Does Earth Hour actually produce environmental change?

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Photo: flickr/Chuck Lee

It is one of the highest profile environmental events of the year. The lights plunged into darkness on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Sydney's Opera House, the Kremlin in Moscow and even the world's tallest building, Dubai's 200-storey Burj Khalifa.

Last Saturday evening, organizers claimed that millions of people around the world recognized the threat to the world's environment by taking part in Earth Hour, shutting off the lights in giant buildings and in their homes.

Earth Hour has become a motherhood event in most parts of the developed world but, as with many perceived progressive activities, there are questions about how much it accomplishes and whether it is a productive event.

The event was launched in 2007 for the Australian World Wide Fund for Nature when an advertising agency came up with the 'gimmicky' idea of having people shut off their lights as a way of awakening us to the many environmental crises facing the earth.

Now, seven years later, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has achieved that goal. Anyone unaware of global warming must live in a cave in some dark corner of the world. Of course there are those who choose not to believe in the threat of climate disaster, but you could hit them over the head with a hammer and they'd still be in denial.

Having added fundraising and participation activities, the WWF continues to carry on with the event. Organizers say that "millions" of people were involved in celebrating Earth Hour, which might lead us to believe the figure is, say, 10-million people. Andy Ridley, the co-founder of Earth Hour, claimed that "this event has evolved into a movement driven by the power of the crowd." But this may not be the case. It may be driven more by WWF publicity.

While some of the world's most prominent buildings were darkened and drew a lot of attention, public participation may be much smaller than organizers would have us believe. For instance, in Toronto the electricity company reported only a six per cent decrease in power usage during the designated hour compared to normal. Take one per cent away for the big buildings that shut off their power during the special hour, and perhaps five per cent of Torontonian homeowners took part. Moreover, the six per cent figure is down one per cent from a year ago.

A positive aspect of Earth Hour is that it raises money through crowdfunding for local environmental projects. Organizers say they hope to raise $650,000 around the world. While fundraising will be continued for from 14 days to more than a month, depending on the project, so far nearly every project was a long way from reaching its target. Now that the hype of Earth Day is over, it's difficult to see how they will come close to raising $650,000.

Participants don't accomplish anything

Perhaps the biggest problem with Earth Hour is the false sense of accomplishment experienced by many participants. The event gives many people the feeling they are doing something important, when they're not. This is where Earth Hour is harmful because it makes people think a simple act like turning off the lights is a productive move.

Incidentally, shutting off the lights for a short period of time doesn't save electricity. The system keeps producing electricity not used, and may even set off a surge in power to meet the demand when the lights go back on. Electricity can't be saved like a piece of firewood. And interestingly, the candles lit by who knows how many tens-of-thousands of people around the world probably caused more damage to the environment than using electricity.

Participants don't learn anything about the real issues of climate destruction by taking part in this questionable event. On Sunday, one day after those millions of folks shut off their lights, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its most devastating report ever. It said "ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct."

It seems to me that getting people involved in pressuring corporations and business to launch serious programs to address this report would be more important than 10,000 Earth Hours!

No part of the Earth Hour project included any presentation about what strategy or activities would be helpful to tackle the dozens of problems highlighted on one of their websites.

Many people are poorly informed about what would be required to turn around environmental damage around the world. I'll bet a lot of Earth Hour folks think that decreasing the use of electricity is one of the main solutions, but it's not.

Earth Hour can be viewed from two conflicting perspectives: Millions of people from largely rich communities make a token gesture of giving up non-essential electricity for an hour once a year. But elsewhere, electricity is only a dream for at least 1.2 billion people in poor countries who have no choice but to live with dangerous burning stoves and candles.

This puts into perspective how absurd it was for the WWF in Toronto to have people practice yoga under an open sky and make paper lanterns, presumably with a nice bottle of wine at hand.

Earth Hour participants one of the problems

Taking a broader look at the world's environmental issues, most of the very people in rich countries involved in celebrating Earth Hour are the problem. We routinely buy a huge percentage of the world's material goods, all the way from a second car, to a new computer, to a 60-inch TV set. The WWF could be telling us that we are the problem.

If the folks behind Earth Hour wanted to embark on a campaign that could be very helpful it could urge developed country people to cut our consumption and have our companies reduce production. They could fight against the slogan "shopping is good" and push for a general change in the behaviour of people.

The other culprits are multinational corporations. A 2010 UN report said that the world's 3,000 largest companies were causing, back at that time, US$2.2 trillion worth of environmental damage every year. The report calculated that about half the cost was associated with the release of greenhouse gases, while the remainder of the costs arise from local air pollution, and damage caused by the over-use and pollution of freshwater and fisheries.

Knowing that giant corporations are doing so much damage, you would think that the WWF and many other large environmental groups would launch campaigns aimed at stopping them from their destructive ways. Perhaps next year.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and blogger who specializes in environmental issues.

Photo: flickr/Chuck Lee

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