’t precisely fit what one might think of as a “green entrepreneur.” The permaculture movement as a whole is typically skeptical of anything that smacks of a “technofix” solution to the world’ s converging ecological and resource crises (an attitude that puts most permaculturalists firmly in the “dark green” camp). While permaculture theory and practice is firmly based in the science of systems ecology, culturally permaculture has been associated with 1970s “back-to-the-landers”—people not necessarily moved by the idea that, as one of the NYU professors put it, “cleantech is the greatest opportunity for wealth creation since the industrial revolution.”

I had my own preconceptions about the kind of people who would be in the course – finance people, “money” people. To my surprise, though, participants exhibited a much greater diversity of interests, skills and world-views than I expected. I began to wonder if my own stereotypes and preconceptions were, at best, oversimplified, or at worst, entirely unhelpful. I also wondered if Steffen’s “shades” might be as misleading as they are illuminating.

Rob Hopkins, the permaculture designer who founded the Transition Town movement, responded to Steffen’s argument by pointing out that the Transition movement is already engaged with much of what Steffen says we should be doing.

“My sense is that Transition does not fit neatly into the вЂmostly judgmental’ Deep Green category in which Alex places it, indeed having as much in common with his вЂBright Green’ approach. Transition is about bringing insights and observations from the вЂdeep green’ into the вЂbright green’ (although I think this classification is clumsy), arguing that the rebuilding of local economies is not about a retreat into survivalism . . . but is actually the only practical (in the context of energy descent) way of realising the kind of entrepreneurial zeal he is so keen on.”

To be fair to Steffen, there is probably a lot that “deep green” could also learn from “bright green” – things about business, finance, planning, etc. that will be necessary to make any transition effective. But Hopkins is also right to express skepticism about the entire classification system. Forget about how well Steffen describes or understands Transition; many of his own views would seem wildly fanciful or terribly pessimistic to a lot of “cleantech” types who believe that hydrogen-powered autos are just around the corner. Consider his take on suburbia: “In the absence of an as-yet-unseen, brilliant solution, the outer ring suburbs, especially those recently built with funny loans at the far edges sunbelt cities, are probably just destined to become semi-rural slums.”

Elsewhere he writes that “I believe building compact communities should be one of America's highest environmental priorities . . . in fact, our obsession with building greener cars may be obscuring some fundamental aspects of the problem and some of the benefits of using land-use change as a primary sustainability solution.”

It could be argued that these sentiments put Steffen more in line with “out there” thinkers such as Ecocity Builder Richard Register and transit activist Alan Drake (thinkers who believe that we can an should reduce our total energy consumption by orders of magnitude, to 5-10 percent of current use) than with many “cleantech” types who think that we can ramp up renewables to meet our current consumption.

Rebuilding cities for “access by proximity” (as Register puts it) and for transit is a “power-down,” or “transition” strategy as far as I can tell. It seems that we are entering a historic juncture in which all of our preconceptions not just of what the future will look like but of who we are and how we see others will be turned upside-down. Maybe in a few years (as we head over the edge of the peak oil cliff) these kinds of distinctions (between shades of green) will feel hopelessly anachronistic. Then again, maybe they already do.

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