Earth Hour Ambivalence Or Not

Photo credit: TW Collins

I confess a great deal of ambivalence about Earth Hour , the annual, symbolic turning off of lights for one hour. The premise is that on Saturday March 27th we all turned off our lights for one hour to symbolize our deep commitment to fighting climate change.

In and of itself it is easy to dismiss Earth Hour as making no particular difference. Even if everyone participated, the one hour amounts to about 0.002% of the average households annual electricity consumption. That’s just electricity consumed in the home. Add in energy consumption for all other purposes (eg heating if not electric, car(s) if any), all of the energy used supplying each of us with all of the goods and services we consume and the actual % is much, much lower. Of course not everyone participates either. Most municipalities that do participate report overall electricity consumption rate drops on the order of a few % points, if that.

The context for this is that we need to reduce our CO2 production 100 percent, more or less immediately. Not 1 percent, or 10 percent … 100 percent … now.

Fine, it’s a symbol of the commitment to combat climate change, but what commitment would that be? I was reading one news report that was basically bragging how various public buildings had turned off all “non-essential lighting” for an hour. In an age where we are supposedly fighting for our very survival, why was the non-essential lighting on in the first place? Exactly what actions were being symbolized if no other effort is being made?

That being said, cynicism is cheap and being critical of Earth Hour without pointing to specific alternatives is just self-indulgent posing. The fact is that there are many positive aspects to Earth Hour as a means for educating people about climate change and the possibility of action.

It is something everyone can participate in without too much preparation or inconvenience. It is visible, even highly so when dealing with prominent public buildings. It gives good visuals for media, has the backing of large, publicly credible organizations, and so on.

Watching the Earth Hour official video it is hard not to feel at least some level of optimism that Earth Hour could be the start of something significant. As such Earth Hour is not nearly so ill conceived or pointless as I have seen some suggest. It does have the potential to be a significant tool as part of the campaign to educate the broader public about climate change.

Yet interest is visibly declining, participation is down, something critical is missing. Of course there are many factors involved and it is too simplistic to point to any one, be it Denier propaganda, the economy, or green fatigue, as “the reason.” No doubt all play some role, but there is more to it than that.

We’re not getting it. We being us, not ‘them.’ That ‘they’ don’t get it is obvious and does not need stating. That ‘we’ don’t get it is also obvious, but apparently needs stating. What may also need stating is that ‘they’ are not going to get it until ‘we’ do.

Of those who accept the reality of climate change the overwhelming majority do little or nothing of any consequence to reduce their CO2 production. To many in this group, if they participate in Earth Hour at all, it is seen as sufficient onto itself. There does not seem to be any awareness that Earth Hour is not merely a signal to the powers that be that action is wanted, but a demonstration of the personal capability and will to take action.

On the other hand many of those who are more active on the issue are the very ones who are cynical about Earth Hour. For those who have already reduced their personal carbon budget to a fraction of the North American average, the 0.002% that Earth Hour represents is trivial. As for it’s symbolic value, their entire lives are a testament to their commitment to the issue. So Earth Hour falls into the gap between these two groups.

Which brings me to our not “getting it.” Obviously those who do nothing other than participate in Earth Hour are clearly not getting the urgency of our situation. Or if they are, they are not understanding that they personally have to do more, far more.

Equally, the hard core (if I may call them that) do not get the importance of actions like Earth Hour as stepping stones for the broader public. Whose responsibility is it to educate those who do participate about what else is required if not ours? How often do we characterize symbolic events as distractions, when in fact someone has done a great deal of work to bring people to a point where we may then take them even farther?

For the others to “get it” we have to be participating enthusiastically and leading the way. If Earth Hour, Earth Day, or some other event/action does not go far enough, then we need to be there to show them where to go next. We need to promote these events and help them succeed as part of initiating a dialogue about just how much is needed and how we collectively get there.

In fact we even undermine ourselves when we fail to support our allies. How different are the public reactions to ‘Earth Hour: too little, too late!’ compared to ‘Earth Hour: the first step to change!’? The former speaks of a movement divided and rancorous, the latter to one that knows where it is going and believes in itself. Which would you want to be part of?

I am not suggesting that anyone be distracted from what they consider the more important or relevant work, nor that anyone attempt to co-opt Earth Hour for their own purposes. I am suggesting that we make the greatest contribution by working with our fellow activists to create a synergy that works for all of us, and that there is almost always a way to do so.

None of us can do this alone, and we will always have a diversity of opinion about what is most necessary or possible at this moment. This diversity can exist in a harmony that strengthens the whole movement if that is what we want. Or we can use it as an opportunity to vent our personal doubts and disappointments. Whether symbolic actions are a distraction or an opportunity is not up to “them”, it’s up to you; that’s what empowerment is.


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