What’s the point of Earth Hour?

earth hour at oxford stIt’s Earth Hour here – but by the time I finish this post it will be over. From 8.30 local time people across the world we’re told that people have been turning their lights off to show their support for action on climate change – it’s being presented as a chance to vote and the organisers intend to take some count of the people who participated to the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year.

Why would you do this? Will it make a difference to what “world leaders” decide in Copenhagen whether 1,000,000 people do it, or 10,000,000? Probably not, at least the numbers don’t really matter. Some action will be promised, some suggested action will be refused. I can’t imagine anyone in power saying “Well because several hundred thousand people sat in the dark for an hour in my country, I’m going to make sure something gets done”.

So will the switching off of lights have a big effect in itself? Especially with compulsory low power light bulbs, switching off the lights for an hour in this house represents a reduction of much less than .5kwh. In our total monthly consumption that’s nothing. And anyway, it looks like shops in the West End weren’t doing much.

Is it an empty gesture then? In a world where stuff is only achieved if it is done by “world leaders” then yes, probably. But we don’t live in that world, we never have and we’re just realising that we can do an awful lot for ourselves – both as individuals and members of corporations and organisations. (I plan to write about this more over the next week in the run up to the G-20 summit)

So what use is it? Well of course we social media types like to point to the fact that it’s part of a conversation. Those of us even further up our own arses will point out that earthhour is a “social object” something around which many of us have come together whether you said “Yes, I’m part of this” or “God, this is a waste of time” doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we’ve taken part.

But surely that’s still an empty gesture? Does talking about it make it any more useful? Do any fewer polar bears die? Does the economy get any better at all? No, it depends on some action. I won’t tell you what to do, but here’s a suggestion for people who are on twitter.

Take a look at some tweets marked #earthhour among people you already follow and who live nearby. Get in touch with them and arrange to have a coffee in the next week and talk about earth hour properly, about what you did, about what you think about climate change, about what you’re doing for the environment, what you’d like to do, maybe what you can do together or with other people – and then do it. Even better if you write about it on your blog. A bonus suggestion for the brave: find someone on twitter who lives locally whom you don’t already know or follow (easier in smaller places than in large ones – use Advanced Search on search.twitter.com) and do the same.

Or not.

13 thoughts on “What’s the point of Earth Hour?”

  1. I am sceptical of things such as this, but I decided to observe Earth Hour because climate change is something I believe is very important. I think it is worthwhile – it isn’t the only way to make my voice heard, but it is one of them; and I would rather try to exert some influence than not try at all.

    I found the experience interesting, too. I lit candles, and sat and listened to contemplative music as the shadows from the flames played on the wall. I was reminded of times and places I have been without energy – the 1970s powercuts (from miners’ and electricity workers’ strike); trips abroad to places without electricity onstream; camping in Scotland.

    I was reminded how fragile civilisation is, and how much we rely on electricity.

    All in all, then, I found it worthwhile.

  2. Thanks for that Lloyd. Yeah it’s a ‘social object’. I only heard about it a couple of days ago from some friends in Canada via Facebook- they were suggesting that we synchronise but I’m afraid I will be it bed by the time they do it, with all my lights off! But we were able to share our experiences anyway, well so far.
    I liked the idea because it’s so easy to do, and yeah, what’s the point? but if I had had time to tell all of my friends about it we might have been able to look across the valley and see at least a few lights go off! The only friends I’ve seen are off-grid anyway, which made me think how much electicity we use compared to them and how I could easily change that. Yeah, I know, how much difference can one house make? But it’s a state of mind and awareness that matters. A lot of what we do is for the children to understand- and it’s the doing that really matters. So mine were actually interested when I turned the lights off and wanted to know why. I didn’t make a big deal of it, meh! I have 1000001 other things to think about! And I didn’t explain it all that well, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve still got the lights off- quite enjoying the candlelit evening actually.

  3. Climate has always changed. It always will no matter what.
    I did not observe earth hour because I always use as little electricity as possible.

    I would like people to do some research and find out just how “bad” carbon dioxide really is, because in fact we need it for plants to grow. It is in small amounts now, and it has been a lot higher in the past and the planet survived.

    I have yet to see a convincing argument and an experiment that proves CO2 is the culprit.
    Professional growers pump CO2 into greenhouses – what does that tell you?

