Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth/Stupid Hour

Tonight is the night of Earth Hour. From 8:30pm-9:30pm we are asked to turn off all appliances other than essential ones like the refrigerator. That means that people will be turning off their lights. The thing is, however, that most of us enjoy the ability to see our way around after the sun goes down. In fact, even those who are participating in Earth Hour seem quite unwilling to give it up. Although people are planning to turn off the lights that are powered by public utilities, many of them are still planning to illuminate their way by other means.

They're going off the grid, but they're not going off the light, and quite a lot more often than not, their preferred light source is candles. In Canada, for example, some people are going to march on Parliament Hill, candles in hand. I can't think of a stupider way to participate, except perhaps to idle the car and use the headlamps for light.

In terms of the amount of light produced compared to energy expended and emissions produced, however, candles are probably the most energy inefficient and CO2/hydrocarbon producing light source currently available (except for things like head lamps on cars, whose primary purpose is something else other than providing illumination). One might object that the total amounts of light produced, energy expended, and emissions produced by candles tonight will be negligible. And I would agree. It will be. Candles will otherwise be used only for emergencies, and birthday cakes, romantic dinners and Christmas programs, and banning them for those uses won't solve any problems that carbon emissions cause. But it's not the emissions that I have a problem with.

Although participants might be under the impression that they're doing something good for the environment merely by participating, nobody organizing the event should be under any illusions that the whole world going off the grid for an hour is going to have a significant impact on righting environmental wrongs. There are 8760 hours in a year (8784 in a leap year). Having a single-digit percent reduction in power usage for one of those hours is, like candle emissions, negligible in the grand scheme of things.

The event is mostly symbolic. Thus it would make much more sense for the choice of off-the-grid light source, if one must be chosen at all, to be symbolic of their goals, namely reduced emissions and energy use. At the very least, the advocated light source shouldn't be a candle, which symbolizes the very things that they are against. I would suggest an LED flashlight, since LED lights are probably the most efficient light source currently available [1] (and I would suggest walking to the store to get it, for reasons that should be obvious to any environmentalist with a functioning brain). It is, after all, Earth Day, and not Live-in-the-past Day.

But even choosing to light the way by private means rather than public means has a slight scent of hypocrisy, regardless of the efficiency of that choice. We are told to shut out the lights that are plugged in, but almost encouraged to use other light sources that are not. Why should we draw the line between a power source whose usage can be detected by the gauges of the utilities providers and one that might only be detected by the profit margins of the businesses that sold us the flashlight and batteries to power it?

Even as as a symbol, I'm not really impressed with events like this, where people are called on to abstain from a certain activity for a specified period of time. That which is not spent on Buy Nothing Day will have been spent by that day, or will be spent some time after. Earth Hour fares just as well. One hour is not that long to go without light. Nobody is really making that much of a sacrifice, even if they choose, though very few will, to sit silently in the dark by themselves for that time. Most people who can bear the whole hour will are not likely to try and bear another, or even a whole evening, never mind a week, a year, or a lifetime.

The sacrifices that were made for an hour will not become lifestyle changes. They will not spend countless future evenings with a bare minimum of lighting. The power consuming activities that would normally have been done from the hours of 8:30-9:30 tonight will be done from 7:30-8:30 or 9:30-10:30 instead. Before 8:30 and after 9:30, life will otherwise proceed more or less as it always has, with a bit more squinting once 9:30 hits. People will feel good about themselves for a short while, but not long after the event has passed, the amount of change will be as negligible as the carbon output of a candle, and aside from scattered bits of sanctimony, nobody will notice the event took place, until it happens again next year.

[1] The only source that I can think of that might be more efficient is compact fluorescent lights. But there are environmental issues when it comes to their disposal. Besides, they usually require a connection to the grid.

3 comments:

Jonita said...

I just read part of your post to Jay and we both agree with you. Earth Hour is stupid. We would rather show our support for the earth by recycling, running cars with low emissions, using energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs, etc. It would make more of an impact than one measly hour....and it's dark anyways....and I don't like the dark :)

Oh, and yes I will be at my mom's on Good Friday. Haven't gotten the official invite yet, but I'm guessing that I can come :)

Anonymous said...

Guess you think we are stupid then since we have a great time during Earth Hour and look forward to it every year. Melanie

Anonymous said...

I remember, during the 2003 'Northeast blackout,' how some people I knew invested their 7+ hours of powerlessness with other meanings --not working (with powered anything), eating with friends the fridge-stuffs that might go bad, hanging out, etc. Fair enough, what people did (or didn't do) offset no appreciable carbon dioxide. I do recall that it allowed people a certain space in which to do things differently, relate differently. This likely sounds a bit romantic. Certainly there was much hardship among the effects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003#By_region). These hardships do point to the depth of energy dependencies that something like a 'Powerless Hour' also tries to signal.