"Brown is the New Green" and the Environmental Ethics of Color

The first morning that I woke up in my parents' house in southern California, I looked outside our front window and was confronted by a landscape of browning lawns. I hadn't been back to my home state in a while and was stunned by how my neighborhood had changed. My enthusiastic mother caught a glimpse of my expression and exclaimed, "Brown is the new Green! People look down on lawns that have green grass, you know." 

Source: Wikipedia commons. 

Source: Wikipedia commons. 

California is in its fourth year of drought, which has forced the government to impose statewide water restrictions starting in April 2015. These restrictions include a monthly water allocation for private homeowners; those that exceed the allotted amount are required to pay heavy fines. The state aim is to reduce potable urban water usage 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 lower-income families. These new laws and regulations have already started to change the suburban aesthetic of sunny southern California.

Gone are the days of green American lawns as symbols for a "national landscape" embedded in the ideals of democracy and collectivity. Several public thinkers and activists have now decried the lawn as a thing of the past, and instead promote alternatives including the use of artificial turf or water-efficient drips. Yet in order to disassociate images of American democracy from 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 shrinking or completely 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 symbol of suburban utopia from our collective psyche. Both of these suggestions will require time, money, and environmental movements on the ground for any real shifts of public perception and policy to occur.

Meanwhile, large driveways with their even larger plots of grass are physically embedded within the fabric of many suburban neighborhoods throughout southern California. And since an overhaul of public and private spaces is perhaps impossible, the lawn (or the median, the sidewalk, the public park) 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. 

Source: Wikipedia. 

Source: Wikipedia. 

What is Green? And how has it come to define ecological thinking of the 21st century? Across various societies and historical periods, the color green's bundled qualities include aesthetic beauty, spring, nature, abundance, growth, organic, environment, and sustainability. In Korean, the root for the word grassland means green. Green movements in politics seek to frame economic, social, and political issues with environmental discourse and climate change. Green companies are businesses whose practices are (or at least pretend to be) sustainable and eco-friendly. 

Meanwhile, the suburban lawn of California has shaped a different materiality of green: hubristic excess, a lack of moral obligation, and a disavowal of climate change. Despite green's dominance in mainstream environmental thought, "Brown is the new Green" signals a shift in broader aesthetic, ethical, and ecological understandings of color. Similarly, Jeffrey Cohen's Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green compiles different authors who explore the materiality and ethics of color in environmental discourse. In the "Brown" chapter, Steve Mentz argues that brown is the hybrid, interstitial space in which living and nonliving matter meet and produce nuanced ideas. 

In California, 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 grass, is also brown. Herein lies a striking contradistinction in the way we translate colors within our cultural symbolic system. Context is crucial, and the micro-systems that we describe shift our ethical understandings of color. 

Source: www.ibabuzz.com.

Source: www.ibabuzz.com.

As a statewide, public movement, "Brown is the new Green" has offered an exciting and novel cultural understanding of the environmental ethics of color--expanding the ways that we can 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. Not unlike green, brown does not mean death, but signals a new vitality in environmental activism and ecotheory. 

This post is written by PPEH fellow Patricia E. Kim, and featured on her own blog. Tweet her @kallixeinos.