I remember when Earth Hour first entered the public consciousness. I was so excited about my chance to change the world that I filled a bathtub and lazed around in some mass-produced body soak with all the lights off. To ensure that I didn’t miss anything – including pictures of everyone else saving the world for an hour – I dutifully charged all my electronic devices before turning the plugs off.
After I’d gleefully done my bit to combat climate change, I switched on all the lights, cooked on an electronic device, ate some industrially produced meat, and put on newly bought clothing sewn on an industrial scale.
Oh, what a difference I made!
In case you haven’t guessed, the above is a serious case of hyperbole. But I was reminded of my ignorant innocence back in 2008 when Earth Hour came around this past weekend.
Confession: I didn’t even know that this was still a thing and that people still got uppity about those who don’t subscribe to it. I spent that hour watching reruns of Pointless and eating cheese only to be confronted later by an angry post on my community Facebook group about how ashamed those of us who left our lights on during this hour must be.
Apparently saving the planet can be done by saving enough energy to power Polokwane for a whole hour. Because that’s the sum total of energy saved during South Africans’ 2017 effort.
But here’s the thing – the purpose of Earth Hour is not entirely about saving energy. Writing a column for The Globe and Mail, David Miller, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, explains as much. In fact, the amount of energy saved in this time is so insignificant that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which organises the event, doesn’t even bother to track the impact Earth Hour has on energy consumption and emissions.
Its aim centres on awareness and energy efficiency. You know, making all of us aware how we can get by just fine without having every single light in the house on and a general move away from the vast consumerism that towers over all of us.
Eskom’s PR person said that switching lights off one Saturday night “would translate into carbon dioxide savings”, but urged people to act beyond that single hour.
Ask the average person participating what the whole hoohaa was all about, though, and they’d tell you it was about saving electricity for an hour and those who strayed from this institutionalised do-goodery should be named, shamed and go and sit in the naughty corner.
And therein lies the rub. As soon as a campaign crosses over the bridge of awareness into self-serving moral indignation where a person’s willingness to make a tangible difference to whatever the campaign is fighting for is based on participation of said campaign, we have a problem.
I am not sure what the people feverishly defending Earth Hour and pouring scorn on those who did not take part do with their grey water and energy saving lightbulbs in their spare time. Or if they take their own bags to the supermarket or recycle. And while many might be perfectly good eggs who use bamboo toothbrushes and offer coffee flasks to baristas instead of opting for a takeaway cup, making tangible, lasting change is not always down to individual lifestyle choices.
Yes, of course living in a mansion on the hill with all the latest gadgets for you, your kids, your dog and the hamster is going to leave you with a larger carbon footprint. There is no denying that we can all do our bit to be more energy conscious, but the infrastructure we all share makes it too easy to waste energy rather than conserve it. Tangible change starts with public policy, not with outrage that somebody didn’t turn their lights off for an hour once a year.
Make no mistake: climate change is a serious issue. On Monday, The Guardian reported that the fingerprint of human-caused climate change has been found on heatwaves and drought. We should do what we can do reduce carbon emissions, but institutionalising the debate to such a simplistic output only dilutes the discourse.
For campaigns like Earth Hour to remain relevant – and, more important, to encourage tangible change – the message needs to change. Those who think that turning off a few electronics for one hour out of 8,760 every year clearly have the best interests of the planet at heart, but meaningful resolution will only come through dismantling systems that were designed for consumption rather than conservation. DM