words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.
“Green is a label for a certain attitude to life, a certain kind of respect that one might have for the very source of things that we take for granted.”
Ever since I can remember, I have loved the color green. I suspect you have, too. Like flora, green is flourishing. Like the lushness of leaves soon to be lost, green is liminal. Blue may be as expansive as the sky, but green connotes something even greater: Green is interconnected. The seas of green that sprawl across the Earth appear as one, yet are made of so many little lives. And while green has long been the symbol of this movement, it has become somewhat tainted by corporate co-opting and false prophets of sustainability. But some words are worth reclaiming.
Green is all around us. You see the evidence, but have you ever paused to wonder why plants are green? The short answer is that plants absorb everything in the red and blue light spectrums, but only about 90% of green photons. If they absorbed all of these photons, plants would appear black; instead, the remaining 10% is reflected. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that evolution would have perfected this inefficiency, especially considering that the majority of energy produced by the sun is in the green spectrum, and that photosynthesis feeds so many of the organisms that make up life on Earth? The reason for this has baffled biologists—until recently.
According to a 2020 study published in the journal Science, plants only absorb 90% of green light not out of inefficiency, but stability. When too few photons are absorbed, the plant can experience energy failure. But when too many photons are converted for energy use, the plant can become overcharged and experience tissue damage. Considering the amount of light a plant gets is subject to fluctuation based on its surrounding environment, this 10% serves as a buffer to protect the plant, and ensure that it can sustain its energy use long term. As it turns out, green is sustainable—not just on a metaphorical level, but a practical one.
In every sense, green is natural. It comes easiest to humans; our eyes see it better than any other color on the spectrum. As CNN’s Colorscope series explains, this is due to how our eyes translate light waves into color. The retina of the human eye is capable of detecting light between wavelengths of 400 and 700 nanometers. At 550, green light is directly in the middle—making it easiest for us to perceive. Scientists believe that this is why green has been proven to have a calming and even sedative effect on our mental health; our eyes strain less while observing the color, allowing our nervous system to relax in its presence.
On an elementary level, we see that green is good for us. Some scientists even suggested that this perception is evolution’s doing; our ancestors were wired to seek green spaces suggesting plentiful food and water. A study in 2016 even found that living in or around green areas resulted in longer life expectancy and improved mental health for female participants. Perhaps this is linked to why cultures around the world have held symbolic associations between green and health, historically found in hospitals and medical centers: It evokes vitality.
For every reason I have just described, it is only fitting that in a number of spiritual traditions, green is love. In yogic philosophy, it is the color of the heart, the seat of healing and symbol of balance, the sanctum of unity where “me” becomes “we.” What could be more apropos for the problems urgently unfolding before us? Love and balance are medicine for envy and greed—also associated with green—the lifelines of disaster capitalism and the unequal hoarding of resources that have led to the climate crisis. When there is balance, there is no need for a mindset of scarcity. Perhaps here, green can serve as a reminder of what really needs to be remedied.
I often wonder (and write about) what the “new word” for sustainability will be. Perhaps it has been underneath us all along, awaiting our return. My hope is that someday, future generations will look back on this time and remember it as The Greening of humanity. A time when we opened our eyes to what is all around us in abundance and integral to our wellbeing—to the delicate balance we are all part of and the love that naturally connects us. A time when we chose to start over, to cloak ourselves in the color of the Earth in rebirth. After all, what’s green is new.