Earth Hour

I have never been a fan of earth hour and was contemplating writing an article explaining why I find it is pointless, but Maggie Koerth-Baker saved me the trouble:

This Saturday, thousands of people will voluntarily spend an evening without electrictricity. No lights. No television. No computers. They’ll eat dinner by candlelight, maybe light up a bonfire in the backyard and roast some marshmallows. They’ll think they’re saving energy and doing something good for the planet.

But I’m not so sure about that.

The most important takeaway message:

Other people see it and come away thinking that all they have to do is shut off some lights sometimes, and everything will be fixed. It’s easy to throw a party once a year and hang out with your friends in the dark, but real change is difficult, and it doesn’t really happen at home…

The solutions to our energy problems don’t start with individuals shutting the lights off at home. They start with public policy — the only force that can actually change how the infrastructure and shared systems work. Whether the promoters of events such as Earth Hour intend to or not, they send the message that energy change is about voluntary individual choices and choosing not to use the infrastructure and shared systems. Yet if you look at what the experts say — in the plans where scientists and analysts map out how we can actually make the biggest energy changes in the least amount of time — you’ll find that their message is exactly the opposite. The more we encourage people to think that change is about individual choices, the harder it is to get the real change accomplished.

10 thoughts on “Earth Hour

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  1. This seems unnecessarily negative.

    It’s really not that difficult to say to someone that turning lights off for an hour is not a solution to anything in itself, but that it’s about sending a message people want to see action being taken and that it’s an opportunity to reflect on our excessive energy use.

    And no, maybe the solutions to our energy problems don’t start with turning the lights off at home, but that is a significant part of it. Something like 20% of domestic electricity consumption in the UK is from lighting, this could easily be halved without any significant impact on our lives. Here’s an opportunity to get people to think about things like this.

    Earth Hour is a hook to hang these sort of conversations on. If you think the message should be that we need to change public policy, and I agree that’s the most important message, then here’s a good chance to get that message out at a time when lots of people are coming together in a positive way like this. I’ve had more conversations about what we need to be doing in the last couple of weeks because of Earth Hour than I have in the previous couple of months.

    Actually it really pisses me off that such a negative response is being highlighted here. It makes me feel like walking away and saying ‘sod it, what’s the point’.

    1. There is a role for activists and a role for analysts in solving any problem. P3 is an analysis site, not an activist site. We don’t agree for the sake of agreeing.

      The point of analysis is not just in coming to agreement or offering support. The point is in making sure the agreement is appropriate to the evidence.

    2. Well my analysis of Maggie Koerth-Baker’s piece is that it is wrong, and egregiously so. It feels just like the sneering ‘sceptic’ comments which are designed to deflate any movement for positive action, the same comments she thinks Earth Hour engenders but which she herself is guilty of giving credence to. If one thinks the message people are getting from Earth Hour is wrong (and based on my experience I disagree strongly that, in the vast majority of cases, it is) then the obvious thing to do is not denigrate Earth Hour but to work to improve the message.

      More than anything Earth Hour is about trying to foster a collective will for action. What better way is there to create pressure for public policy? But also this:
      “The problem isn’t individual choices. The problem is the infrastructures that we share, infrastructures that often limit our energy choices and incentivize wasting energy rather than conserving it.”
      is a false dichotomy. Individual choices do matter, we are not going to get some magic policy that will solve everything on its own and allow us to continue consuming without thought.

      And even if everything Maggie Koerth-Baker says is true I still wouldn’t change my support for Earth Hour. There are many people I know who work bloody hard to make the real changes we need and get worn down by the apathy and antipathy. Here is a brief opportunity for them to experience a sense of recognition, a bit of communal positivity for a change.

    3. Earth Hour is a hook to hang these sort of conversations on.

      Even so but I don’t find it a particularly good hook. Since the first international earth hour in 2008 I haven’t seen any interesting discussions that spawned from it. I have however seen more than a few people implying that because they turned off the lights for 1 hour that somehow they made a real difference.

      There is a tendency to focus so much on simple individual actions to ‘solve’ climate change that far too many people think that changing a few light bulbs is enough to solve the problem. This in it of itself is a large problem that needs to be overcome. And I see earth hour as part of this dangerous mentality.

    4. If that dangerous mentality exists then it is exposed by Earth Hour rather than caused by it. If you do see people thinking this way then there’s an opportunity to inform them better.

  2. It seems to me that to get public policy passed, the politicians need to know that the voters will support public policy changes. How do you measure public support? By the way the public behaves.

    Waiting for the politicians to make good policy changes out of the goodness of their hearts is a mug’s game. They have to be forced by public outcry or personal blackmail or the hope of winning public support.

    1. In principle most people support environmentalism. This isn’t really in question. Many people are even willing to go without lights for 1 hour a year. But that is a world apart from support of the type of policy needed to lower GHG emissions.

      If the point of earth hour was to demonstrate to politicians that they can count on public support for environmental policies then a better effort would be to encourage people to send letters to their elected representatives.

      Turning off the lights might be a powerful symbol, but often times I feel we place to much importance on symbols. After all symbolism wont get us out of this mess.

    2. Why is it “a better effort” as though it’s one or the other? Indeed one of the ideas that I’ve talked about for what to do during Earth Hour was to write a letter to your MP in advance of Rio +20.

      Symbolism won’t get us out of the mess on its own, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be part of a solution. It’s symbolic of something, better to make sure that what it’s symbolic of is constructive than to tear it down.

    3. I have to ask. After 4 years (more if you count the Earth Hours that were not international) have you seen it as helpful? I have not.

      Honestly though I think we probably have to agree to disagree here. But if we continue to see Earth Hour as an annual event then I do hope you are right and I am wrong.

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