Hacking Environmental Awareness:
The Viridian Design Movement

by Viridian fellow-traveler Jon Lebkowsky

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

In the summer of 1998, Bruce Sterling saw the skies of his home state, Texas, turn the color of smoke for two weeks. The cause -- giant jungle fires in Chiapas, resulted from droughts related to El Nino, and were possibly associated with accelerated global warming. Sterling had researched climate for his 1994 novel Heavy Weather, a near-future fiction about stormchaser scientists who hack tornadoes. He was acutely aware of the likely implications of the drought and fires in Mexico, and the El Nino of 1997-98, which was the strongest on record.

There is, in fact, a pretty good possibility that the power of this El Nino, as well as other extreme weather conditions during and following 1998, are symptomatic of accelerated global warming. While there is still some division within the scientific community over whether this warming trend is more than a cyclic variation, and whether it's attributable to human actions, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in January 2001 that "concentrations of greenhouse gases and their radiative forcing have continued to increase as a result of human activities" and "....there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." And while the UN's reputation as a highly politicized organization might comfort some, the report was the result of study and agreement by a number of highly reputable scientists-it seems unlikely that they would all be grinding the same political axe. Additionally, most of the journal ists, like Dawn MacKeen of Salon, who examined the data, declared the evidence "overwhelming."

Of course, global warming is not just an academic controversy for scientists and climatologists to resolve. If in fact human actions are contributing to a compound environmental disaster of enormous consequence, those actions should logically be regulated by policies that would mitigate their impact. So global warming is also a political controversy, especially in the United States and other industrialized nations that are leading consumers of fossil fuels. Since we're energy junkies, dependent on cheap energy resources that seemed nearly infinite half-century ago, and since our oil industry is one of the globe's most politically powerful corporate megaliths, this is a difficult controversy to resolve.

A Pair of Learning Curves

In 1974, The US had an "energy crisis," a realization that fossil fuels are a limited resource, subject to depletion. Gasoline became more expensive. We adjusted to the expense and kept on burning through our oil resources. We later realized the other side of the energy crisis, that the proliferation of energy by-products released into the air could have disastrous consequences for our climate. We realized that some gases (such as chlorofluorocarbons) deplete the ozone layer. These products, used in spray cans, were phased out in the U.S. with the implementation of Title VI of the Clean Air Act. Alternatives quickly appeared. It has been much harder to phase out the use of fossil fuels, or to find alternatives to feed our addiction to personalized high-speed transportation.

Also, if the evidence for global climate change resulting from human activity is "overwhelming," it is not irrefutable. Scientists have a tough time modeling the complex interactions of various systems that might impact the environment. We accepted the case for ozone depletion and took action to curb the chorofluorocarbon spew. The response to global warming has been slower, partly because it's harder to connect the proven effect to a human, controllable cause.

Still, if you accept the findings of the scientific majority, we're running out of time in which to act. Environmentalists believe this, but they can't seem to sell their sense of urgency to the mainstream.

A Fashion Emergency

This is where Bruce Sterling comes in. A savvy futurist, who also happens to know how to work the crowd, Sterling realized that you couldn't raise consciousness with pedantry or polemics. People buy fashion more readily than they buy ideas, and they'll buy ideas more readily if you make them fashionable and compelling. This is the stuff of great art and design movements like "The Arts" (Nouveau, Deco, Moderne), Dada, Cubism, and Expressionism. When ideas converge with aesthetics and fashion, a sort of memetic explosion occurs and a surge of creative energy results. Sometimes it can be powerful enough t to become part of the evolving consciousness of the race.

