We were married in a teepee. Forty of the bride’s family and friends (almost all Navajo) filled the southern side, and 40 of the groom’s family and friends (almost all white) were seated to the north. We were seated to the west with the setting sun, and a fire was in the center. Needless to say, it was an awkward moment for everyone—the white folks all hoping not to do or say anything wrong, and the Navajos thinking to themselves: “Look at all those white people in a teepee!” Both sides eyed each other curiously across the fire.
We grew up under circumstances that could hardly have been more different. Billy was born to two lawyers in Manhattan, and Wahleah to a teacher and an artist in rural Black Mesa on the Navajo Reservation, but we both ended up working to solve the climate crisis. Billy dropped out of Yale to co-found the Energy Action Coalition, and Wahleah was activated by the injustices that resulted from decades of coal mining in her backyard.
We live in Flagstaff, Arizona, just south of the Navajo Reservation, with our two little girls, Tohaana and Alowaan—and we’re hopeful. Sometimes it’s from seeing rapid, once “impossible” change occur, like nearly 700 U.S. college campuses committing to carbon neutrality or the Navajo Nation passing the first green jobs policy in Indian country. For Wahleah, hope is just part of the way she was brought up: Navajo philosophy is about balance, harmony, and prayer for a beautiful future.
Alex Steffen, founder of Worldchanging.com, has popularized a framework for the way the two major camps in the environmental movement, bright greens and dark greens, view the future. His definitions are worth quoting:
“In its simplest form, bright green environmentalism is a belief that sustainable innovation is the best path to lasting prosperity, and that any vision of sustainability which does not offer prosperity and well-being will not succeed. In short, it’s the belief that for the future to be green, it must also be bright. Bright green environmentalism is a call to use innovation, design, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial zeal to transform the systems that support our lives.…
“Dark greens, in contrast, tend to emphasize the need to pull back from consumerism (sometimes even from industrialization itself) and emphasize local solutions, short supply chains and direct connection to the land. They strongly advocate change at the community level. In its best incarnations, dark green thinking offers a lot of insight about bioregionalism, reinhabitation, and taking direct control over one’s life and surroundings (for example through transition towns): it is a vision of collective action. In a less useful way, dark greens can tend to be doomers, warning of (sometimes even seeming to advocate) impending collapse. Some thinkers, of course (for instance, Bill McKibben and Paul Glover) blend a belief in the rural relocalization efforts of dark greens with the more design- and technology-focused urban solutions of bright greens.”
Of course, like our good friend Bill McKibben, many of us have elements of both bright and dark green, and have struggled with doubts about one path or the other. Skeptics of the bright green path hear “sustainable innovation” and think “capitalism and technology,” and wonder how the forces that got us into this mess are going to solve it. And skeptics of the dark green path point to human nature and massively growing population and consumption, and see an impossible behavioral challenge. The lack of a coherent and unified vision for the future is one of the central weaknesses of our movement.
Fortunately, there’s a campfire exactly between the two sides that is attracting an increasing number of people who believe we have to embrace both, and we are building a movement. Energy Action Coalition mobilized 6,000 young people to Washington DC in 2007 around a platform that’s decidedly both bright and dark green: “1) Create 5 million new green jobs, 2) Cut carbon 80 percent by 2050, and 3) Declare a moratorium on new coal plants and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.” The Navajo Green Economy Coalition took out a full-page ad in the Navajo Times, pointing to a new path for the Navajo economy that includes a woolen mill, sheep herding, and traditional crops, as well as clean energy and energy efficiency. Van Jones has given us a unifying rallying cry: GREEN JOBS.
To be sure, the bright greens bring a lot to this party. Who wouldn’t be excited about putting super-cheap, nontoxic, thin-film solar technology on the roof and getting paid for the electricity that it produces? Don’t most of us want to hang onto our cars and MacBooks, but just wish they were designed to be sustainable? After all, there’s no reason they can’t be. At the same time, there’s no question that we, too, need to change and evolve, to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Most of the “dark green” changes we should be making—eating less meat, biking and walking more, or joining a local activist group, for example—would not only reduce our footprint, but also make us healthier and happier.
How we respond to the Gulf disaster is a case in point. Where is the sweet spot between the bright green and dark green camps? First, the polluter (BP) should pay, and the government should coordinate remediation efforts in the Gulf. Second, the only way we can ensure that a disaster like that doesn’t happen again is by moving the world completely beyond oil, which will require continued technological innovation and very rapid deployment of electric cars, sustainable biofuels, and more. Finally, isn’t there something more each of us could do to reduce our own oil use in the meantime? It wouldn’t take many of us making a few changes to save more oil than BP has spilled in the Gulf—and that wouldn’t just be a symbolic act. A real solution includes both sustainable innovation and conservation, both entrepreneurship and collective action.
Our vision for the future is the same. By fusing the bright and dark green worldviews, and bringing together the people represented in each, we can create something more beautiful and powerful than we’ve ever had before. Let’s get to work—and begin the celebration.