Notes: The Viridian Design Movement (1999-2008)

In 1999, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a speech in which he called the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions “an aesthetic problem.” Our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants was creating an ugly world, even though it was largely invisible to our senses. He believed the best hack for starting an environmental revolution was not technical or political, but artistic.

“We’re in trouble because we live in filth and we can’t see it,” said Sterling. “We’re like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We’re ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.”

Sterling determined to attack the problem head-on, and he single-handedly launched a new design movement to “Change what people see. Change how they see.” Sterling wanted to use art and design to help people visualize a future that was a brighter and more attractive shade of green — and start making it real.

He called the movement “Viridian” because that was the name for a shade of green that was slightly unnatural — cool, techy, and  environmentally friendly without being predictably so.

Sterling’s initiative was bold and quirky, and he was well-known in sci-fi and futurist circles, so he immediately attracted a following. He wrote a manifesto and a set of design principles, and he declared himself the Viridian Movement’s “Pope-Emperor.” Then he appointed a “Curia” of friends, advisors and fellow-travelers, to help spread the word. (I was lucky enough to be one of these.) The Viridian Movement, operating through Sterling’s email list, quickly spawned a number of design competitions, whose purpose was to call into being the kinds of design innovations Sterling felt to be lacking — things like spore-based ink to help people “embrace decay,” or a graphic symbol to highlight the fact that we were already in a state of “greenhouse disaster.”

Being on the slightly more practical side, I decided to organize an international Viridian Design Competition around one of Sterling’s best-loved ideas (conceived with colleague Stefan Jones): an electricity meter that was actually fun to look at, and that would tell you clearly when you were destroying the climate, and when you were saving it.

With a $10,000 grant from an enlightened philanthropist, I ran the contest though Donella Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (where I was the unpaid Director of Arts & Culture) and in partnership with a prominent international sustainability network known as the Balaton Group. That group’s global experts in climate science, modelling, renewables, and energy efficiency were the judges. And our winner, Inci Mutlu’s “Wattbug”, went on to receive media exposure in the New York Times and Wired magazine.

So did the Viridian Movement help create the future — that is, the present in which we are living now? Did it “introduce something new into the probability stream” as Elon Musk puts it? Or just accelerate what was bound to happen anyway?

Today, “smart meters” that provide immediate visual feedback on energy consumption are everyday items in the world’s electricity grids — though none are as cute as the Wattbug, and they would have arrived, eventually, anyway. Sustainable design is an increasingly normal part of life, though not in the radical ways described by Sterling at the end of the 20th century. New, more mainstream-friendly design movements for sustainability have emerged such as the one I helped launch with the Norwegian government’s Center for Design and Architecture, organized around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It’s called the Oslo Manifesto.)

In 2008, Sterling himself seemed to sense that the Viridian moment was over and abdicated from his self-appointed overlord position,  four years ahead of the movement’s scheduled “Expiration Date.” Having an expiration date was itself a Viridian idea; but the zeitgeist was also changing. Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which reduced the need for specialized awareness-raising on climate change. The economic meltdown now called the “Financial Crisis” was hitting its peak, which reduced interest in flashy new design ideas for a time. Sterling had just published a thoughtful book on design, called “Shaping Things,” that he considered “very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball.” (Sterling, who is from Texas, has both a large personality and a penchant for colorful metaphors.)

Meanwhile, both the ideas and many of the people from the Viridian list had been absorbed into a then-new thing, called a “blog”, that went by the name of Worldchanging and promoted the alternative phrase “bright green.” (I was part of that, too.)

So in his final “Viridian Note” — the epistles that Pope-Emperor Sterling had been regularly sending out to the masses for nearly a decade — he gracefully admitted that “the world has become a very different place,” and that the growing calls for change in finance and politics went a bit beyond the design focus of Viridian. But his parting words were still a broadside against traditional green thinking or the notion that we should just consume less, an approach that he disparagingly called “hairshirt-green” (after the very uncomfortable goat-hair garments that Christian penitents and ascetics used to wear).

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Sterling challenged his readers, in a more open-ended, less green-authoritarian way, to simply “re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.” You spend a lot of time with your stuff, and it takes up space. So acquire quality. Ditch what you don’t need and don’t use. This was ultimately far more important, opined the author of the Viridian Manifesto, than whether the object in question was “green.”

From this future vantage point, I can see the “streams of probability” that Viridian touched, as it tried to create a certain quirky vision. It lifted the topic of green design out of the environmental muck and into flashy, digitized lights of Silicon Valley. It was a brilliant act of conceptual art, the impacts of which are impossible to measure. I know it affected a certain moment in my life, inspired certain of my actions, and that it did that for hundreds of other people, who then went on to affect (or infect) other people, with the idea of making “green” more attractive, cool, and relevant. It probably “accelerated the inevitable.”

But the boldness of Sterling’s vision — his willingness to just write a manifesto and launch a movement, armed with nothing but an email account and some name recognition — inspires me still today. I doubt, for example, that we would have thought up the Oslo Manifesto in 2016 if my Viridian memories hadn’t been lurking, quite unconsciously, in the background of my mind.

So hats off to Viridian! It may have expired — but like true design classics, it never actually went out of style.

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