The environmental movement has certainly had its impact, but if you look at the timeline, you see nothing quite like the Viridian Design Movement. Consider these milestones:

  • Yosemite (1890)
  • Sierra Club (1892)
  • Audubon, US Forest Service (1905)
  • Wilderness Society (1935)
  • National Wildlife Federation (1936)
  • Silent Spring (1962)
  • Environmental Defense Fund (1967)
  • Earth Day (1970)
  • Three Mile Island (1979)
  • Gaia Hypothesis (1980)
  • Earth First! (1981)
  • Bhopal (1982)
  • Chernobyl (1983)

We have parks, organizations, expositions, disasters, an environmental protection agency, and a handful of progressive government policies. Concerned citizens put out their recycling out every week and pay dues to Sierra, Audubon, Wilderness Society et al. Consciences clear, they climb into their emission-intensive SUVs and fart smog all the way to the nearest national park. Lip service.

Sterling saw the smoke in the sky over Austin. Where there's smoke, there's most certainly fire. In this case, where there was fire, there was an inkling of a future defined by environmental catastrophes.

In a seminal speech delivered 9/17/98 as a part of a ZDNet/Arthur Andersen "Next 20 Years" event, Sterling said:

Our civilization is hung up. We have a substance problem with carbon dioxide. Back when we were young and foolish, we could consume coal and oil by the barrel and case. It made us fun at parties. It was convivial and life-enhancing. Now we're older. We've become dependent on this stuff. Big time. Our eyes are bloodshot and we've got a tremor in our hands. The little veins are starting to show.

The Greenhouse effect is only partly a political problem. At its core, it's a design problem. A consumer problem. And maybe most of all, it's an artistic problem. A problem of sensibility.

It's an aesthetic problem. We're in trouble because we live in filth and we can't see it. 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.

Let's take it a step further. You're the guy trying to sell electric cars. You want to create consumer demand? Sell those smog detectors. No, give them away. Install them in the electric car as a standard feature. Write the software, and get the sensors installed in the dashboard. Make the invisible visible. Let people see. The rest will follow.

Change what people see. Change how they see. That's why I consider this basically an artistic problem. The tools for this are at hand. The eighties were a decade of chips and computation. The nineties -- a decade of lasers, bandwidth, and communication. The next twenty years -- I hope they will be about sensors and perception. Cheap, ubiquitous sensors that make the invisible visible. If you can leverage that new awareness, you can drive the whole culture, you can change people inside and out. Suddenly they will realize that their lives are full of unmet demands. Today, we have a booming industry in water tap filters and delivered mineral water. Because our water supplies are degrading, they are in environmental stress. We need sensors built into the household tap. They instantly show us the particulates, the arsenic, the heavy metals, the PCBs, the E. coli count. Water taps are network peripherals. They are a mass market. Don't sell these devices to nervous health freaks. Sell improved awareness. Empowe ring the user to see her quality of life. Maybe you'll sell them -- or maybe the City of Austin will give them away. Because our commercial rivals in Silicon Valley don't dare to reveal what's down in their wells.

This was the real beginning of the Viridian Design Movement.

The Sterling Character of a Viridian Design Movement

I decided some time back my core competency was in being "an artist whose theme is the impact of technology on society." This is a good definition because it allows me to meddle in a lot of stuff with a clear conscience. (Bruce Sterling, in an interview in the WELL's Inkwell.vue forums, January 2000)

Our time calls for intelligent fads. Our time calls for a self-aware, highly temporary array of broad social experiments, whose effects are localized, non-lethal and reversible -- yet transparent, and visible to all parties who might be persuaded to look....The deepest resources of human creativity have a vital role there. It's where inspiration is most needed, it's the place to make a difference. Come out. Stand up. Shine. (Bruce Sterling, Manifesto January 3, 2000)

The grand mission however, is nothing more humble than a mass social engineering experiment: the Viridians aim to make being Green as hip in the 21st century as being hep to technoculture's peculiarities is in the 1990s. Or, by extension, to make generating carbon dioxide as socially unacceptable as smoking. (Brooke Shelby Biggs, San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 12, 1999)

Though Bruce Sterling has significant visibility as an established author of science fiction, professional futurist, and public speaker, he's devoted much of his energy over the years to time-intensive nonprofit hobbies. As a science-fiction fan, he took to hanging out on Austin's SMOF-BBS, a bulletin board system associated with the Fandom Association of Central Texas, where his handle was Jules Verne and (using another handle, Vincent Omniaveritas) he published one of the first online zines, Cheap Truth.

