More Do Less in 2011 Earth Hour: The growth of slacktivism

Commentary, Environment, Marco Navarro-Genie


The results are in!  Earth Hour 2011 organizers boast of the grassroots participation of greater numbers of people and municipalities across Canada.  While similar events such as Earth Day (coming up on April 22) make similar claims, Earth Hour’s measurable results are easier to contrast with stated goals. Ironically, the increased number of pledges to participate in Earth Hour this year yielded disappointingly low results. 
With more declared participants than before, B.C.’s and Ontario’s electricity consumption dropped at the appointed time, but the drop was smaller than in the previous year. In Manitoba, most people had not even heard of Earth Hour. In Alberta, the change was negligible with Edmonton’s power consumption actually increasing. Overall, in Canada, Earth Hour seems to have stalled in its goal of energy reduction. 
How do we explain that more people achieved less?
In recent politics to say and not do, a pretend form of participation, is called slacktivism.  It consists in striking a public pose of action that elicits a feeling of personal satisfaction in the poseur but brings about no practical political results.  The gesture of engagement is made in a public forum with minimal effort, seeking only a form of recognition. It is also known as clicktivism, a term drawing attention to its electronic dimension. It often involves joining a Facebook group, retweeting, or forwarding an email, taking only a click or two of a mouse before claiming political engagement. 
The whole is not illegitimate. Politics is played in a theatre of illusions. While as an activity politics requires action, appearance often suffices the theatrical part and the act of appearing to do many things well is a form of political success. Put differently, political efficiency can be measured by what one appears to be doing and not necessarily by what one actually does. 
Technology, it would seem, has brought us to a new age of political efficiency. Doing the least has never been easier: it may consist in simply saying that one is going to do something, but in fact, one only does a fraction, if anything. This is why the casual observer of politics pays attention to the actions of politicians and not simply to what they say. Most of us, other than the 2009 Nobel Peace Committee in Oslo, know that there is a difference between saying and doing.
By the measure of appearances, Earth Hour was very successful.  Earth Hour displays an absence of activity. One clicks a switch or switches from on to off; one sits and waits. It is akin to an eco-Sabbath, as the World Wildlife Fund’s CEO, Gerald Butts, properly understands it. It is “like an environmental New Year, providing a chance to reflect on how our planet is faring and what we can do to help.  That moment of reflection is the heart of Earth Hour,” Butts says.
The leap from darkness to reflection is a big one.  The counter-intuitive nature of finding truth in darkness was lost on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called for people to “use 60 minutes of darkness to help the world see the light.” That turning off lights encourages reflection has not been established.  It may, for instance, encourage mindless fun.  Last year, the Ontario Premier, Dalton McGuinty, spent Earth Hour having fun, playing cards by candlelight. Although some card games encourage thinking and some are mindless, thinking by itself is not reflection. It would seem that even Premier McGuinty missed the core pondering aspect of the eco-Sabbath.
In fairness, a part of our culture links turning off the lights to facing truth (What do you think about when you lie in darkness?), but it is not expected to lead to any specific truth, let alone the same truth for everyone.  The expectation that being in the dark for an hour will lead people to some eco-epiphany is a bit far-fetched.  It is just as likely that five minutes into it, people will come to the realization that sitting in the dark for an hour to resist global warming is just plain idiotic. 
The faddish mass appeal of Earth Hour appears to be producing precisely such a realization.  
While organizers for Earth Hour are busy drawing attention to increased number of participants, they are mostly silent about the comparative results in energy reduction.  They are aware that more and more people merely appear to be doing more.
In Canada at least, the non-activity seems to have attracted more slacktivists.  This popular eco-Sabbath has brought us to a new height of political efficiency.