Header image ©Greenpeace/Alex Carvalho
In Hello World, Alice Rawsthorn explores the relationship design plays in society, and how it influences our lives as one of the most powerful forces that can determine how we feel and what we do, often without our noticing. When deployed wisely, it can bring us pleasure, choice, strength, decency and much more, but if its power is abused, the outcome can be wasteful, confusing, humiliating, even dangerous. In this extract, the role of the colour green is explored, from its use as a colour denoting environmental causes, to the irony of it being one of the least natural colours in the man-made world.
As the members of the Don’t Make A Wave Committee drifted out of a meeting in Vancouver to plan an anti-nuclear protest voyage, one of them raised his fingers in a peace sign. “Let’s make it a green peace,” said another. The phrase seemed so apt that they chose it as the name of the boat. An activist’s son offered to make “Green Peace” badges to be sold to raise money for the voyage, but as he could not squeeze both words on to them, he merged them into one – “Greenpeace”.
Not only did the protest boat set sail for the U.S. government’s nuclear test site in the Aleutian Islands on 15 September 1971 as the “Greenpeace”, the group decided to rechristen itself the Greenpeace Foundation. By the late 1970s, “green” had become the default name and symbolic colour for ecological activists all over the world. There were Die Grünen in Germany, Groen! in Belgium, Les Verts in France, and later De Grønne in Denmark, Federazioni dei Verdi in Italy, The Greens in Australia, and dozens more. And why not? What could be more fitting as an emblem of environmentalism than green, the colour of nature in many countries, and of paradise in Islamic culture? Except that in the largely man-made world of design, green is often far from natural or paradisiacal.
The problem is that green is an elusive and unstable hue. From the Italian Renaissance to the Romantic movement, artists struggled to mix exact shades of green paint, and to reproduce them accurately. Green dyes and pigments proved equally problematic in the industrial age, so much so that toxic substances were often used to stabilise them. Some of the green wallpapers made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contained arsenic, prompting public outrage when people died from deadly fumes as they rotted. Even today Pigment Green 7, a common shade of green in plastics and paper, includes chlorine, some forms of which can cause cancer and birth defects. Another popular hue, Pigment Green 36, contains bromide atoms as well as chlorine; and Pigment Green 50 has traces of cobalt, titanium, nickel and zinc oxide. If potentially damaging pigments like those are used to dye plastic green or to produce green ink for printing on to paper, it will be impossible to recycle or compost those products safely lest they contaminate everything else.
In other words, the colour green, the enduring symbol of ecological purity, is often not very “green” at all. As Kermit the Frog sang on ‘The Muppets’, “It’s not easy being green”, not least in design.
Hello World by Alice Rawsthorn (Hamish Hamilton) is available now.