After the Secret Service raid on Austin-based Steve Jackson Games, later chronicled by Sterling in he dedicated himself to the cyber rights movement exemplified by the national Electronic Frontier Foundation and its counterpart, EFF-Austin. As a member of the Board of Directors he helped organize events like CopCon in April 1993, with an appearance by Operation Sun Devil prosecutor Gail Thackeray.

In August 1995, Sterling and Richard Kadrey established the Dead Media Project, originally conceived as a source for "...a book about the failures of media, the collapses of media, the supercessions of media, the strangulations of media, a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn't make it, martyred media, dead media...a naturalist's field guide for the communications paleontologist." The Dead Media Project was an extension of Sterling's participation in various online spaces; in forums, chats, email conversations ... and in the free-form, quirky, low-tech DIY (do-it-yourself) zine scene that exploded in the early 90s, later transferring its abundant energies onto the World Wide Web.

DIY culture, and Sterling's familiarity with the tools of Internet culture, especially the efficacy of email lists, is at the foundation of the Viridian Design Movement. Just as the World Wide Web's low entry barriers allow anyone to become a publisher, it also allows anyone to start a movement, especially if it's someone like Bruce Sterling, a famous author with an established following.

Whether a grassroots movement run on a shoestring will succeed is a more complicated question. We've all heard how the Internet changes everything, and we've seen how it facilitates the spread of memes (packets of ideas that replicate like genetic code). The Internet is a complex, self-organizing system within which "adhocracies" appear as emergent systems of belief and commitment. However we've come to realize that the Internet doesn't change the essentials of human nature; the dynamics of interaction, the way business is done, even the economics of high-end publishing (the cost of creating and sustaining a competitive high-end web site can be significant).

The Internet definitely has its down side. It's huge, and crowded with ideas competing for attention. One effect of the low barrier to entry is a low signal to noise ratio. There's a lot of crap, a lot of bad information online, diminishing the overall credibility of Internet sources. Also, the character of communication changes when it's asynchronous and somewhat anonymous, as is the case with email and online forums. It's harder to lead in this context, harder to move from analysis to action. Many online groups develop 'analysis paralysis.'

So anyone can start a movement, but sustaining a movement and ensuring its impact is a challenge, even for someone like Bruce Sterling.

Features of the Viridian Design Movement

Sterling created the Viridian Design Movement with a clearly articulated set of features, explained in his October 14, 1998 speech at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. This was the speech that officially launched the Movement. The features of the Movement would be, according to Sterling:

