My lights aren’t off

I just noticed that it’s Earth Hour at the moment. It’s one of those things I’ve come to dislike more and more. From being a symbol of collective action, it now represents, to me, irrational and useless tokenism.

Let’s start with the basics. It saves almost nothing in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Even if everyone did it, it’d save 0.01% of our yearly lighting electricity consumption. But due to the way our power supply system works, the grid still needs to be powered to a surplus level at all times, so the amount of fossil fuels burned over that hour wouldn’t drop as much as one may think.

Ideologically, it’s stupid as well. Who wants to live in the dark? What kind of a symbol is this to people about what action on climate change requires? I don’t want to look at climate action and think of policies that involve me relying on natural light for the next 50 years of my life. Light can be generated efficiently and drawing on renewable sources; yes, we are wasteful with it much of the time, but turning off lights when they would be useful creates a negative connotation with action on climate change, not a positive one. I want ideas that do their best to save the best of our lifestyles: heat, light, food, community, travel, technology – and culls the unnecessary, wasteful and poorly planned elements of these.

But worst, for me, is that it gives people the impression that something useful is being done about climate change. At the moment, it’s not. There are no policies and only a few movements advocating (what I consider to be) effective and justifiable action to prevent dangerous climate change. That means sweeping changes to building codes, transport methods, distribution and supply chains, and energy generation, driven by policy and social support.

Earth Hour does only one thing for me: it gives me a slap in the face when I realise how wasteful we are for the other 99.99% of the year. The iconic buildings we delight in seeing darkened do not need to be lit every night, and the middle classes of wealthy nations do not need to sit in the dark for an hour as penance for the other wasteful actions they take.

This sounds bitter and cynical, I know. I could praise it for awareness raising. I think as a one-off it may have been effective. But now I find it distasteful. Everyone knows climate change is a problem, or at least a thing. It’s been in the scientific consciousness for 40 years, international political consciousness for 20 years, and hit the big-time with pretty much everyone at least 7 years ago. Yet our policies are weak and even the most ambitious in the Western world, if achieved, will fail to protect the world’s ecosystems and my, and future, generations. That’s not good enough. Maybe I just blame Earth Hour for reminding me of it.

Categories: environmentalism, Problems | Tags: , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “My lights aren’t off


    That is a summary of my thoughts on environmental sustainability right now.

  2. Chris

    Here, here. I didn’t even register that it was happening this year. Does not mean that I am not concerned, just fed up with tokenism.

  3. PeterT

    agree – earth hour does nothing to inspire me in the face of inadequate responses elsewhere. i am probably still open to being persuaded of its value in some countries however.

    but in australia the tokenism provides a free hit to the all the slightly annoyed from berwick-on-tweed’s that litter the media comment pages and argue against the need to do anything about climate change for a multitude of reasons.

    I have recently been reminded of John Houghton’s frequently mis-quoted statement “If we want good environmental policy in future, we’ll have to have a disaster. It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident.”. insurance companies are completely convinced. perhaps articles like the following will help get the message to other parts of society. shame the original article is behind a firewall.

  4. PeterT

    so the disasters are here and we’re still not paying attention. but we’ve always had disasters, right? gives a new meaning to the term plausible deniability.

  5. Yes, it’s the attribution issue now, and scientists have been saying for quite a while that this or that disaster can’t be causally linked to climate change, but now that the fingerprint of anthropogenic activity grows stronger, the message has gotten stuck – attribution isn’t correct, and that scientists who link climate change and disasters are being activists.

    I do like the loaded dice analogy, which has been doing the rounds a bit lately, definitely worth pursuing.

  6. saruzzawilson

    Of course Earth Hour doesn’t actually make a concrete difference to carbon emissions, but it’s a global initiative that makes people feel connected, and that they can ”do something” or ”make a difference”. I don’t think it’s advocating energy policies that mean not using electricity either, it’s an event aimed at connecting people, turn off your lights and TV and playstation and mobile and experience the dark and feel like your sharing that with others around the globe.

    I think most people know it’s not realistic, but surely any project that actually creates action, and increases awareness is beneficial for the individuals taking part? Like you said, it reminded you of just how bad things are, and even though it can be soul destroying, doesn’t it make you more focused on the things that will make a difference like supporting / blogging about new technologies and clean energy policies? Saying things like ‘My Lights Aren’t Off’ only isolates yourself, who understands the problem more comprehensively than the majority, from those who don’t but want to make ‘a difference’. Maybe after this symbolic (‘pointless’) event, they feel compelled to look at how they can really change their over-consumptive lifestyles and get informed.

    For real change you either need a government prepared to make unpopular decisions, or a population who demand a change in policy through their consumer choices and votes. In the UK, the former isn’t going to happen, so let people get involved and eventually feel as cynical as you in their own time! But any publicity about an issue this big, I think, is good publicity.


    • I do see what you mean, but it frustrates me that this is the level of collective action we’re at in 2012. Earth Hour did, to their credit, introduce a ‘Beyond the Hour’ type of pledge and it does invite people to consider the issue more widely. But I would argue that symbols like this are too much of a free ticket, and awareness raising is unnecessary – everyone is aware of climate change, what counts now is the amount of carbon we’re emitting.

      It might be able to be leveraged into other forms of behaviour change, because people rarely want to look like hypocrites – if you take part in Earth Hour, then there are probably be behaviours you’re working to improve, if you’re legitimate about it – but I’m worried that the event sacrifices real impact for mass popularity.

      Funny you mention it, there’s more thoughts brewing in blog form, partly feeding from Earth Hour (I finished reading Monbiot’s climate change book Heat during the Hour, heh) but also Australia’s federal decision to axe 1/3 of its climate change department and my home state’s decision to pull $400million in climate change programmes, which makes me want to go on a rampage!


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