Re-reading the Viridian Manifesto

Tim Maly is curating a retrospective on the Viridian Design movement. I was always sort of conflicted about this movement. It had some clearly worthwhile, needful ideas, but I find Bruce Sterling’s tone & writing style off-putting, and I have some substantive disagreements with his approach.

There’s enough that was worthwhile about it, or at least genuinely thought-provoking, for Tim’s call for submissions to intrigue me, so I’ve promised at least one piece. Before writing that I figured I’d better re-read some of the key documents:

I started writing notes of my responses to bits of the Manifesto, so I can find the right parts to quote when I write the more substantive stuff. On the off-chance that this is interesting to anyone else, here they are after the cut:

NB: I’m not quoting the whole Manifesto here – you can read it at and if you haven’t read it before, what follows won’t make much sense until you do.

“The rapidly approaching millennium offers a unique cultural opportunity. After many years of cut-and-paste, appropriation, detournement and neo-retro ahistoricality, postmodernity is about to end. Immediately after the end of the fin de siecle, there will be a sudden and intense demand for genuine novelty.

Any new year offers a chance for sweeping resolutions and brave efforts at self-reform. But the end of a millennium offers a rare and vital opportunity to bury all that is dead within us and issue proclamations of particular scope and ambition.”

Ouch, we screwed this one up! I’ve had a post festering in my head for a year or two about the Smug Nineties – how we horribly missed the opportunity to make a better world in the wake of the USSR’s fall, and how we’re still paying for that now. Reading what a perceptive writer saw at the end of the 90s makes me want to add a coda about how the next decade was no better, but maybe I should just quote the above two paragraphs instead.

“….The central issue as the new millennium dawns is technocultural. There are of course other, more traditional, better-developed issues for humankind. Cranky fundamentalism festers here and there; the left is out of ideas while the right is delusional; income disparities have become absurdly huge; these things are obvious to all. However, the human race has repeatedly proven that we can prosper cheerfully with ludicrous, corrupt and demeaning forms of religion, politics and commerce. By stark contrast, no civilization can survive the physical destruction of its resource base. It is very clear that the material infrastructure of the twentieth century is not sustainable. This is the issue at hand.

We have a worldwide environmental problem. This is a truism. But the unprecedentedly severe and peculiar weather of the late 1990s makes it clear that this problem is growing acute. Global warming has been a lively part of scientific discussion since at least the 1960s, but global warming is a quotidian reality now. Climate change is shrouding the globe in clouds of burning rain forest and knocking points off the GNP of China. Everyone can offer a weird weather anecdote now; for instance, I spent a week this summer watching the sky turn gray with fumes from the blazing forests of Chiapas. The situation has been visibly worsening, and will get worse yet, possibly very much worse.”

Painful reading this now and seeing just how right he was, and how much more manifest these trends have become.

“….Global warming is a profound opportunity for the 21st century culture industry. National governments lack the power and the will to impose dirigiste solutions to the emission of carbon dioxide. Dirigiste solutions would probably not work anyway. It is unlikely that many of us could tolerate living in a carbon-dioxide Ration State. It would mean that almost every conceivable human activity would have to be licensed by energy commissars.”

While I get the frustration this comes from, it betrays a surprising lack of vision. There are pricing/rationing mechanisms for greenhouse gas emissions that don’t turn into a Licence Raj, because there are convenient bottlenecks in the system where “meters” or “throttles” can be installed. British Columbia’s carbon tax is a real-world example that doesn’t require intrusion into individuals’ lives, and has now been shown to not even hurt the economy. Admittedly that example postdates the Manifesto, and the economic analysis postdates the entire Viridian movement, but the mechanics of it are fairly obvious: so few people have their own person oil well or coal pit that taxes and quotas can be applied upstream, where the extraction or import of fuel is already being measured for existing regulations. In many ways Sterling was ahead of his time with this Manifesto, so it’s odd seeing such a lack of vision here. Or rather, it says a lot about his biases.

And yet the next part is spot-on:

“Industry will not reform its energy base. On the contrary, when it comes to CO2 legislation, industry will form pressure groups and throw as much sand as possible into the fragile political wheels. Industry will use obscurantist tactics that will mimic those of American right-wing anti-evolution forces — we will be told that Global Warming is merely a “theory,” even when our homes are on fire. Industry is too stupid to see planetary survival as a profit opportunity. But industry is more than clever enough to sabotage government regulation, especially when globalized industry can play one government off against the next.”

He didn’t even need to do the “energy commissars” scaremongering! He quite rightly saw that political resistance would prevent real action anyway. If anything, the BC experiment proves his point, because even now that we have a real-world case study of a carbon tax that works painlessly, there’s immense resistance to seeing it copied anywhere else.

[a few good paragraphs about what’s not working and why, then:] “However, contemporary civil society can be led anywhere that looks attractive, glamorous and seductive.

The task at hand is therefore basically an act of social engineering. Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume. What is required is not a natural Green, or a spiritual Green, or a primitivist Green, or a blood-and-soil romantic Green.”

This is the main reason I didn’t jump on board the Viridian bandwagon when I was introduced to it (in 2003), and I’m still kind of annoyed with Sterling about it. The world has never needed yet another Peoples’ Front of Judea dividing the sustainability movement into yet more warring factions. His critique of the existing Green movements circa 1998 was well-informed, and painted a clear picture of what they missed, but in dismissing them so readily he also missed everything they achieved. Each had (and still has) a group of committed adherents with time, energy and wisdom, who ought to be worked with rather than mocked.  Each had also played a part in raising consciousness about the environmental crisis to a point that gave Viridian an audience, so for him to turn around and badmouth them all feels frankly ungrateful; all the more so when the very first of the Viridian Principles is an argument to have some respect for what’s gone before even if we need to dismantle it.

