The Dark Green/Bright Green Divide

by Andy Hoffman

Professor Andy Hoffman

Professor Andy Hoffman

This article originally appeared in Wayne Baker’s blog, “Our Values” during April 27-May 1 as: (1) “Are you green?…Yes? But how ‘dark’ or ‘bright’ green is that?”; (2) “What are the crucial environmental issues – from bright to dark green?”; (3) “Green goes mainstream – but is it a trendy sprout or a historic shift?”; (4) “In praise of dark greens” Do we really want ‘green’ to fade?”

Are you Green? And how “dark” or “bright” is your Green?

There’s a schism emerging between two camps within the environmental movement.

On the one extreme, the dark green non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—such as Greenpeace USA and Friends of the Earth—seek radical social change to solve environmental problems, most often by confronting the corporate sector. As Alex Steffen explains it, they tend to “pull back from consumerism (sometimes even from industrialization itself).”

On the other extreme, the bright green NGOs—such as Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund—work within the market system, often in close collaboration with corporations, to solve environmental problems. Again, as Steffen explains: This “is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.”

While Steffen coined these terms in 2003 — by 2009, this division now is widening and resulting in serious sniping.

New books with titles like Green Inc. and Hijacking Sustainability criticize the bright greens as being co-opted and for helping companies greenwash their polluting activities. In return, bright greens dismiss the dark greens as being out of touch radicals that only complicate the environmental agenda by resorting to extreme tactics like burning down chalets at Aspen or genetic engineering labs at Michigan State University.

I think this antagonism is unhealthy for the movement. The reality is that both sides are mutually dependent. They both need each other to accomplish their goals.

But what do you think?

Have you heard these terms? Do they make sense to you — or do you see the challenges of the environmental movement, perhaps, from an entirely different perspective. Get involved this week and tell us what think.

What can we do now? And what big issues are looming?

At the end of Monday’s post, I argued that “dark” and “bright” greens actually need each other. Please, continue to let us know what you think about those terms — and what you think about the state of this movement right now.

Today, let’s take a step further. Here’s why I think these two apparently confrontational branches of the movement really are important to each other.

Scholars who have studied the civil rights movement and other periods of change argue that more extreme groups within a movement actually help the moderate, consensus-building groups with a kind of “radical flank effect.”

When radicals pull the tail of the political spectrum further in one direction, they shift the center of the debate and create a category of moderates. Think of Martin Luther King. He was seen as a moderate because Malcolm X pulled the political flank so far to the left that mainstream America found King palatable.  Russell Train, second administrator of the EPA, once echoed a similar sentiment, “Thank God for the David Browers of the world. They make the rest of us seem reasonable.”

While moderates help move change along through direct engagement — the more radical groups focus on the deeper, core issues of the movement. They can set the agenda and become the standard bearers for the long term issues of the movement, issues that may be less palatable for a moderate to bring to broader constituencies in the short term but must be addressed in the long term.

Together, the two seemingly different branches really form a broad spectrum. Sometimes this has been described as a tension between purity and pragmatism — and the movement needs both.

That is, if the two sides can coordinate their efforts, in the end.

So, right now — what do you think are the most pragmatic issues people should be working on within the environmental movement? What should the moderate center of the movement be doing right now?

Then, look out into that more radical end of the movement — and look into the future — and tell us what issues you think are the big changes we need to make eventually.

What should we do right now that makes practical sense?

And what are some of the big issues looming?

The Hazards of Success: “Green” Goes Mainstream

Green is everywhere! “Green jobs;” “Green-tech;” “Green buildings;” and on it goes! CSX boasts of the greenness of train hauling; IBM touts its green mainframe computers; trucking companies are pushing for tandem trailers as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s getting ridiculous.

The New York Times recently pointed out that in the same home improvement store, one can buy a plastic handled paint brush that is “green” because it does not use trees to make the handle.  In the next bin, you can buy a wooden handled paintbrush that is “green” because the handle is not made from fossil fuels.

This can only breed confusion, cynicism and contempt. The problem became vivid for me when I was talking with an auto industry executive last year (before the fiscal crisis hit the industry). He told me that the hybrid market was a temporary blip because it made no economic sense. His logic ran that once consumers realized that they would never recoup their initial investment in the hybrid drive train through gas savings, they would stop buying them.

I countered that the psychology of buying a hybrid car was no different than that of buying other cars. It was tied to a personal decision-making process; it wasn’t merely an economic choice. On that count, I told him, he should see very little difference between his company selling a hybrid to someone who wants to project his/her environmental values and selling a Corvette to a middle-aged guy who wants to pick up chicks.

He smiled, but I sensed I was not getting past his resistance that this whole green thing was just a liberal fad, soon to die.

Unfortunately, I think he was wrong. As a business professor, I look at issues like environmental change as major market shifts.

Market shifts create winners and losers; and companies must innovate to survive.  They must divest some businesses, acquire others and alter the ones they keep. The question “does it pay to be green?” becomes non-sensical.  It is the same as asking “does it pay to innovate?”