  1. It has a built-in expiration date: 2012, the date, according to the Kyoto accords, on which signatories are supposed to have reduced CO2 emissions. "The problem with previous art movements is this unexamined assumption that they have discovered some eternal cultural truth, and that they will therefore go on forever. In point of fact, no matter how much truth they discover, movements never do last very long. When they run out of steam it is painfully difficult to extricate yourself from them."
  2. It has a deliverable. "My art movement is about the Greenhouse Effect. Our activities and interests center around greenhouse gases." Sterling doesn't describe detailed deliverables in this speech, but in the Viridian notes sent to his email list, he has announced several Viridian contests, the first of which resulted in the Viridian logo, "Big Mike, the Viridian Bug." There are also Viridian individual projects initiated by various readers of the list.
  3. It has moral gravity and a sense of urgency. "This is not just a talking-shop for aesthetes, we are actually engaging a pressing design need for our civilization. This will keep our discussions from wandering all over the map, engaging in random theory surfing, flames and topic drift. It's not about paradigm demolition. It's about CO2." This feature should tend to mitigate the "analysis paralysis" described above, keeping Viridians focused on the cause. Does it work? Not entirely. In the years since the movement was launched it's been less focused, less coherent than Sterling might have intended. On the other hand, a movement staffed with volunteers takes time to build, and it's been picking up steam lately.
  4. Viridians have no physical locale: they live in cyberspace, or as Sterling says, "It's all done with nets." Not quite all. The Viridian Movement has produced a print deliverable, a "flip" issue of Time Digital, edited by Sterling, which is dated January/February 2026, with stories on "Sewergate," "solar panels that come in a can," and a home "that combines elegant design and cutting-edge conveniences with the highest ideals of ecological awareness." And there's another print project in progress as I write this, a Viridian issue of Whole Earth. However for the most part, the Viridian movement leverages two essential 'net-based tools-email and web pages.
  5. The movement came "presupplied with powerful, malignant, threatening enemies, the Global Climate Coalition." However since the Viridian Design movement started, the GCC has lost much of its steam. (See Lester Brown's World Watch article at http://www.worldwatch.org/chairman/issue/000725.html.)
  6. Viridians have no tolerance whatsoever for anything spiritual or mystical. This may be a reaction to "deep ecology" and to new age nature movements, which have no place on the palette of a design movement driven by hard science.
  7. Viridians have no street credibility. "The product cycle and shelf availability times in the underground are absurdly thin. Forget about the undergound, it's not worth it. Give it back to the young people and let them live there and breathe there and grow there." Sterling and other Viridians have stewed in the juices of the digital underground long enough to understand how quickly we burn cool points. A movement that works to sustain street cred loses sustainability.
  8. "The Viridian movement is an avant-garde that is specifically interested in OLD PEOPLE," though "old" isn't defined. Sterling himself is growing older, and his recent novel Holy Fire is -- among other things -- a meditation on the implications of the aging process. But there are practical reasons for focusing on folks who are aging: the current state of the planet is their legacy, and they're accountable for the environmental problems their generations helped create. Furthermore, Sterling notes that "we're the first avant-garde that is living in a society where the median age is rising steadily." There's no breakdown by age of Viridian subscribers and fellow travelers, so there's no data to indicate how this is working.
  9. Viridians love cops and soldiers. "One problem with traditional cultural movements is that they have way too much culture and not enough people with revolvers.... we don't engage in any of this net-radical hacking or monkeywrenching nonsense. We're far more interested in things like on-site inspections and legal indictments."
  10. Viridians are futurists. "One of the major problems of the Belle Epoque movements is that they had no idea what they were getting into with World War I. You saw artists who should have had more sense giving up everything to bay for blood and glory. Once they realized just how ugly it was getting, they got this stunned, sheeplike look. We will never, ever look like that. We see our own doom very clearly.... We're not all intimidated by it, we want to look at it with cold-blooded objectivity and document it."
  11. The pet drug of the Viridian movement is Viagra, "the first legal, recreational dope that has swept the entire population in ages." Viridians are also interested in life extension drugs because they are mind-altering, "because believe me, when you live longer, your mind gets permanently altered."
  12. The Viridian Movement has a name, and a coherent look. The movement was named for a shade of green about which Sterling said, "there's something electrical and unnatural." A better sense of the movement's look and feel emerged in Viridian Note 00027, announcing the "fungal typography" contest: "We've decided that, as "the natural next step in typography, we're going to grow our lettering. We've got hordes of live microscopic spores crawling around deep in the fabric of our page, and, on some mysterious enzymatic command, they're going to exude pigment out of their swarming little bodies and words are going to grow on the page like fungus."
  13. Sterling is the absolute monarch of the Viridian Movement, its pope-emperor. He started the movement, and he's doing the work to sustain it, along with a few volunteers-his curia. Sounds autocratic, but the basis is sound. Sterling's been around volunteer organizations enough to know that a lack of strong leadership can be fatal. He's willing to do the job; all Viridian volunteers know where the buck stops. (And the buck, as we all know, is green!)
  14. The Viridian Movement shipped a beta pre-release called "the manifesto for January 3, 2000." Sterling delivered a cultural manifesto ending with "a set of general cultural changes that a Viridian movement would likely promulgate in specific sectors of society." (http://www.viridiandesign.org/manifesto.html)

Viridian Rock, Viridian Roll

As I write this (March 2001), the Viridian Design Movement is 2 1/2 years old and counting. Viridian note #236 was just distributed to an email list with over 1,500 members and posted at http://www.viridiandesign.org. The winner of the 14th Viridian Design contest (a makeover for Reddy Kilowatt, an energy company mascot with a lightning-bold body and a light bulb for his nose) has just been announced. There are over a dozen Viridian individual projects, plus the Time Digital issue and the upcoming Viridian issue of Whole Earth Review.

