The Viridian Years
In 1998, Bruce Sterling set out to engineer a green design movement. In 2008, he shut it down. Five years later, it is time to reflect.
“Tonight, I’m going to prophesy.”
On October 14, 1998, science fiction author Bruce Sterling stood on the stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and announced his plans for the new millennium. Y2K was going to come and go, he predicted, and then in early January, journalists were going to be desperate for novelty. A new millennium needed new ideas and as a noted science fiction author, he expected they’d be ringing his phone off the hook (phones were on hooks back then — in 1998, everyone still had a landline).
“I plan to have a fully developed party line.”
Sterling’s proposal was to engineer an avant-garde design movement. He called it Viridian Design; it was to be a bright green environmentalist effort, cut from whole cloth, and aimed at tackling climate change (though back then it was called the Greenhouse Effect). Industry and government had more or less failed at this epochal task, and Sterling wasn’t all that optimistic that they’d ever turn the corner. This opened up the possibility that progress might originate from another arena.
“Is he joking, you ask. Is he serious? Why even ask
those questions? They are bad conceptual formulations.
We don’t really have the terminology for industrial design
of the culture industry.”
Over the next ten years, Sterling ran the movement. It existed primarily as a mailing list. The Viridian Notes, 498 in all, traced a difficult decade, climate-wise. The rollicking series celebrated allies in the bright green design movement like World Changing and attacked enemies like Exxon, Enron, and the Global Climate Coalition. Along the way it gave rise to such useful concepts as involuntary parks, glocal living, and spimes.
Viridian green set out to stand out from contemporary environmentalists by eschewing a back-to-the-land/voluntary-simplicity approach (which Sterling derisively called ‘hairshirt green’). Instead, it proposed that we innovate forwards, developing new materials and practices that were glamorously sustainable. The goal was that a sustainable lifestyle should become a status of lust. That people should aspire towards one, that sustainability should become aesthetic.
“Why is this an aesthetic issue? Well, because it’s a severe breach of taste to bake and sweat half to death in your own trash, that’s why.”
On November 18, 2008, science fiction author and design critic Bruce Sterling shut the project down. History had grown too jittery, he wrote. It was no longer a time for design interventions but a time for politics and finance.
Five years after the Last Viridian Note, it is time to re-evaluate the Viridian project. Why now? Well, let’s be honest, it is partially because people like round numbers and five is a round number. Sterling understood this, which is why he timed the Viridian Manifesto to come out at the top of the year 2000.
But it is also because the issues that Viridian Design sought to address haven’t been addressed. The IPCC’s 5th report is coming out shortly and the Summary for Policymakers [PDF] released in September isn’t reassuring.
Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2
Despite decades of well-respected scientists sounding the alarm, it remains a live debate in legislatures of the developed world as to whether climate change even exists, let along what to do about it.
So when the Viridian Manifesto says…
With government crippled and industry brain-dead to any conceivable moral appeal, the future of decentered, autonomous cultural networks looks very bright. There has never been an opportunity to spread new ideas and new techniques with the alacrity that they can spread now. Human energy must turn in some direction. People will run from frustration and toward any apparent source of daylight.
…it feels alarmingly relevant.
“Some Viridian principles can be lightly re-phrased, buffed-up and likely made of practical use in days to come. Others are period notions to be gently tossed into the cultural compost. I could try to describe which are which — but that’s a proper job for someone younger.”
Over the next month, several dozen writers, artists, and thinkers will be reconsidering the Viridian project and its principles. It is rich territory and our contributions will include historical overviews, critical examinations, close readings, futurist extensions, and a panoply of offshoots and strange tangents.
This post is part of 5 Viridian Years, a month-long re-examination of science-fiction author and design critic Bruce Sterling’s attempt to engineer an avant-garde bright green design movement in the dying days of the 20th century. Five years after the project ended, we are revisiting its goals, methods, impacts, and offshoots. Want to take part? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.