So, in the end, I’m arguing that — for all the ridiculous confusion at the moment — and for all the temptation to laugh off “green” as a fad — this really is a movement in the process of making a major shift in the way global markets work.

What do you think?

Is it just too hard — and maybe just too confusing — to be green?

Or is this whole movement headed somewhere historic?

In Praise of Dark Greens: Do we really want “Green” to fade?

All this week, we’ve been talking about the complex challenges facing the Green movement. In the end, here’s the danger Greens face:

As Green goes mainstream — it fades.

When Clorox introduces its new line of Green WorksTM cleaners, GE develops wind turbines under its Ecomagination program, Toyota develops its Hybrid Synergy Drive train, or Matsushita increases lithium-ion battery production, these are not examples of “Green” products; they are  examples of companies attacking new and profitable market segments and hastening the market shift that’s already underway.

I can see “Green,” as we have known it, fading in my MBA classes on environmental strategy — even as these classes explode from the domain of a fringe group of socially minded students. Now, mainstream business students see environmental issues as critical to corporate success. This is just becoming the way we do business.

That’s why, in the end, we need those sometimes troublesome “dark” Greens.

They continually warn us about compromise and push the frontier of environmental issues. The problem is that the dark Greens are losing their power and voice. They’re becoming marginalized; either by their own activities or the way they’re often cast in extreme relief against the more moderate bright Greens.

In my own research, I have found a strong positive correlation between the size of an organization’s budget and the number of corporate ties it engages. The implication is obvious: The bright greens actively engage with corporations, they have more money and therefore they have more influence than the dark greens. This is both unfortunate for dark green groups and bad for the movement as a whole.

The dark green message is needed now more than ever. Here’s why — and here’s the most provocative point I want to raise this week. Please, think about this and tell us what you think by adding a Comment.

Only an appeal to deeply held morals and values — either to recover them and perhaps to reform some of them — can move us where we truly need to go.

As Aldo Leopold pointed out in 1949, no important change in our ethical appreciation of nature can ever be accomplished “without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections and convictions.”

Only when the emission of CO2 is seen as morally or ethically wrong (or even as a sin) will we be able to deal with climate change just as we abolished slavery. The breadth and depth of the shift makes this comparison apt.

The solution is not merely technological, economic or political. In the concluding chapter of Beyond the Limits, scientist Donella Meadows and her co-authors argued that the solution to the environmental collapse predicted by their models “will have to be, above all, a societal transformation that permits the best of human nature rather than the worst to be expressed and nurtured.”

What do you think about these provocative issues we’ve raised?

Can we hope to reach the level of moral reflection and perhaps even a deep change in some of our values that we need to survive this challenge?


5 Responses to The Dark Green/Bright Green Divide

  1. Linda says:

    In the big scheme of things aren’t all sides, opinions, people and businesses needed to make it work. All type of industries today are trying their best – there are MBA programs on being green, green copiers and even banks are beginning to think of the environment, with banks like e3bank (a client of mine) offering a triple-bottom-line… incentivizing people to install eco-friendly features to their homes for better interest rates. With all the negative press out there, it’s nice to here about ones trying to do some good.

  2. Tom says:

    The “bright” greens appear to have the upper hand, but how can we tell if they are really making a difference? Once they start partnering with corporations, they have incentives to exaggerate the success of their efforts—just like the companies they work with.

    When the “dark” greens make a radical demand of business, and business accepts, at least we can feel some confidence that the company would not have taken the step anyway just because it was low-hanging fruit.

  3. The Dark green is really making a radical demand of business. but how much it’s effective?.

  4. Megan says:

    Hmm, I don’t know that I agree with your characterization of Dark Green as more radical than Bright Green. If anything, I think Bright Green is calling for a far more radical re-creation of our society and our world than Dark Green.

    Dark Green is largely about conservation, about doing less bad things, more slowly. Bright Green is about redesigning the way we do everything, so that human activities either have no impact or contribute positively to the biosphere.

    Bright Green also extends into the developed and developing worlds — using the moral argument that you articulate. How can we, as the most privileged people on Earth, ask those who have nothing to leap from involuntary simplicity straight into voluntary simplicity? It’s simply unfair.

    Dark Green also tends to be Puritanical, to look at humankind as a scourge on the nature. Bright Green, on the other hand, sees humans as a complex flowering of nature, with every right to be here.

    Dark Green calls on us to feel bad about our consumption and to focus on the small. Bright Green calls on us to rise up to the responsibility of the world-changing powers we’ve acquired. “We are as gods, and may as well get good at it,” said Stewart Brand. That sound a lot more radical than anything I’ve ever heard coming out of the Dark Green organizations …

  5. […] examples. And then there’s that first question. You might not have even known the terms bright green and dark green existed. Yes, green is the new black; it’s hip to be environmentally conscious. But what then […]

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