A veritable spectrum of green building

So, you fancy yourself an environmentalist; you recycle, you’re interested in green building, you eat organic. But what kind of green are you, exactly? Or rather, what color? For it seems that “green” is no longer an either-or distinction, but rather, a spectrum -- of political ideologies, of attitudes towards technology, of degrees of optimism, and…of hues. An aptly-labeled mode of color-coding adds a level of symbolic differentiation to the various sub-groups of greenness. Are you familiar with the distinctions between “dark” vs. “light” green”? How about “bright” green? Or “lite” green? And folks, here is the green building question of the day: if each shade of green implies a particular ideology, does it also inspire, or even necessitate, a different brand of green building?

Before delving into possible responses, here is a basic primer on shades of greenness, adapted from the work of Alex Steffen:

“Light Green.” The emphasis: personal responsibility, lifestyle choices, individual action. To be light green is to believe that the greatest chance one has of affecting change is through modifying one’s lifestyle choices, acting with intention, walking the talk, so to speak. The implication? If we all make changes in our own lives, the collective impact will be greater than the sum of the parts, etcetera. A reasonably light-hearted approach, if you will.

“Dark Green.” The assumption: environmental problems are a direct result of industrial capitalism. As an inevitable symptom of a problematic system, the only way to mitigate environmental destruction and resource depletion is to advocate for radical political change. This change must begin with a realignment of global priorities and a realization that economic growth is not the be-all-and-end-all. Proponents often support theoretical notions of population control and/or the abandonment of technology. Dark as is pessimistic; dark as in Dark Ages.

“Bright Green.” The focus: new tools, technologies, and social innovations will help humanity to overcome this catastrophic mess we’re in. Not might, not could…but WILL! In fact, this mess, while seemingly disastrous, is actually an incredible opportunity to rethink, rebuild, relearn, renew, recycle, re-…the key is to shift the focus away from protest, towards innovation. Bright, happy, shiny. We can do it!

“Lite Green.” A.k.a. “greenwashing” or green-lite or green-ish. In other words, not really green at all.

Shades of Green Building. Armed with this new colorful vocabulary, it’s time to ponder how these various ideologies are manifested in distinct approaches to green building, if at all. My first reaction is that much of the green building industry fits somehow in the “bright green” category. Perhaps this is a result of the inherent big-picture-sort-of optimism latent in the architectural design process. After all, the very act of designing a building requires a certain degree of optimistic confidence. The designer has to believe that it is possible to conceive of a good solution, and furthermore, must have the confidence to trust that he or she is capable of imagining and articulating it. On the other hand, a “Dark Green,” convinced of the need for political revolution, might not see architecture as the most powerful means for change. It’s like Corbusier said: “Architecture or Revolution.” Corbusier, incidentally, went on to say “Revolution can be avoided” (Vers une architecture, 1923) but then again, he was an architect.

However, there is obviously more to green building than optimism; the bright green ethos includes a conviction in the ultimate power of technology and innovation to solve societal problems. This technophilia also permeates the green building industry. That’s not to say that it’s a completely incorrect assumption; I only mean to point out the irony of insisting on a quintessentially Modernist approach to solve a problem created, to some degree, by a blind faith in Modernity.