Verging on Occult: Earth Hour fails at fighting climate change, so what is it about?

Worth A Look, Environment, David Seymour


If previous Earth Hours are any indication, this Saturday’s annual ritual will possess a curious blend of contradictory properties.  Switching off the lights for an hour will have little effect on climate change, practical or symbolic, yet it will likely follow the established trend of growing participation each year.  All good contradictions deserve an explanation, but the most likely ones in this case don’t bode well for our Western liberal Enlightenment tradition.

Earth Hour will not reduce the consumption of resources.  Even without the parties, concerts, or candle burning, Earth Hour could only delay consumption, not reduce it.  A more effective way to pursue the goal of Earth Hour would be to calculate one’s annual income, divide it by the number of hours in a year and (cleanly) burn that much money—less money equals less future consumption.

Some might say that misses the point, Earth hour is meant to be a symbol.  But it won’t “send a message” to politicians (at least not the intended one), and its hollowness causes other problems.  As a thought experiment, why isn’t it Earth two hours, or a whole day?  And how many Earth Hour participants really enjoy sitting in the dark, as opposed to burning candles, playing flashlight tag and attending Earth Hour concerts?  The real message Earth Hour sends politicians is that people think this fights climate change, and any policies which actually restrict access to carbon-based energy would be political suicide.

At the same time, Earth Hour dims the image of carbon emission reduction policies by associating them with hardship.  If climate change mitigation policies were sold as policies of sacrifice, they’d be even less popular than they are already.  The best escape route from this charge of sacrifice is that new technologies (which, the story goes, we would have adopted long ago anyway) will make the shift to a low-carbon economy painless.  Yet going without light for an hour celebrates sacrifice while renouncing technology.

This is not only the wrong image, it is the wrong policy.  Earth Hour preaches deprivation (in principle, if not in practice) but wealthier countries are better environmental stewards than poor nations. That’s because people tend to look after their most basic needs first and the environment second.  Saving the Amazon rainforest as vital carbon sinks is good and well if you live in a country like Canada, but some people in Brazil are desperate enough for survival that the army must fight illegal deforestation.  Wealth and technology should be the celebrated hope for solving problems like climate change; instead, Earth Hour symbolically switches them off.

Earth Hour is not just ineffective at promoting carbon emission reduction.  Politically and practically, it achieves the opposite. Why would somebody who cared deeply about climate change want to be part of an event so wrong-headed?  The conclusion that Earth Hour is not primarily about climate change—rather that climate change is a proxy for some other cause—becomes harder to escape with each passing Earth Hour.

Some argue the other reason for Earth Hour events are to simply have a good time.  Coca-Cola is a major sponsor and they know how to back a good festival –just look at the Olympics.  The festival hypothesis may explain the motives of mainstream participants, but not the chosen theme of the festival.

In contrast, one U.S. think tank is promoting Human Achievement Hour, designed to coincide with Earth Hour.  It’s a meditation on economic and technological progress that, since 1800, has doubled life expectancies and fed six times more people than ever before. Human achievement all but eradicated countless diseases such as polio and tuberculosis; it also puts 300,000 new books on the shelves every year, and so on.

Anyone with the slightest intuition about modern society, though, would bet long odds against Human Achievement Hour being anything more than a fringe event. Popular culture has moved away from the values that created our prosperous society by choosing a festival that celebrates downplaying or opposing our wealth and technology.

At the most flourishing time in human history, popular culture takes human achievement for granted.  Instead, it seeks symbolism that renounces the Enlightenment values of the last two hundred years—quantifiable data, measurable results, reason, and the liberation of humanity and nature from the effects of poverty which destroys both human souls and nature.  In the broad sweep of history, movements such as Earth Hour are usually described as occult.