Opinionista Ivo Vegter 21 March 2016

Earth Hour: Celebrating economic decline and poverty

I totally missed this year’s Earth Hour, but if I didn’t have all the lights in my house burning already, I’d have turned on more lights in protest. You see, I don’t agree with demonising fossil fuels, or celebrating the idea of living with less modern energy.

It all started with a lights-out event in Sydney in 2007, organised by the Australian chapter of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). What was merely a pretentious symbolic act to “encourage an interconnected global community to share the opportunities and challenges of creating a sustainable world”, has since spread, like a particularly nasty infection, to thousands of towns and cities around the world. Earth Hour, as the WWF calls it, was held on the evening of Saturday 19 March 2016.

At the time, I was much too busy hosting a birthday party and housewarming to notice Earth Hour. And although the party involved cooking meat on wood-fuelled fires and burning paraffin-fuelled lamps, none of this was intended as symbolic of a wish to reduce the use of modern energy.

Of course, it is much more than just a symbolic gesture. It is a fundraising event for the WWF. The organisation urges us to take action, by which they mean “donate money”. WWF South Africa, to its credit, has some concrete suggestions designed not only to be green, but to save you money. The latter is a much better motive than some messianic urge to save the planet. To their discredit, however, they illustrate Earth Hour with a photo of a bunch of privileged white kids holding candles. This just emphasises the elitist nature of empty environmental gestures such as these.

Other than among the comfortable elites, where energy use is slowly beginning to decouple from economic growth, the world needs more energy, not less. Energy is what enables us to leverage our work to make productivity gains. It is what allows us to become gradually more prosperous, and even reduce our individual impact on the environment.

Witness poor areas, where everything that grows has been burned for fuel or grazed to dust. Visit the shacks where wood or paraffin are the only means of heating and cooking, and witness how people with no access to modern electricity have to suffer lung diseases, discomfort and fire risk, instead.

Those who romanticise candle-lit evenings before a roaring fire would do well to remember that wood is not much different from tobacco. Its smoke causes particulate pollution, lung damage, heart disease and cancer, and is particularly dangerous to children.

In fact, before large-scale fossil fuel power stations, which still supply 85% of the world’s energy needs, this was a routine risk of life. The environmental elite might take the comforts of modern life for granted, but those without easy access to warmth, light, transport, entertainment and medical care do not. Only those who flit about near the top of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs – seeking only esteem and self-actualisation – could possibly write wistfully about de-developing their countries.

The rest of the world, and by far the majority, are too busy procuring the basics: food, water, shelter, education, security and healthcare. For those people, energy use is limited only by availability and affordability. Getting to use 5,500 kWh of electricity per year, as the average EU citizen does, would give each of them the energy equivalent of a horse, or eight labouring servants. A small car would add another 50 or 100 horses to their stable. Energy multiplies what people are capable of producing, lifting them out of the grinding poverty of land-bound peasantry and into the middle classes.

Energy has enabled modern medicine and technology. It has doubled human life-span. Before fossil fuels, people would spend hours toiling over a hot stove, and entire days washing clothes by hand. They’d plow a small plot and hope it sufficient to provide for themselves and perhaps have some to spare to trade on the market. Getting to a doctor would involve a trip by horse-drawn cart across a bumpy dirt road, and the medical facilities would not include modern scans or instruments.

Plastics, a by-product of fossil fuels, have reduced our need to turn to hardwood forests for the objects and tools we use, and enabled us to create what in the 19th-century was considered science fiction. Energy has immeasurably improved quality of life, and as quality of lives improve, so does our ability to preserve the quality of the environment.

We ought to celebrate the benefits that modern energy has brought to the world. Sure, work to improve energy efficiency. That’s a natural motive, whether you’re rich or poor. Nobody wants to waste resources unnecessarily. But do not demonise the fossil fuels that have brought civilisation so far, in such a short few hundred years. Doing so is perverse. This really should be obvious, if you have to turn to candles, paraffin lamps and wood fires to make up for the electric conveniences you’ve switched off. Remember that some people live like this all year round, and neither their lives nor the Earth are better off for it. DM



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