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Environment and sustainability

Thinking less green

Green is often seen as the colour of nature, a healthy colour that triggers powerful emotions. This is why many people choose to use green to elicit sympathy for a cause, ranging from economics and biotechnology to food. But painting green on green, layer by layer, we simply cannot see the green any more. Solving the major global challenges therefore requires that science learn to think in more colours and nuances 

The whole world is being greened. We create “green” economies, make our industries greener and, with greenwashing, hide our CO2 emissions. The use of the colour green is turning into misuse, according to Jens Hauser, a researcher at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies and at the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.

“If we are greening everything, it is like white on white. We do not have any background anymore. We have a tendency of socially trying to green anything. Everyone believes that they know what green means, but we actually don’t any more. A biotechnologist working on a green energy project will say: ‘Look, this is green.’ That is right, but a climate scientist talking about a greener world is actually describing the fact that increased CO2 emissions have increased the green part of the planet from 25% to 50%.”

This paradox is the focus of Jens Hauser’s project called (OU)VERT – An Interdisciplinary Investigation into GREEN as Medium, in which he attempts to initiate a dialogue about all the green that invades the current debates and casts a shadow over extremely crucial global issues, such as climate change. The project tries to create a new language across disciplines instead of the current superficial green language.

Everything has not always been this green

Although green has become the most natural colour imaginable, this has not always been that the case. The burgeoning Scandinavian deep ecology movement in the 1970s promoted by such popular debaters as Arne Næss still never mentioned the word green as the first Green parties emerged (in Australia and then in Europe). Using the word green to describe organic products for human well-being came into fashion much later. Nevertheless, today the organic trend and numerous other movements are inextricably linked to the colour green.

“Today, a green economy is also expected to be sustainable. However, the various disciplines that apply green as a metaphor use it very differently. This does not help us when we really want to collaborate to build a responsible society that needs to use all the different insights from different disciplines to make our societal project succeed. The lack of a common language means that disciplines have great difficulty understanding each other.”

Jens Hauser’s project is not only studying how green has become so central in our culture. He also consults researchers in the natural sciences and medicine to understand how they work and make choices. For example, biologists preferably use the green fluorescent protein as biomarkers, although red or yellow are also available; is this simply coincidence?

“We are investigating how green became the colour for medicine and why green has been ascribed a soothing and calming effect across disciplines.”

Art and the humanities helping out

For example, the first stable green pigments used in art were based on arsenic and copper. It is therefore no coincidence that Jens Hauser’s project is rooted in the arts and the humanities. According to Hauser, these disciplines have always been good at turning things upside down and looking at them in a new way. Jens Hauser hopes that, through the project, art and the humanities will help science to brand new technologies in a more diverse way.

“Right now, the humanities are in a defensive position, because they are not utilitarian and do not contribute to solving problems. However, art and the humanities have always been good at solving problems, such as by creating new essential metaphors and language. Through OU(VERT), we want to open Pandora’s box and strengthen the humanities in relation to the biotechnological, engineering and medical sciences.”

One of the main goals of the project is a major green-themed conference in Copenhagen under the auspices of the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, which Jens Hauser will be chairing. However, Jens Hauser also has a long-term vision for where his research may ultimately lead: why not imagine an interdisciplinary Greenness Research Centre in Copenhagen in which the humanities, art, the natural sciences and medicine join to create common language and action?

“I believe that solving these problems requires us to work across disciplines and not simply remain specialized idiots in which specialists no longer can understand one another. We have to solve several urgent societal and ecological problems, and we therefore currently use green as a symbol. However, we are misusing this colour because everyone understands the term differently. Finding the necessary solutions requires us to learn to communicate with each other better.”

The Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded Jens Hauser, a postdoctoral fellow and guest researcher at the Department of Art and Cultural Studies and the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen, a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship for (OU)VERT – An Interdisciplinary Investigation into GREEN as Medium. European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts will hold its 2018 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark – of course, on the topic of “green”.