What if Green Design Were Just Good Design?

What if Green Design Were Just Good Design?

Green design should have won 30 years ago.

By now, we should have forgotten all about being green. Greenness should be par for the course, the way things are, the accepted, everyday method of running our lives. Greens excel at spreading dread and malaise. Alarmism is still what they're best at. When it comes to specific accomplishments, greens may be the worst designers ever. Their victories are small, anecdotal, and very thin on the ground. The rampant signs of their defeat are all over the landscape: In suburban sprawl, traffic jams, bulging trash heaps, leaking pesticides, melting ice caps, and funereal swarms of extinct species. 

Greens deserve some credit for culture-jamming the arms race. They may yet kill off genetically modified crops, too, at least in Europe. But nuclear suicide and food fads were the easy green problems. Those were big, abstract predicaments, very distant from people's daily lives, people's real needs and desires. Nobody wants to be roasted by an H-bomb. People never shop gourmet boutiques for gene-warped food.

Green design is firmly based on the core insight that everything is holistically connected to everything else. "Environmentalism" is about "the environment," which is to say, everything around us. But when you want to get something accomplished, it's a total calamity to be "connected" to "everything." It means there is no such thing as irrelevance. All accomplishments are permanently suspect, and no sideline critic ever runs out of ammo. 

Green design is for nobody, but green critique is for everyone. Let's consider a hammer. You may naively think that a good old hammer must be pretty green—simple, artsy-craftsy, and energy efficient—but what about the toxic effluent from that nail factory in distant China? Ha! I've got you there. You've hammered up a new room for your kids that's warm and snug, but what have you done to redress the patriarchal and imperialist biases inherent in a privileged single-family dwelling? You did nothing? Those issues never even crossed your mind? Why, you hopeless pig!

The planet has genuine, deadly serious green concerns, but greens turn out to be easily distracted, profoundly ineffectual people. They're philosopher-poets when there's a screaming need for engineers. Years of existing on societies fringes have led them into many bizarre practices. Their decor choices, for instance: Earth colors, stripped wood, undyed cloth, and ethnic bric-a-brac. These weird little sociopolitical signifiers shouldn't be mistaken for thriftiness or good sense. There's just no pressing need for anybody's decor to look that corny. It's entirely possible for a no-budget house furnished with recycled debris to look good.

If you're into home design and you want to be "modern," it's not a problem. You just click on www.designwithinreach.com and order a 74-year-old Eileen Gray end table. Being "modern" may be a total oxymoron, but at least it's a straightforward, immediate, and consumer-friendly way to be. To be green, however, means wading hip-deep into dense, spooky, patchouli-scented tomes like the New Natural House or Natural Home magazine. These publications heroically tackle a host of green design problems. Unfortunately, a lot of these "problems"—healing herbs, homemade tofu, wheatgrass smoothies, house-blessing ceremonies—aren't problems. They're rituals. 

Hypochondriacs dearly love green publications. That's because they're chock-full of quackery. Believe it or not, most people troubled by allergies aren't at all "sensitive" to "toxins" from "industrial" products. They are allergic to pollen, which is to say, they're allergic to flowers and trees having sex. 

Being green is not really about the greenness. Being green is cranky, fringy, and deservedly unpopular, and has never been simply taken for granted as a sensible way to get along. The constant grind of all that self-conscious alternative being-ness is a major drag. Moral panic is a difficult state of mind, and the best way to stay there is by immersing yourself in endless runarounds that have no genuine consequence. It's considered rather green design-ish to set up a meditation space in the house, with some aromatherapy and an unbleached Danish zazen pillow. When Buddha meditated, he sat on the dirt under some trees. Do people meditate better with some Indonesian incense burners and a lumpy hemp carpet? Of course not. But they feel better about their ongoing intention of meditating—that's the point. When houseguests discover that private spiritual space, they'll be really impressed by its sumptuous humility.

