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Earth Hour is environmental tokenism

By Sonia Bowditch - posted Friday, 22 March 2013


Started in Australia in 2007, Earth Hour is now embraced by over one billion people in 152 countries.  That’s a lot of people wanting to make a difference.  It’s indicative that hope for action on climate change is growing – and that is a good thing.   

However, taking a look at how the Earth Hour campaign came into being and what it has (not) achieved in its six years reveals that it may not be the smartest way to galvanise people into taking action on global warming.  

The event’s organiser, WWF (World Wildlife Fund), promotes Earth Hour as a grassroots environmental campaign.  But, in fact, its beginnings were not really very grassroots.  Earth Hour was conceived and run as a promotional campaign for Fairfax Media by advertising agency, Leo Burnett.  Many may not know that Fairfax is also a co-owner of Earth Hour, whose journalists are duty-bound to sing its praises.

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To be fair, Earth Hour did start off as a genuine exercise in energy reduction, with Fairfax telling its readers that if enough people participated, it would save the world 200 tonnes of carbon emissions.  But this saving is equivalent to taking 6 cars off the road for a year (though Fairfax made this sound better by equating it to 50,000 cars off the road for an hour).  After people realised this, the Earth Hour campaigners began to promote the event as a symbolic gesture only.

So what does the symbolism of Earth Hour represent?  A desire to turn our backs on modern technology and plunge ourselves back into the dark ages?  Surely no-one wants that.  The organisers say it’s important to take action against climate changes that are occurring as a result of electricity overuse.  But let’s not demonise electricity.  Dependence on power and light is not a bad thing.  It seems odd to me to promote a reduction in the use of electricity, when we could instead focus our efforts on supporting research on new and better ways to create energy. 

Bjorn Lomborg, author of Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming and one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, said this week that Earth Hour, while demonstrating our desire to do something about global warming, is merely vain symbolism that ‘reveals exactly what is wrong with today's feel-good environmentalism.’  In fact, says Lomborg, turning off the lights for one hour does not translate into less energy being pumped into the grid and in fact the restoration of electricity afterwards may cause a surge in energy consumption which would outweigh any positive effects (remember your mum telling you to stop flicking the light on and off, because that actually wastes more power?).  Furthermore, those candles that we light create a lovely ambiance, but are actually pretty CO2 intensive – and almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs.

As one Crikey journalist characterised Earth Hour last year, ‘not even Bob Brown at his most fatuous would now claim the stunt has any significant environmental benefits.’

Certainly if the current climate crisis is not solved, it will not bode well for our planet.  Turning the lights out for an hour is not nearly enough and may cause the negative effect of lulling people into thinking they are ‘doing their bit’. 

From personal experience, I find that Earth Hour imparts on participants a sort of moral superiority, often accompanied by holier-than-thou boasting.  A couple of years ago my family attended a neighbourhood function and happened to mention that we didn’t do Earth Hour as we felt it achieved nothing of any consequence.  Our immediate neighbours replied ‘yes, we noticed’ in a manner that made it quite clear they thought we were the worst kind of environmental vandals.  Infuriating, especially since they were in the habit of turning on their car engine 15 minutes before driving it (why do people do this?  Is it to warm up the engine or the car interior?) and since they own three cars (two of which are four-wheel drives, spewing out CO2 like there’s no tomorrow) between the four of them (one of whom is a non-driving minor).

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Earth Hour is like many other social media campaigns, such as Kony 2012: they make us all feel good but achieve very little.  And just like Kony 2012, where ‘it was never clear how buying an action kit, and showing your support by “covering the night”, was linked to getting Kony’, it is not clear how turning out one’s lights for an hour translates into progress regarding the global warming crisis – other than a sign of commitment to ‘do something’.  Consumer Psychologist Adam Ferrier believes ‘Kony 2012 has proven…[that]…you can create a fictitious cause, with a retarded goal and everyone will join in.’ 

We are surrounded by many examples of ways to buy our ‘Greenie Badge,’ such as driving a Prius, installing water tanks and having solar panels on our roofs.  However, the environmental impact on all of these is questionable. Production of the Prius creates so much more CO2  emissions than a standard car that its environmental benefits are cancelled out; water tanks store water that would otherwise naturally enter back into the water system; and the costs of running and maintaining pumps and solar panels on houses not only ignores the economies of scale of large central electricity production but essentially increases the cost of electricity for ordinary households so that the electricity authority can pay the feed-in tariff to those who can afford the large capital outlay to install the solar panels.

I must admit, though, that I too am sometimes guilty of giving into such environmental tokenism.  Every week my children’s school holds ‘Waste Free Wednesday’, when parents are encouraged to provide food that is free from unnecessary packaging.  Whilst I regularly pack sandwiches and fruit in Tupperware or the like, I am just as likely to spend time in the morning removing snacks such as banana bread and pretzels from their evil plastic wrapping and re-packaging them in special re-usable containers so that my children can be part of the ‘Save the Planet’ team.

But this Saturday I am taking a stand.  I am not jumping on the bandwagon.  I am going to sit with my lights on and read a book, trying to gain intellectual superiority rather than the false moral kind that comes from the herd mentality of Earth Hour.

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This article was first published on The Bowditch Pitch.



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About the Author

Sonia is a Canberra-based freelance writer who likes to pitch her thoughts on society and culture in Australia. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the ANU and a Masters in Writing from Swinburne. Her website is www.bowditchpitch.com.

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