    If there is a pollution problem it is not CO2. Water vapour is a bigger problem.
    I suggest people look into this further because man has never been able to change the climate.

  4. I watched Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” just before earth hour in Singapore. Also visited some sites to learn more about Renewable Resources and got to know more about climate change, global warming. Hope there are more such activities to make people like myself to get more serious about saving the planet

  5. I think Earth Hour is worse than an empty gesture – it’s an empty gesture that fools people into thinking that they’ve done something, salves their conscience, and then allows them to forget all about the environment until next Earth Hour because they’ve ‘done their thing’.

    I’d prefer a “Change your lightbulbs to energy efficient ones Day”, or a “Wash your laundry at 30C and see that it comes out just as clean Day”, or an “Install an electricity meter and see just how much electricity you’re really using Day”. Or even a “Write to your MP asking them to take XXX action to support our environment Day”, where XXX is some concrete action that needs doing by Parliament. We need to change habits for good, not just ease our guilt for an hour.

    (And I’m not even getting into the discussion about how much carbon dioxide is released by burning candles compared to running a lightbulb.)

  6. Suw
    some good points: the candles in particular.

    I have a small concern about energy efficient globes.

    They contain mercury. What happens to this when they go into landfill as indeed most garbage does?
    Also if you accidentally break one you have to call in professionals to clean it up. This costs thousands.

    It’s interesting that GE is set to make a fortune out of them. It’s always interesting to follow the money.

  7. Susan, that’s not entirely true. Yes, these light-bulbs do have a little mercury in them, but if you break one, the advice is to:

    * Open the window and leave the room for 15 minutes
    * Clean up with a dustpan and brush, not a vacuum cleaner
    * Dispose of as you would other electrical items

    The amount of mercury is so small that it doesn’t pose a serious threat to human health, and you don’t need professionals to clean it up. You can recycle old bulbs, but you have to make sure that you take it to a facility that can cope with it (and I’m sure the number of those are increasing as these bulbs become more common).

    More info: http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp

    There’s been a lot of propaganda and scare stories coming out about eco-bulbs, or CFLs, and you have to wonder where *that* is coming from. I mean, here we have bulbs that produce the same amount of light for less power and less cost and yet there are campaigns against them. You have to wonder what the motivation behind the propaganda is.

    Actually, I think it comes from ignorance and the tabloids’ love of a good scare story. I don’t believe in big conspiracies.

  8. Suw,

    Your concerns are all valid, and suggestions are marvellous. I’m just not sure why you can’t have both. I saw Earth Hour as a launchpad for conversations about just the kind of recommendations you’re making. I’ve had a lot of conversations along those lines precisely because of earth hour.

    You’d have to be borderline certifiable to think that earth hour constitutes ‘doing your bit’ – did you really hear anyone articulate it as such? I didn’t, but I did hear a lot of people resolutely stating that their attraction to it was the symbolism of a group statement. Maybe it was even art 🙂

    I wrote a lil’ post about it on my site too – http://www.stevelawson.net/wordpress/2009/03/earthhour-inspiration-collective-meaning-and-the-dangers-of-virtual-absolution/


  9. Steve, I see your point, but I fear that the only people talking about the implications of climate change are the people who would have talked about it anyway. And to be hoenst, art and talking can only get us so far. Action is needed and I see Earth Hour as a waste of a good opportunity to get people to actually do something.

    Of course, if someone here wants to start a pledge on Pledgebank to, say, change all lightbulbs to eco, then I’ll gladly sign it and promote it, especially as we’re moving to a new flat soon and will have the opportunity to eco lightbulb it up afresh (current flat uses eco bulbs in every available socket already). I’d create the pledge, but I’m still dealing with Ada Lovelace Day, so would prefer to focus on polishing that off properly than doing something else half-heartedly.

  10. I took part in Earth hour and I’m glad I did for two reasons. The first is that someone, somewhere – even if it is another person in our street – will recognise that at least one household takes climate change seriously enough to make a statement about it. The second is that for Earth Hour we invited our Kenyan neighbours ’round for a meal and spent it sitting round candles and the woodburner sharing stories. It was so good that we lost track of time and decided to leave the lights of.

    Submitted on a laptop powered exclusively by the carbon-free energy of my own self-righteous smugness…

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