Going beyond Earth Hour to save the environment

Posted on March 22, 2011. Filed under: Energy |

-The Star-

Switching lights off for one hour a year is easy to do. However, staving off climate change takes much more work than that.

IN 2007, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (Australia) and The Sydney Morning Herald succeeded in persuading 2.2 million residents and 2,000 businesses in Sydney to turn off all “non-essential lights” for an hour as a symbolic sign for a better environment.

Since then, the Earth Hour movement has spread its tentacles all over the world. From just a single city in Australia, it is now said to be observed by more than 4,500 cities across 128 countries.

Even the most uninitiated among us cannot help but notice the swath of publicity that comes with the “darkening” of global landmarks like the Petronas Twin Towers, Sydney Harbour Bridge, CN Tower of Toronto, Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, and Rome’s Colosseum, just to name a handful.

Missing the point: Some 10,000 candles were lit at the Esplanade, Penang, last year to mark Earth Hour. But think about all that plastic cup waste and the totally unnecessary burning of candles (more wastage and air pollution!).

The symbolic turning off of “non-essential lights” for one hour on a Saturday evening was meant to show hope for a cause that grows “more urgent by the hour” but this message has either been lost or watered down by the euphoria that follows the event, with celebrations ranging from candle-lit dining to outdoor parties, concerts and a plethora of marketing-related activities to generate buzz.

Naturally, a chorus of dissenters (not necessarily global warming sceptics) have panned the movement for its seeming shallowness, if not somewhat contradictory approaches.

Firstly, all the celebrations to mark the event are hardly carbon-neutral. Knowledge management consultant Cheryl Teh has this observation: “People switch off the lights for an hour and then what? What are the changes after that?

“Personally, I think events like Earth Hour are counter-productive. Think of all the marketing-related resources, printing, and so on that goes into promoting Earth Hour to ‘save’ the earth.

“They spend so much money and then all the stuff they print go to the landfill. They have performances to celebrate but then need to hire energy-guzzlers like speakers, microphones and so on.”

At 8.30pm this Saturday, iconic landmarks across the world will join with hundreds of millions of people from community, business and government to turn off their lights to mark Earth Hour.

For example, WWF Singapore is holding an open air concert (like it did last year) near the central business district. Although the event will be powered by generators running on biodiesel made from waste cooking oil, it is likely that more air pollution and carbon dioxide will be generated as a stand-alone diesel generator can never be as efficient as grid-derived power (in Singapore’s case, mainly from burning natural gas).

Another contradictory approach will be seen in Penang, which is celebrating Earth Hour by turning off lights at key government buildings, only to light 10,000 candles and lamps at the Esplanade from 7.30pm to 9.30pm. Burning of candles generate pollution and carbon dioxide, regardless of whether the candle is made of beeswax or paraffin.

Don Theseira, arguably one of the most fervent advocates for the environment, thinks that lighting up lights and candles and what not during Earth Hour contradicts its spirit. “I disagree with the light up activities. Why can’t we celebrate Earth Hour in darkness?”

Theseira is far from being a detractor. In fact, he hopes that at least one million Malaysians will come forward to mark it. “It is only meaningful when celebrated on a mass scale. It should not be just a case of a few landmark buildings turning off their lights,’’ said the Penang-based green activist.

Earth Hour has provoked a harsh reaction from Australia-based group Carbon Sense Coalition (carbon-sense.com) which said in its website: “To hold a candles-and-champagne party indoors, on the mildest night of the year, for just one hour, shows that the whole thing is green tokenism.

“Moreover, both candles and champagne emit carbon dioxide. Let the true believers try the real thing in one of the extreme seasons so they can appreciate the great benefits we take for granted when using all of our carbon fuels and foods.”

This group proclaims itself as being “concerned about the extent to which carbon and carbon dioxide are wrongly vilified in Western societies, particularly in government, the media, and in some business circles”.

Carbon Sense Coalition has suggested that Earth Hour be renamed “Blackout Night” and be held outdoors, for the whole night, in mid-winter, on the shortest and coldest day of the year – June 22 in the southern hemisphere.

“Supporters of alternative energy should spend just one night in the cold and the dark, emitting no carbon dioxide from coal, oil, gas, petrol or diesel for lights, TV, hot coffee, barbecues or cars,” said Viv Forbes, chairman of Carbon Sense.

“Winter nights are usually still and cold, so the candles crew can experience what it was like depending on alternate energy in the recent snowstorms in the northern hemisphere when wind turbines froze and solar panels were covered in snow.

