These days, the quaintly Old World mysticism of dark green—the kind of spirituality that reveres the earth, celebrates full moons and solstices and harvest time, and idealizes the pastoral simple life—often makes forward-thinking folks of all stripes run in the other direction. But we have to make sure we don’t lose the baby with the bathwater.
Environmentalism itself was born out of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “discovery” of nature—a spiritual awakening if ever there was one—in which Europe’s Romantics and later America’s Transcendentalists began to contemplate the aesthetic beauty of the world and saw reflected in its mirror new and unseen depths within themselves. Not coincidentally, the emergence of environmentalism as a movement in the late 1960s happened in conjunction with that same romantic awakening in the popular counterculture. It was in 1968 that NASA released the first photos of the entire Earth from space taken by the Apollo 8 moon mission, and that familiar shot of a tiny blue-green marble floating alone in the black distances of eternity graced the cover of Brand’s firstWhole Earth Catalog. People made it into buttons for Earth Day 1970. The astronauts who came back spoke of seeing a planet without nations or borders, a home more like home than the places they grew up in. James Lovelock, whose “Gaia hypothesis” proposed a vision of the Earth as a single living superorganism, called it the most extraordinary image he had ever seen.
“When people look at Earth from the outside,” NASA scientist John Oró predicted, “something strange [and] revolutionary will happen: people will alter their thinking.” And he was right. In those days, it was as if some cosmic aperture began to open in the human mind that helped shift us out of ethnic and national identities and into a deeper resonance with the rest of creation. This awakening to a heartfelt unity and affinity with all of nature and life—the same thing I discovered myself as a young man walking the prehistoric Sequoia groves and lupine-dotted valleys of Yosemite—is the foundation stone of environmental consciousness, the very platform of relatedness and responsibility that makes dark, bright, or any other shade of green possible. It changed the entire historical trajectory of the industrialized world, for starters.
If you want to give yourself nightmares, just imagine what our planet might look like today if it weren’t for this flowering of spiritual and moral sensibility that emerged within postmodern culture in the sixties and seventies in response to the reckless exploitation of nature and the runaway materialism of modern society. Those were the decades of every major American environmental law, from the Wilderness Act to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act, and in no uncertain terms, we have the evolution of consciousness to thank for them...
In the years to come, I can’t wait to participate myself in the creative unfolding of a future so bright and green it’s currently impossible to imagine. And while the avant-garde eco-philosophers at Worldchanging and elsewhere are doing their best to question everything, reconfigure all our dark green assumptions, and blow the old sacred cows out of the water, I hope they don’t make a sacred cow out of spirituality. If the future of environmentalism depends on the evolution not just of our physical circumstances and social formations but also of the deeper interior structures of consciousness and culture, the most important question of all may be whether the bright green vision of sustainability is willing to grow broad enough to encompass these interior dimensions.
The good news is, I think it can. If Zimmerman is right when he characterizes the dark green call for a romantic return to nature as reflecting a kind of nostalgia for older, safer, more familiar structures of consciousness within ourselves, then why shouldn’t the call of the bright green future be the call to completely let go of them, making room for something as yet unknown? With bright green, the pressing moral obligation to take the fate of the world consciously and carefully into our own hands right now, or risk losing everything, is really inseparable from the thrilling possibility inherent in the human capacity for progress that we can make life better, richer, and more inclusively prosperous than ever before in history. And to me, that’s not just the voice of technological optimism. It’s the voice of the spiritual impulse itself.