“….The central target for this social engineering effort must be the people who are responsible for emitting the most CO2. The people we must strive to affect are the ultrarich. The rentiers, the virtual class, the captains of industry; and, to a lesser extent, the dwindling middle classes. The poor will continue to suffer. There is clearly no pressing reason for most human beings to live as badly and as squalidly as they do. But the poor do not emit much carbon dioxide, so our efforts on their behalf can only be tangential.”

At least three huge problems here, which I didn’t really understand when I first read it, but seem obvious to me now:

  1. An individual poor person emits nowhere near as much CO2 than a rich person, but there are so many more poor in the world that in aggregate they still pollute a lot, and much of that can be improved with simple technology and infrastructure changes that also make their lives better. Worse, when a poor person first joins the middle class, they tend to emit more and more, well before they have the luxury of taking conscious steps to reduce their environmental impact, and since compassion dictates that we don’t just condemn the poor to stay poor we’d better damn well figure out how to square a growing middle class with not poisoning the world. An environmental movement that ignores this challenge is more destructively incomplete than the ones Sterling goes out of his way to dismiss.
  2. The ultrarich tend to live such resource-intensive lives that even if we convince each of them to reduce their emissions by a factor of 10, they’re still going to be causing more pollution than the average person. And there aren’t that many of them, so this won’t be magnified into a large enough effect to save us, or even close.
  3. In the long run, CO2 emissions are directly a function of how much fossil fuel we dig up or leave in the ground. If we persuade only one sector of society to leave it, it’ll just get burned by another, rendering the entire effort meaningless. We have to address everyone, somehow.

“…As much time as possible should be spent consuming immaterial products. A global population where the vast majority spend their time sitting still and staring into screens is a splendid society for our purposes. Their screens should be beautifully designed and their surroundings energy-efficient. The planet will benefit for everyone who clicks a mouse instead of shovelling coal or taking an axe and a plow to a rain forest.”

But what about the physical media on which these immaterial products are consumed? I have a laptop, a Nook and a smartphone for this purpose. 5-6 pounds of “stuff” altogether, but it’s some of the most energy-intensive, polluting and war-fueling stuff the world has known. I’m not convinced this is a net win for the environment.

“…Replacing natural resources with information is a natural area for twenty-first century design, because it is an arena for human ingenuity that was technically closed to all previous centuries. We see considerable promise in this approach. It can be both cheap and glamorous.

Energy meters, for instance, should be ubiquitous. They should be present, not in an obscure box outside the home, but enshrined within it. This is not a frugal, money-saving effort. It should be presented as a luxury. It should be a mark of class distinction. It should be considered a mark of stellar ignorance to be unaware of the source of one’s electric power. Solar and wind power should be sold as premiums available to particularly affluent and savvy consumers. It should be considered the stigma of the crass proletarian to foul the air every time one turns on a light switch.

Environmental awareness is currently an annoying burden to the consumer, who must spend his and her time gazing at plastic recycling labels, washing the garbage and so on. Better information environments can make the invisible visible, however, and this can lead to a swift re-evaluation of previously invisible public ills.”

Back on to some good vision, and there’s been a lot of movement on this since the Manifesto was written: better product labeling, energy meters and so on. I wonder how much was inspired by Viridian Design, or how much Sterling was just rightly predicting a trend?

“If one had, for instance, a pair of computerized designer sunglasses that revealed the unspeakable swirl of airborne combustion products over the typical autobahn, it would be immediately obvious that clean air is a luxury. Infrasound, ultrasound and sound pollution monitors would make silence a luxury. Monitor taps with intelligent water analysis in real-time would make pure water a luxury. Lack of mutagens in one’s home would become a luxury.”

I think I agree with what he’s trying to say here, but “luxury” is a horrible choice of word for it. To me, “luxury” connotes “thing people can do without”, or “thing it’s OK for only the rich to have”, and I am not willing to attach that label to fundamentals like clean air. It’s precisely the framing of essential ecosystem resources as “luxuries” that lets our enemies paint them as too expensive and not worth investing in.

The Manifesto finishes with a set of triads: 11 topics for which Sterling outlined the status quo, a desirable state, and what he saw pessimistically as the trend. Sadly, time has shown him to be right on almost all of these, and here are the ones that particularly hurt to read again and look back on:

Today: MacJobs, burn-out track, massive structural unemployment in Europe
What We Want: Less work with no stigma; radically expanded leisure; compulsory leisure for workaholics; guaranteed support for people consuming less resources; new forms of survival entirely outside the conventional economy
The Trend: increased class division; massive income disparity; surplus flesh and virtual class

Today: failing public-supported schools
What We Want: intellectual freedom, instant cheap access to information, better taste, a more advanced aesthetic, autonomous research collectives, lifelong education, and dignity and pleasure for the very large segment of the human population who are and will forever be basically illiterate and innumerate
The trend: children are raw blobs of potential revenue-generating machinery; universities exist to supply middle-management

Today: basic science sacrificed for immediate commercial gain; malaise in academe; bureaucratic overhead in government support
What We Want: procedural rigor, intellectual honesty, reproducible results; peer review, block grants, massively increased research funding, massively reduced procedural overhead; genius grants; single-author papers; abandonment of passive construction and the third person plural; “Science” reformed so as to lose its Platonic and crypto-Christian elements as the “pure” pursuit of disembodied male minds; armistice in Science wars
The Trend: “Big Science” dwindles into short-term industrial research or military applications; “scientists” as a class forced to share imperilled, marginal condition of English professors and French deconstructionists.

We have plenty of work to do.

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