To support what’s being billed as the “largest environmental event in history,” all you have to do is turn off your lights for one hour on Saturday, March 31, at 8:30 p.m., your local time. That’s it. It’s probably the easiest thing you’ve ever been asked to do for the planet and the natural world.
The request is a simple one because the World Wildlife Fund, the organizer of Earth Hour, is counting on millions of other people to do the same thing in a cascade around the globe, from New Zealand to Hawaii. And by using the power of our digital interconnectedness throughout the world, it’s hoped we’ll make a bigger statement — via social media — to those in positions of power about our concern regarding the Earth’s changing climate and the effect it’s having, especially on wildlife such as polar bears, tigers and sea turtles.
But in the end, will Earth Hour — and the 60 minutes you spend in the dark — really make a difference?
The “big guys” versus us
Some would argue that the actions we as individuals take and the personal pledges we make to safeguard the environment are merely a drop in the bucket, given the peril our planet is in. That taking shorter showers, changing our incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents and turning off our lights for an hour once a year won’t amount to much. That the changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action. They argue that only major, systemic changes will get us off the sure path to a quickly warming planet and the natural disasters that will follow.
According to the World Watch Institute, an independent research organization devoted to the analysis of global environmental concerns, it is governments that need to enact laws and tax policies that encourage the conservation of energy; the production and use of more energy-efficient cars, buildings and appliances; and the development and implementation of renewable energy such as solar and wind power and biofuels. Only governments and big businesses can increase investments in public transportation and encourage land development patterns that minimize urban and suburban sprawl.
Unfortunately, governments and big businesses are rarely responsive to one-hour, public demonstrations.
In a September 7, 2011, article in the New York Times, author Gernot Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that individual action does not work. In fact, it may cause more harm than good in that it distracts us from the need for collective, more concrete, bigger efforts. For example, giving a few dollars to “offset” your flights won’t motivate anyone to fly less or lead airlines to switch to more fuel-efficient planes or routes. All it does is make individual, green-conscious passengers feel better about traveling.
So while Earth Hour creates awareness, it may, in reality, only be a feel-good event.
We’re small, but growing
Still, however, 2012 will mark the sixth year of Earth Hour. The inaugural event was held in Sydney, Australia, where 2.2 million people and 2,100 businesses participated on March 31, 2007. By Earth Hour 2011, hundreds of millions of people had turned the lights out, involving more than 5,200 cities and towns in 135 countries on seven continents.
The organizers of Earth Hour say, of course, that the event is a symbolic action. It’s not about how much energy is saved around the planet in one night. The real purpose is to go “Beyond the Hour,” by committing ourselves to working for a slowdown of climate change and showing the big guys that we mean it when we say we want some steps taken in the right direction. After all, according to Reuters.com, in any two days, human beings create as much information online as it took our species to produce in the 30,000 years between the dawn of cave painting and the year 2003. In another 10 years, that same amount of information will be generated in less than one hour.
Maybe, by using our ability to connect with large numbers of people anywhere in the world by way of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, we can show our common concern for the environment, we are taking collective action and we will get the attention of the big guys — in just one hour.
Do you think Earth Hour — with the aid of social media — can play a part in convincing governments around the world to enact legislation that will help ward off global warming? Or is this just another negligible, feel-good event?
Feature photo: Scorching sands pose the greatest long-term threat from climate change to sea turtles. By 2070, sands in many areas will be so hot that eggs will not survive, causing extinction of the species. ©John T. Andrews