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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.

Origin and evolution of bright green thinking

The term "bright green", 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 tend to focus extensively on the idea that through a combination of well-built communities, new technologies and sustainable living practices, quality of life can actually be improved even while ecological footprints shrink.

The term "bright green" has been used with increased frequency due to the promulgation of these ideas through the Internet and recent coverage in the traditional media.

Dark greens, light greens and bright greens

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. The motto "Green is the new black" sums up this way of thinking, for many. This is different from the term "lite green", which some environmentalists use to describe products or practices they believe are greenwashing.

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. As Ross Robertson writes, "[B]right 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."

International perspective

While bright green environmentalism is an intellectual current among North American environmentalists (with a number of businesses, blogs, NGOs and even governments now explicitly calling themselves "bright green" - for instance, the City of Vancouver's strategic planning document is called Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future), it is in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, Germanymarker, the Netherlandsmarker and the United Kingdommarker, that the idea of bright green environmentalism has become most widespread and most widely discussed. For instance, the official technology showcase and business expo for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagenmarker is called Bright Green in reference to this idea, while the Danish youth climate activism movement is called Bright Green Youth.

Viridian Design

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 (according to Ross Robertson) is considered the definitive volume on bright green thinking. Sterling formally closed the Veridian movement in 2008, saying there was no need to continue its work now that bright green environmentalism had emerged.

Criticism

The Cato Institute, a right-libertarian think tank, has attacked bright green environmentalism for including the use of bounded markets and government regulations to "level the playing field" for new sustainable technologies, which they perceive as undue interference in markets.

Ecosocialist critics of bright green environmentalism, on the other hand, argue that the idea that technological progress will solve ecological problems is popular because it deludes people into hoping that it will prevent them from having to seriously question and change their individual and collective way of life. The development of technology, or of some technical fields at the expense of others, only sustains the capitalist system and feeds profit. Technological fixes to ecological problems are thus rejected by many eco-socialists. Saral Sarkar has updated the thesis of 1970s 'limits to growth' to exemplify the limits of new capitalist technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, which require large amounts of energy to split molecules to obtain hydrogen.

Joel Kovel notes that "events in nature are reciprocal and multi-determined" and can therefore not be predictably "fixed"; socially, technologies cannot solve social problems because they are not "mechanical". He posits an eco-socialist analysis, developed from Marx, that patterns of production and social organisation were more important than the forms of technology used within a given configuration of society. Under capitalism, he suggests that technology "has been the sine qua non of growth" - thus he believes that, even in a world with hypothetical "free energy", the effect would be to lower the cost of automobile production, leading to the massive overproduction of vehicles, "collapsing infrastructure", chronic resource depletion and the "paving over" of the "remainder of nature".

In the modern world, Kovel considers the supposed efficiency of new post-industrial commodities is a "plain illusion", as miniaturized components involve many substances and are therefore non-recyclable (and, theoretically, only simple substances could be retrieved by burning out-of-date equipment, releasing more pollutants). He is quick to warn "environmental liberals" against over-selling the virtues of renewable energies that could not meet the mass energy consumption of the era; although he would still support renewable energy projects, he believes it is more important to restructure societies to reduce energy use before relying on renewable energy technologies alone.

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