Between 8.30pm and 9.30pm on Saturday March 24, all concerned, responsible and aware citizens will switch off their lights and everything else electrical as part of a massive international project designed to – well symbolically at least – take decisive, positive action to reverse horrible climate change, reduce our carbon footprint and make the world a better place.
The website for Earth Hour, which is supported by the World Wildlife Fund, is absolute chock-a-block with videos of thoughtful, caring, sharing and committed people from adorable tots to wildly enthusiastic teenagers and wise seniors. Naturally, the casts of these videos are all very carefully multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and for all I know multi-religious or even pagan. What is common to all folks in these stylish productions is that they are absolutely overjoyed in the knowledge – the inner certainty – that doing something with a candle during this vital hour will save the planet. And they are waving them around like demented orchestra conductors. You would be forgiven for thinking that it was a promotion for a cabal of candle-makers.
Now I have nothing at all against candles despite some unhappy history.
In fact, I can recall one evening in the mid 1970s when I staged an intimate dinner party for two which featured the soft romantic glow of candlelight. No, this was not done to save the planet or even to reduce my carbon footprint as I didn't even know that I had a carbon footprint in those carefree days but for a nefarious purpose which might be guessed. It didn't work and I almost set fire to the curtains but that is another story.
Earth Hour, their website informs us, was launched in Sydney in 2007 and, since then, has become "a global movement" and "is now celebrated in over 180 countries and 7,000 cities and towns world-wide". After boasting that the movement "has seen some remarkable results", the organisers try to imply that they are responsible for everything that has been achieved on the general save-the-planet front eg: "In 2015, the world came together to bridge our differences in a landmark global agreement in Paris to tackle climate change."
It makes one wish for a Peace Hour during which the world could come together in a celebration of, well, peace. If some hypothetical Peace Hour during which we could all pause to wave around plow shares beaten from swords had the same alleged marvellous outcome as Earth Hour then we would never ever again hear a shot fired in anger.
But if you are thinking about popping down to Coles or Woolies to pick up a box of candles to celebrate Earth Hour then you could be actually doing damage to the environment rather than saving it. Due to what I'm sure is an oversight, the Earth Hour website doesn't let anybody know this. All they seem to be keen about is lighting a candle – any candle – after the lights and everything else are switched off.
Paraffin wax candles – that is most candles – are made from petroleum, a source of known human carcinogens and indoor pollution. This stuff is pure hydrocarbon. It's a heavy alkane fraction distilled straight off crude oil. Oh dear – so burning candles is very polluting and certainly very greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide intensive, even more so than electric lighting. It has been calculated that a 50g paraffin wax candle will produce about 39g of CO2 every hour while a night light (5 Watt bulb), assumed to be the equivalent of a candle, will produce only 5g of CO2 per hour, about one-fifth of the CO2 output of a candle.
According to an American researcher Dr Gloria Gilbere, candles "can also be very toxic with emissions that are not worth the ambiance". It seems that you cannot make candles from wind or solar energy at all, which must be distressing for greenies.
She has quoted one researcher who participated in an American Environmental Protection Agency study of candles and their effects as writing, "...some people who believe they have an indoor allergy or respiratory irritation may actually be reacting to pollutants from burning candles" The study showed that burning 14 leading brands of candles in the USA resulted in airborne lead concentrations "that pose a health threat to people and pets" and that, "those with compromised immune systems – children, pets and the elderly are particularly at high risk".
And when it comes to candles with synthetic fragrances, they are even worse as they commonly include acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, camphor, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool and methylene. Just reading this list could give you cancer. And I thought that our fragrant orange blossom candles were actually chock-a-block with orange blossoms. It seems not.
Another researcher quoted by Dr Gilbere on the implications of burning most candles has stated, "Besides breathing lead fumes, children can be exposed to even more lead that is deposited on the floor, furniture and walls because they often put their hands in their mouths."
Even the National Candle Association in the USA which could be expected to laud the benefits of living with candles admits on its website, "The heat of the flame vaporises the liquid wax (turns it into a hot gas) and starts to break down the hydrocarbons into molecules of hydrogen and carbon. These vaporised molecules are drawn into the flame, where they react with oxygen from the air to create heat, light, water vapour (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2)". There's those nasty words "carbon dioxide".
While claiming that a "quietly burning candle flame is a very efficient combustion machine", this US outfit admits, "but if the flame gets too little or too much air or fuel, it can flicker or flare and unburned carbon particles (soot) will escape from the flame before they can fully combust" and "the wisp of smoke you sometimes see when a candle flickers is actually caused by unburned soot particles that have escaped from the flame due to incomplete combustion."
Deep breaths everybody?
Now, if you want to be sure and safe and burn candles then use beeswax candles although, of course, they will cost lots and lots more than the paraffin wax candles.
But, and oh dear, here is another ethical conundrum for the environmentally conscious – using beeswax candles means using candles made, obviously, from beeswax and getting beeswax is also naughty as serious and aware vegans and environmentalist know.
One very popular vegan website points out that getting honey and beeswax from commercial producers causes what is called Colony Collapse Disorder. It seems that what the busy little bees produce should not be exploited or that will have catastrophic effects on the bee colony. It derives, says this high church for vegans, from the awful belief "that other creatures on Earth are ours to do with as we wish." In case you are wondering, this is called "speciesism".
I'd just leave the light on if I was you. Think about the poor little suffering bees.