"Brown is the new Green"... or the Environmental Ethics of Color
For Thanksgiving, I flew back to southern California to celebrate at my parents' home. My plane landed fairly late at night, so I didn't give much thought to my surroundings as we drove from LAX to our garage door. The next morning when I woke up and looked outside our front window, I was confronted by an ugly landscape of brown lawns. My mother walks up to me and says: "Brown is the new Green! People look down on lawns that have green grass, you know."
My home state is in its fourth year of drought, which has forced the government to impose state-wide water restrictions in April. These restrictions include a monthly water allocation that has been imposed on private homeowners; those that exceed the allotted amount will be required to pay heavy fines. The state's goal was to reduce potable urban water usage by 25% by February 2016--a significant amount indeed. The stakes are high--California is among the largest producers of food in the world, making agricultural production an important source of income for big corporations as well as for low-income families. These new laws and regulations have already changed the urban and domestic landscapes of California--public parks, driving medians, and front lawns have browned since I last visited my parents in the spring.
Gone are the days of green American lawns as symbols for a "national landscape" that is embedded in the ideals of democracy and collectivity. So much so, that several public thinkers and activists have now decried the lawn as a thing of the past, and started to promote alternatives including the use of artificial turf or water-efficient drips. Yet in order to disassociate cultural affinities between American democracy and green grass, I think at least two things must change. First, landscape architects and city-planners must position water conservation at the fore of their designs and ideas, physically erasing the lawn from their plans and re-thinking the possibilities for 'green-spaces.' Second, the American public must learn to dis-embed the cultural and historical legacy of the green lawn as an ecological utopia from our collective psyche. Both of these solutions will require time, money, and ecologically-minded movements on the ground for any real shifts of public perception to occur.
Meanwhile, in the present, large driveways with their even larger plots of grass are physically embedded within the suburban fabric of many neighborhoods throughout southern California. And since an overhaul of public and private spaces is perhaps impossible, the lawn (or the median, the sidewalk) is here to stay. Yet, this recent shared effort towards water conservation has shaped a new aesthetic and social discourse of moral obligation to our present neighbors and future selves: Brown is the new Green.
What is Green? Green is a secondary color whose wavelength falls between 495-570 nanometers. In Korean, the root for the word grassland means green. Green is Baum's Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Green movements in politics seek to frame economic, social, political issues with environmental discourse. Green companies are businesses whose practices are sustainable and eco-friendly. Across various societies and historical periods, the color green's bundled qualities include aesthetic beauty, spring, nature, abundance, growth, organic, ecology, and sustainability.
However, the suburban lawn of California has shaped a different materiality of green: excess, ignorance, lack of moral obligation, a disavowal of climate change, and conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile, the values of brown have now come to include conservation, community, and eco-awareness. We might remember here, that soil, or the mineralogical foundation for green nature, is also brown. Herein lies a striking contradiction in the way we translate colors within our cultural symbolic system. Undoubtedly, context is crucial, and the micro-climates or micro-systems that we describe will shift our ethical understandings of color.
As a state-wide, public movement, "Brown is the new Green" has offered an exciting and new cultural understanding of the environmental ethics of color--expanding the ways that we may approach ecological discourse and activism. I'm not sure what will happen to the suburban American lawn as a real space in which we have formed a sense of collective self. But for now, brown grounds are replacing green grasses as spaces that symbolize progress, community, and American morality.