Power Hour: Please don’t turn the Lights Out

I meant to post something about Earth Hour last night when it took place, but ended up sharing dinner with friends- none of whom had heard of it, though its organisers claim it to be the “largest environmental event in history.”

Earth Hour was instigated five years ago by the World Wildlife Fund . The WWF state:

Hundreds of millions of people across the world – in a record 150 countries and territories – switched off their lights on Saturday night for WWF’s Earth Hour, the world’s biggest call-to-action for the protection of the planet.

But as Donna Laframboise explains, Earth Hour is not the result of a grassroots movement but was actually instigated by corporations:

Earth Hour was brought into this world by corporations
Launched in Sydney, Australia in 2007 there was never anything grassroots or shoestring about it. There’s no history of penniless activists toiling in obscurity, working their fingers to the bone, hoping against hope to attract attention to their cause.

Earth Hour is, instead, the brainchild of two large corporate entities – the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Fairfax Media Limited.

WWF’s partners include Coca-Cola and IKEA- hardly the most likely bedfellows of environmentalists who yearn for a return to the simpler life of the pre-industrial, and rather dark, world before fossil fuels began to destroy the climate.

Now I’ve nothing against candle- lit dinners or acoustic music sessions, but as someone who lives off-grid and knows more than most in the developed world about electricity shortage, I really wonder what sort of message Earth Hour is supposed to convey.

I have no mains electricity, instead supplying power for my own lights and computer from 600watts of solar photvoltaic panels charging about 1000Ah battery storage. Through the long dark days of winter, when my demand for lighting is highest and the sun’s beneficence at its lowest, I largely rely on a back-up petrol generator. Not only was my limited solar system far more expensive than mains electricity- about EUR5000 to set up initially- but the amount of power I have available much of the time is tiny. In discussing renewable energy with students, I find it quite hard for people who have only ever experienced the convenience of the mains to understand what it means to live without it. Quite simply, not having power as as and when you need it is a severe limitation, and not one most people would choose I think to live with long-term.

In the developed world, Ireland was a relative late-comer, only completing its programme of rural electrification in the late 1970s, which “utterly transformed rural life in all its aspects – economic, social, and cultural.”

Sitting in darkness for an hour in springtime might feel like a nice way to show concern for the environment, but seems to achieve little in terms of actually reducing energy consumption. Activists who feel this is a worthwhile activity would perhaps do better to try turning the power out for, say, a whole week in the middle of winter, which might bring them a dose of much needed reality. (“Are you allowed to answer the phone during Earth Hour?” inquired my dinner hostess.)

Or perhaps, rather than continue to tolerate the profligate energy consumption of the western liberal democracies that have sired them, they might prefer to move to North Korea in solidarity with Gaia, where every hour is Earth Hour.

Electricity has surely been one of the greatest boons for improving human well-being, something which we in the West tend to take for granted, and electric light more than just a symbol of Enlightenment values. We need electricity both literally and symbolically to resist the reactionary forces that would see us return to Medieval superstitions.

The new documentary made for the powerdown/localisation movement Transition Towns, In Transition 2.0, while not linked directly to Earth Hour, extends the same theme with the soundtrack by Rebecca Mayes and her song “Turn the Lights Out”:

“we were friends in the rawest of ways
no machines, no technology in the way”.

In this interview with Rob Hopkins, Mayes explains the song as “a nostalgic look at childhood, a wish to return to some kind of simplicity”- sentiments that perhaps sum up much of what is deluded in the environmental movement.

I’m sure Mayes is a very nice person and a talented song-writer but this message seems more than a little naive, even dangerous. Nor should the glaring contradiction of using communications technology to record and promote a film that sneers at the very same technology be glossed over.

As an environmental message, Earth Hour is worse than an empty gesture; electricity should be celebrated as one of humanity’s crowning achievements. More appropriate might be a candle-lit vigil, not as “fighting climate change” or some romantic yearning for childhood innocence, but in solidarity with the 2 billion people on the planet who still don’t have access to it. Maybe the corporations behind Earth Hour should re-brand the event as Power Hour, and campaign for the wealthy nations to help extend this most basic foundation of civilisation to everyone.


3 thoughts on “Power Hour: Please don’t turn the Lights Out

  1. Graham,

    I absolutely agree with you; I don’t think many middle-class activists who promote a return to pre-technological ‘simplicity’ really appreciate how miserable it would be without access to electricity at a reasonable price. In my previous work as an energy conservation campaigner I had to tread a strange line between the wrath of the corporate and local government sectors, who then were sometimes not keen to even attempt to save energy (and money) because they did not want to appear like ‘tree-hugging lefties’, and the Green movement who were busily promoting micro-wind generation despite the fact that, in those days, small turbines never produced enough energy to cover their manufacturing embodied energy.

    While I was happy to talk about the low efficiency of many power stations, grid losses, poor housing stock and the importance of draftproofing and insulation, it was very hard indeed to convince either entrenched camp (we are all so tribal!) that making decisions about technology must include the analysis of data concerning efficiency and net consumption.

    Accepting or rejecting the concept of sustainability has, for me, allways been about the data and the extent to which people experience suffering (possibly on a massive scale – witness the numbers currently living in poverty and actually starving to death): get the technology wrong and there are consequences. But technologies are not, of course, just energy and machinery; technologies are also social systems that may or may not involve unfair and unacceptable power structures and political systems. Providing we can tell which is which, we have the opportunity to make bold technological decisions and improve equity and access. My fear is that the corporate sector and the green lobby are both so entrenched that neither are prepared to really take data seriously.

    I agree that the Earth Hour might be an insignificant gesture but it’s amazing how some gestures change attitudes, even if only for a small number of people. I always think that the most we can do is to keep plugging away at these issues in the hope that the next generation promote systems that improve the lives of the poor, are mathmatically correct and genuinely sustainable. Clearly our current global economy does not do any of those things at all well.

  2. – The land of Green fantasy maths : everything that goes against their dogma (like nuclear, GMO, non organic etc.) will be a “disaster”, risks being 100 times worse than the scientific evidence shows. Yet everything that goes with their dogma : Wind power, Solar PV etc. is somehow a magic solution with projected benefits way more than real world evidence shows.

    – With Earth hour I’m a conscientious objector in the Global Warming war. So I didn’t go the whole hog of doing the Human Achievement Hour thing (for one thing I don’t think it’s fair to rain on the Green’s parade by having it at the same time as Earth Hour)
    FB https://www.facebook.com/groups/329991997037802/

  3. I’m in agreement with you here. Earth hour, low Energy light bulbs, unleaded petrol (w43w.com/unleaded-painting-a-false-picture/) and even your photovoltaic solution are sadly not solutions for a World that wants its cake and to eat it. Most people including the majority of greens are grossly out of touch with the reality and seem incapable of doing the maths. I suspect because it always arrives at the same answer, you use, consume and waste far too much! My solution, my two web sites: this one where I rant and rave as well as share what I believe to be valuable insight (w43w.com) and the one I (tried to!) link this post to: persephone habitat and soil management – turning a blue planet green http://www.phasm.co.uk

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