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Why I Won't Be Turning Off Any Lights for Earth Hour

Earth Hour is founded on a metaphor—turning off the lights—that does the climate movement more harm than good.


This Saturday, environmental and climate campaigners will symbolically come together, and "lights will switch off around the globe for Earth Hour." My house will not be participating.

Like George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network and the author of Carbon Detox and the blog climatedenial.org, I think Earth Hour is "one of the most misguided and counterproductive actions" the environmental movement has seen. It does more damage than good to the climate cause.


My criticisms of earlier Earth Hours—which debuted in Australia in 2007 and went worldwide the year after—are many. First, the fleeting nature of the event makes it all too easily forgotten. Like Earth Day (see here and here), it's a commitment that one can make for a short, set amount of time and then abandon. Second, the hour itself doesn't have any real impact. Utilities don't cut their power production for such a short and slight drop in demand, so no energy is really saved. Third, and most importantly, the symbolism itself of powering down for Earth Hour gets it all wrong. I thought Joel Makower of GreenBiz.com got it right when he wrote:

Turning off the lights for one hour seems a meek and hollow gesture, a feel-good measure that may fleetingly raise awareness, but does little to educate or change long-term habits, let alone “take control over the future of our planet.” It is, simply put, a media event in search of actual content.

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If Earth Hour's value is just as a symbolic action, we should at least expect that that action doesn't play perfectly into the hands of the opponents of climate action. But "Turn off the lights" is practically cliché as something a hard-line, out-of-touch environmental miser would tell you to do. Conserving energy means sitting around in the dark. They want us to sit shivering in the dark!

Marshall's op-ed, written in advance of Earth Hour 2009, gets to the core psychological problem with the symbolic action.

Repeatedly in focus groups, people adopt a defensive stance against people who – they feel – are using the issue to take away material benefits. Asking people to sit in the dark plays very well to a widely held prejudice that “the greens” want us all to go back to living in caves. And if we examine the deeper symbolism, things become far worse...

Light has a vast range of positive and aspirational associations: civilisation, truth, health, intelligence, safety, hope, life and salvation. Those opposing action on climate change understand this well and frequently use images of electric light at night in their publicity as a metaphor for excitement, civilisation, and progress

So it is hard to think of any image more destructive to our cause than turning off lights. The metaphors of darkness are overwhelmingly negative: danger, decay, and death. We see the dark ages as a time of brutality. Poets such as Dylan Thomas call on us to “rage against the dying of the light”. Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the first world war said “the lamps are going out all over Europe”. Really the cultural resonance could hardly be worse.

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It drives me nuts how backwards environmentalists continue to get this messaging. With so many positive metaphors on our side, why do we choose darkness?

Now, credit where credit is due. Organizers at WWF have tried this year to address the concerns of the fleetingness of the event and the lack of tangible impact. This year, they're saying that the actions will go "Beyond The Hour" (see the video below), and asking people to pledge actions that will cumulatively have some measurable impact.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiBJC9x_ChQ

I'm glad WWF has decided to do something to take it "beyond" Earth Hour, but forgive me if I'm not too optimistic about the impact of some pledges will really have.

In case you're curious, on Saturday night at 8:30 p.m., I'll be watching King Kong (the original) at the Paramount Theatre. Gathering with community to share the joys of an illuminated screen: Now there's an action I can get behind.
Illustration by Sara Saedi\n
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