Will the Viridian Design movement succeed in changing our consciousness about global warming? Hard to say just yet... the movement is still young. However there's a new energy around environmental issues with the election of George W. Bush. Bush himself has expressed skepticism about global warming, and one of the larger political footballs has "environment" tattooed clearly below the stitch, in Viridian green. When climate is reasonably stable and livable, the football's resting on the sidelines. When weather extremes appear and persist, as has been the case lately, the ball's in play and increasingly visible.

As we have more violent herds of unseasonable tornadoes, more powerful hurricanes, more extreme temperatures, the environment will become more of an issue. And Sterling, after breakfasts of eggs fried on molten sidewalks near his central Austin home, will continue tossing his Viridian notes into the great sloppy cyberspace no÷sphere.

Viridian Individual Projects: Putting the Move in the Movement

Recently, we've had the happy occurrence of spontaneous outbreaks of Viridian design, by people who think they have caught on to the Viridian concepts, and want to contribute something of their own.

I've therefore decided to start a new category for the mailing list, the "Viridian Individual Project." Place your project on the web, and send me the address. I will publicize your Viridian work to the list (as long, that is, as it meets our high, beaux-art, technical and ideological requirements, whatever the heck those may be at the moment).

--Bruce Sterling, in Viridian Note 00085, August 10, 1999

As the Viridian meme proliferated and the email list grew, informal associates of the movement took the initiative in creating their own projects, proving the success of Viridian Design as a movement that inspires the autonomous creation of new works aligned with its principles. The first three of these individual projects:

  • The Viridian Windows 95/98/NT/2000(tm) Theme Project by Karl Reinsch Microsoft Windows can be "decorated" with aesthetically integrated combinations of cursors, wallpaper, sounds, icons, etc. The Viridian Theme Project began with a few components and an outline of what's needed. Currently the web page includes some icons, animated cursors, and sounds. Still needs startup and shutdown screens, screensavers, wallpaper, etc.

  • Viridian Principles in VRML by Joel Westerberg Westerberg's created a kinetic learning tool, with the text of the Viridian Design Principles (from Viridian Note 00003) floating in green VRMLspace. When you invoke the VRML (which requires download and install of the Cosmo Player) you see a floating matrix of the four categories of principles: Futurist, Moral, Political, and Avant-technogarde. Click on a category, and you get floating principles; click on a principle, and you get its definition.
  • Viridian Non-Designer Object (Everyday Object) by Bruce Sterling and Redbird The box o' "Cheap yet adequate Everyday Object," a graphic of a conceptual non-product.

Other projects followed. Reid Harward created a "Viridian Research Dump" with links to various sites that align in some way with Viridian thinking. Bob Morris created an alternate Viridian page that includes a comprehensive gallery of the Viridian contest entries. A Viridian weblog. There's a dozen or so individual projects, not bad for a movement less than three years old and just beginning to gain real momentum. We'll know that the Viridian Design Movement has succeeded when major designers and artists produce Viridian works. I can also envision a line of Viridian-branded products (belt buckles, casual ties, t-shirts, dinnerware). But proof of concept won't be complete until we see products that embody Viridian principles (environmentally sound water heaters, smart faucets, embedded meters that provide feedback on energy usage). As these items raise consciousness about the environmental impact of impact-ignorant human activity, we would also expect to see increasing pressure on politicians to get real about energy policy.

To receive Bruce Sterling's Viridian notes via email, send an email request to bruces@well.com. To learn more about the Viridian Design Movement, surf the official Viridian web site at http://www.viridiandesign.org. For more by/about the author, see http://www.weblogsky.com