“The back-to-nature brigade can also try living without iron roofs and concrete walls, both of which require coal and emit carbon dioxide during their production. So we support Blackout Night to prepare our population for the dark days ahead,” said Forbes, a livestock farmer and mining consultant in Queensland.

Other western commentaries noted that participants fail to get the message behind Earth Hour: a drastic reduction in energy usage on a scale they cannot imagine.

“This blindness to the vital importance of energy is precisely what Earth Hour exploits. It sends the comforting-but-false message: Cutting off fossil fuels would be easy and even fun! People spend the hour stargazing and holding torch-lit beach parties; restaurants offer special candle-lit dinners.

“Earth Hour makes the renunciation of energy seem like a big party. Participants spend an enjoyable 60 minutes in the dark, safe in the knowledge that the life-saving benefits of industrial civilisation are just a light switch away.

“This bears no relation whatsoever to what life would actually be like under the sort of draconian carbon-reduction policies that climate activists are demanding: punishing carbon taxes, severe emissions caps, outright bans on the construction of power plants,” wrote Keith Lockitch in the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights (aynrand.com).

Beyond the hour

In the face of criticism over the event, the organiser of Earth Hour responded by saying that the main goal of the event is to create awareness around climate change issues and “to express that individual action on a mass scale can help change our planet for the better”, and not so much about the specific energy reductions that can be achieved within that one hour.

Well aware that the mere act of turning lights off for just an hour on a Saturday evening is not going to sustain the movement, WWF International is now asking people to do more than that.

“Beyond the Hour” marks the start of a new phase for the Earth Hour movement, where people are asked to commit to an action, big or small, that they will sustain for the future of our planet (beyondthehour.org).

According to Earth Hour co-founder and executive director, Andy Ridley, everyone has the power to effect change, no matter what their station in life. “A CEO can change an organisation, a seven-year-old can change a classroom, and a president can change a country. What we are announcing today is just the beginning. It is through the collective action of individuals and organisations that we will be able to truly make a difference, which is why we are urging people across the planet to share how they will go beyond the hour this Earth Hour.”

Ridley said the Beyond the Hour platform has been built with social media at its core to allow interaction between millions of people who have committed to taking lasting action for the planet.

The platform, created with Leo Burnett, is translated into 11 languages, and integrated with most major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Mixi, Myspace, Odnoklassniki, Cloob, Orkut, Qzone, RenRen, Vkontakte, Maktoob, Skyrock, Xing, and Zing. The online platform is expected to function as a shared space for individuals, governments and organisations to share their actions on what they are doing for the environment.

The decision to go on the social platform is a natural one, given the prevalence of smart phones and advancements in portable computing. The downside is that computers will be left on longer, and gadgets like iPhones and Blackberrys will be used more often. This is yet another instance where good intentions can have mixed results. After all, what is the point in always “being connected” when this very act consumes electricity (if not totally ironical given Earth Hour’s call for people to switch off). As extreme as their views may sound, dissenters like Carbon Sense do have a point in calling for well-intentioned folks celebrating Earth Hour to totally do away with energy use for an extended period.

A Filipino blogger called indignus (marcusapollo.wordpress.com) summed up the situation beautifully: “Therefore we also turned off all lights and equipment such as the computer on which we type this post now. However, despite these gestures of symbolic solidarity, we could not altogether ignore how little effect Earth Hour really had, in material as well as non-material (or ideological and symbolic) terms, on ecological issues. In fact, we submit that it was harmful to the goals of environmentalism because it diverted people’s attention towards a symbolic non-solution and away from the real source of, and the real solution to, the ecological problems faced by humanity.

“We do not say this to detract from the real achievements of the movements for environmental reform, or to deny the undoubted good faith of its proponents and organisers, but to warn against the dangers posed by false directions for activism. And what is the real source of the problem? It is the unsustainable and immoderate (and some believe, catastrophically immoderate) consumption and production patterns engendered by contemporary industrial capitalism.”

indignus concludes by arguing that even the most well-intentioned environmentalism will not effect meaningful ecological transformation, “unless we stop worshipping more and newer and embracing bigger and more ‘advanced’.”

“In the end, then, we can save the world of matter only if we reach beyond it to the spirit, and we can make material activity ‘ecological’ only if we reject materialism and prioritise the non-material and trans-ecological value of seeking and contemplating the holy and true, the good and beautiful.”

As such, when the lights go out this Saturday, it is not a bad idea to sit in the dark, and to contemplate upon the fourth R (we are all familiar with the 3Rs): Refuse. And in case it is still not obvious to you, it should be done totally unplugged.


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