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Welcoming You to the Planet Viridian

April 22, 1999|JAY W. BABCOCK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bruce Sterling has seen the future, and he doesn't like it one bit.

"We're either gonna get a major handle on the greenhouse effect and global climate change in the next 20 years, or we're gonna be in sandbags and shelters, experiencing a dieback the likes of which the planet has never seen. I don't want my children to live in a world like that, and I don't want to live in it," says the 45-year-old Austin, Texas-based "cyberpunk" science-fiction novelist whose most recent work is "Distraction" (Bantam 1998), an eco-political, satirical thriller.

In the fall, frustrated by the seeming inability of mainstream scientists and environmental groups to raise public consciousness about the growing crisis, Sterling decided to bring his own approach to the problem.

"It's time for us to really get hands-on with what we're doing to ourselves with technology," says Sterling. "We have a problem that's sort of like alcoholism: We sit here chugging back coal and fossil fuels by the barrel and case, and we know it's bad for us, but hey, we gotta be the party animal! We know it's doing us harm but we're just in denial about it."

So Sterling launched the Viridian Design movement--a growing international coalition of individuals linked by Sterling's provocative e-mail bulletins and a common interest in developing elegant design solutions to help solve the problem of global climate change.

But this isn't your typical chaotic, factionalized art movement--Sterling is firmly in charge, jokingly calling himself "pope-emperor"--and viridian isn't your normal shade of green.

"It's an artificial, chemical-looking, intense, metallic, very high-tech green," explains Sterling. "It's not the kindly, Earth-color green, because I don't want to be associated with granola people and the sort of inevitable gothic and gloomy reportage that we get out of the environmental movement today, where it's just one horror after another."

Sterling hopes to have a coherent, full-blown Viridian cultural movement--based on imaginative, techno-aesthetic product design principles--ready by January 2000, in time to be seized upon as the "in" thing for the new millennium.

"I would like to see the Viridian movement provoke a tantrum among spoiled consumers," he says gleefully. "I want to see people demand things supplied to them that are good for them because those things are suddenly hip. I want to start a groundswell that says it's sexy to have a solar-powered Web site, that an electric car is cooler than the kind of car where you turn the key and it kills you if you stand in the garage with it. If there's consumer demand for usable, Viridian goods, then everything will follow.

But Sterling isn't a designer. He's a self-styled "words-in-a-row guy," and he certainly isn't a product manufacturer. So, to encourage participation from artists and designers and give the movement some sort of visual presence, Sterling is running a series of online design contests (http://www.bespoke.org/viridian). The most recent contest (for a "biomorphic, transorganic, visually unprecedented, geothermal-abyssal teakettle") was won by Ocean Quigley, a 29-year-old computer-game art director from Walnut Creek.

Meanwhile, Sterling has tentative plans for a catalog of Viridian products like Quigley's teakettle.

"It will be like a Sharper Image catalog, glossy, written in high consumer-ese, i.e. 'You need this!' except that the products don't yet exist," explains Sterling. "It would give people some sense of potential--that we can do this, we can stop this dumb, dysfunctional thing we're doing to ourselves."

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