The green response to the way the world works has been deeply wrong-headed. Superb at complaining, they're lousy at reform. They are permanent revolutionaries who would rather starve in a garret than govern. Their wacky doctrines serve best as a loose-leaf bible for a permanently discontented minority. This in itself is not so bad. In fact, it's great. Permanently discontented minorities are lovely things to have around. But the failures of green are very serious failures. Many concerns best described as "green" are factual, chronic, real-world problems that are clear and authentic menaces to civilization. Something real and effective has got to get done. And real, effective, green things are doable things. They're not tremendously romantic, paisley-spangled, or transcendental things, but they could happen. 

A green victory condition would mean becoming the mainstream. This means drudge work—running city councils, digging big, grimy, expensive holes for mass transit. It also means buying out large, ugly industries and replacing nukes and coal mines with giant windmills. It means redesigning consumer goods so that they respect human flesh, so that they're good to hold, fun to look at and listen to, usable, responsive, and god forbid, sexy. It means building comfortable homes that are healthy and environmentally aware, not dim, stuffy eco-huts that aspire to the fully sustainable condition of coffins. 

Victory means becoming a green establishment and sacrificing the bohemian romance. This means that people passionately obsessed about green will become backward, old-fashioned relics. In a world that is truly green, the term "green" is very old-fashioned. Green becomes real life. And real life means running the works and getting ceaselessly complained at, which is why greens never want to enter that territory. 

The "technology" that greens complain about isn't even technology. The word "technology" merely means "stuff invented since I was born." Fighting that newfangled stuff involves faddist, reactionary tactics, and it never digs down deep enough to get strategic. It is our great-grandparents' technology that is doing us in. Most people will never figure that out because they're too busy being alive; they can't tell history from background noise. That should not be a problem for green designers, because understanding things better than normal people is what designers get paid for. In order for technological reform to work, in order for green to win, it's got to be designed better. It has to be received with rapturous cries of consumer delight, and then quickly forgotten about. Any technology that normal people are excited about or indignant about is one that normal people are not using yet. People need to use green technology and green design every single day. It has to be more than politically correct, or even user-friendly; it has to be taken for granted. It has to tick along in the background with all the other technologies that people use a million times a day and never think about—stuff like clocks, forks, and running water. That is how it really works; that's the way forward. 

The Green Devil's Dictionary

This handy one-stop shop for jargon isn't about what these standard green terms are intended to mean. No—this wicked dictionary is about what these words leave unsaid, which is plenty. —B.S

aware—nervous, twitchy, stressed

calming—dull, banal, simpleminded

safe—very frightened



healing—finicky, quackish, hypochondriacal

intimate—cramped, smelly

harmful—anything disenchanting or mentally confusing

natural—commercially packaged by the alternative products industry


appropriate—best-suited Third World rural villages

healthy—coarse, penitential, itchy, hard to chew

spiritual—any urge or need that takes a long time to explain

responsible—self-righteous, mean-spirited, fussy

efficient—hugely demanding of unpaid time and attention

voluntary simplicity—less is more work

sustainable—unprofitable, noncommercial

local—parochial, substandard

global—wishful, imaginary, somebody else's problem

independent—isolated, paranoid

connected—overworked, hopelessly complex, immobilized


practical—actively hazardous, not for amateurs




time-honored—primitive, squalid, medieval

recycling—hand-washed garbage

re-used—salvaged, run-down, rusty, and/or splintery


herbal garden—unpaid agricultural hand labor

rammed earth, straw bale, adobe—dirt, straw, dirt mixed with straw


bamboo—grass attempting to be lumber

eco-collective—large crowd of shiftless roommates

fellow creatures—mosquitos, weevils, rats, houseflies

chemical—any manufactured item requiring licenses, inspectors, and a college education

wabi feng shui, zen—gringo backpacker jargon

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer based in Austin, Texas. Some of his most recent work includes Holy Fire, Distraction, and Zeitgeist.

Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling is a science fiction novelist dividing his time among the surprisingly similar cities of Austin, Belgrade and Turin.


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