politics sustainability

Three shades of green

Very few people are actively anti-green. Most of us can broadly agree that making things more environmentally friendly is positive. We want to reduce CO2 emissions and avoid environmental harm. Unfortunately, terms like ‘green’ or ‘eco’ are poorly defined. In fact, it’s probably only because they are so nebulous that so many of us can agree that they’re a good thing.

You don’t have to look very closely to see that green is a relative term. It comes in different shades. Green jobs, products or policies might just be labelled that because they are marginally better, or they might be genuinely transformative. It’s hard to tell at first glance.

There have been various attempts to bring some clarity, but this week I came across Kate Crowley’s distinction, which is used by the Green House think tank in their PostGrowth Project. Crowley’s categories were originally developed to describe green jobs in Australia, and she uses three shades of green: light, mid, and deep.

Light green tends to focus on tidying up environmental damage rather than fixing it. In Crowley’s words, light green jobs are “afterthoughts that are created by cleaning up and rehabilitating the mess we have made of the environment.” Waste management, for example, is all about what we do with our rubbish, and asks no questions about the how the rubbish is generated. Or think of removing lead from petrol, a measure that prevented further pollution but did not slow fossil fuel consumption.

Light green is reactive, short term, and does not challenge the status quo. Many feel that the word ‘sustainability’ itself is light green in its ethos, because it is based on doing the minimum necessary to preserve what we have.

Mid green takes things a step further by attempting to ‘ecologically modernise’, reforming and reinventing our industrial practices. It aims for greener growth, reducing harm to the environment and seeking to balance the needs of the economy and nature.

Recycling would fall into this category. It addresses the waste problem by recovering materials and putting them back into circulation, reducing land pollution and pressure on resources. But it doesn’t challenge behaviour. The same logic applies to electric cars, which reduce fossil fuel use and are a considerably improvement, but do not challenge the idea of private motoring.

Deep green takes nature as its starting point. It is not afraid to pursue objectives that may lead to lower growth or reduced consumption. It is transformative and proactive, preserving and enhancing the natural world.

To continue the waste example, a deep green approach would be to reduce waste in the first place. This is common sense from an ecological point of view, but presents far fewer opportunities for making money.

Or in transport, you could consider the segregated cycle lanes that are currently being built down the road from my office to be deep green. There are number of reasons for building them, but by making cycling safer and easier, they offer the possibility of a real transition from fossil fuel transport to a greener alternative. Since they come from Boris Johnson’s office, let’s not assume that deep green ideas can only come from deep green politicians.

Those are loose categories and we could no doubt argue about where various things belong. The point is not to put everything in boxes, or play a game of ‘greener than thou’. The important thing is to ask questions about the things that are presented to us as green, eco, or sustainable in some way. That could be new policies announced by politicians in the current election campaign, or it could be in our shopping choices. What we should be looking for is not green interventions that marginally improve things or treat the symptoms, but those that move us beyond unsustainable behaviours, that aid the transition into a postcarbon way of life, and that genuinely make more room for the natural world.


  1. I like this and reading it you can really see the differences. I getting towards deep green, requires a little more work! It is hard with all the packaging on products these days but I’m trying 🙂

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