Earth Hour: We will Never Give up our Energy Slaves

One of the good things about the Peak Oil movement is to highlight just how much work and benefit fossil fuels have actually done for us. It has been calculated for example that a barrel of oil is equivalent to something around 25,000 hours of human-muscle power or manual labour; at 60 barrles of oil consumption per year, the average American has anything then from 60-450 “energy slaves” working around the clock for them, providing lighting, heating, food, transport and entertainment, not to mention health care and art and other cultural exploits.

This reality of modern life was brought home most effectively in a TV show a couple of years ago in which, unbeknownst to the residents, a family house was run for a week literally by a gym full of pedal-powered dynamos- including the “Human Power Shower”:

What is odd then is how this emancipation from drudgery that fossil fuels have given us is often decried as more of a curse than a blessing. Peak oil guru Richard Heinberg for example quotes Nikiforuk’s new book (which I have not read) The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude:

The energy in oil effectively replaces human labor; as a result, each North American enjoys the services of roughly 150 “energy slaves.” But, according to Nikiforuk, that means that burning oil makes us slave masters—and slave masters all tend to mimic the same attitudes and behaviors, including contempt, arrogance, and impunity. As power addicts, we become both less sociable and easier to manipulate.

This would seem to be a classic example of retro-romantic thinking- the conviction that things are not perfect now so they must have been much better in the past- thinly disguised as concern about “dependency” on or even “addiction” to oil and technology, which is apparently a much bigger worry than the vaguaries of nature that under “normal” times would cut us down in our prime and steal our children by the sack-full; a kind of miserabalist negative thinking, where nothing good can come of progress, which is sure to end badly, perhaps even worse than if we had not bothered in the first place.

Peak oil of course is all about the problems that will face us if we “run out” of these energy slaves- and is often explained in rhetorical language as if to say, how stupid we humans are! we think we are improving our lives by exploiting these non-renewable resources but it will be all the worse for us in the long run! We should have just stayed in the caves! In fact, however counter-intuitive it may seem, human ingenuity and continuing advances in science and technology mean that we are running into resources rather than running out.

Add in an unhealthy dose of guilt about having it better than many who do not yet benefit from the stupendous gains of the last couple of centuries and you have…

Earth Hour. That is tonight, 8.30-9.30 pm when we are supposed to turn the lights off for an hour in what has become according to Andy Ridley, CEO & Co-Founder of Earth Hour, the world’s largest mass-participation event, with 7000 cities and 152 countries involved around the world.

“We didnt start this to turn the lights off, but to do something much much bigger.” says Ridley at the Earth Hour Global Media Launch last month, but I wonder if he was even dimly aware of the irony in his next sentence:

We wanted this to be about hope, not about fear… the digital revolution has meant that we are undoubtedly the first generation in history that has the power to connect behind a common purpose, the empowerment of communities…

The digital revolution powered by…. the very fossil fuels that are causing global warming and environmental destruction that Earth Hour is supposedly campaigning against.

More than that, as Lomborg points out, turning the lights out for an hour will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and if you light candles instead – or drive any distance to Earth Hour events -you will in fact cause more pollution.

Tom Zeller disagrees: why does Lomborg takes pot-shots at a “relatively benign awareness campaign like Earth Hour?” Precisely because it has indeed grown so large and influential and really does give out the wrong message- that the changes being called for in the name of solving climate change will be benign fun things like going to a fire-juggling event, or that we really should be feeling guilty about deriving better lives from the use of fossil fuels.

So I will not be participating in Earth Hour, or driving to the local event. As someone who lives off-grid on solar pv, turning out the lights would be quite redundant: in this sunless country and in this year of apparently never-ending winter, the solar panels do very little in any case and I will in fact be running a petrol generator to finish writing this and cook my dinner. (Not for much longer- I have applied for a grid connection and will soon be joining 21st century with a secure power supply.)

Instead, we should be celebrating human ingenuity and working together to ensure abundant power and electricity become available for the rest of the planet’s 1.3 billion. The Earth Hour people would do well to mull over the lessons of the peak-oilers as they sit by candle-light tonight, but be careful to draw the opposite conclusions: we will never give up our energy slaves, it is they that banished real slavery, not to mention the slavery of women in the home, and these are gains that we really should not trivialize and that we should ensure above all else are never reversed.


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.