March 24, 2010
This Saturday, March 27, is Earth Hour, WWF’s attempt to have everyone turn off their lights for one hour to show solidarity with the plight of the planet and send a message to policy-makers that we care about climate change. We have seen the countless TV commercials on our 450 watt per hour flat screens and tweeted on our 200 watt per hour computers that by turning off our 6 watt bulbs for one hour, we will be judged good shepherds of the planet. I am not being asked to turn off my heating, my computer, TV or stop my Sunday laundry loads, so I think I can do it. This is the problem today – environmentalism has become a big cause made of little gestures and as long as I can pet myself with comforting reaffirmations of green virtue (things that save the planet), I can easily digest the contradictions.
What is the point of this one-hour exercise? A cynic would say that it is WWF’s attempt to flex its eco-bully muscle by getting the major landmarks to comply with their demands. I suspect the Sydney Opera House doesn’t have the stomach to take WWF on in a publicity smear campaign or to try to reason with them that it might use more energy overall to re-start their lighting system afterwards. Perhaps it is a show of strength to tell policy-makers that WWF represents everyone, so they had better listen. I think we are told every day that everyone agrees with the issue of climate change, so it cannot be that simple.
Or could the point of Earth Hour be an attempt to cement environmentalist solutions in response to our complex problems? We can save the planet if we just cut CO2. Simple step number one. And how do we do that? Just turn the lights out. Simple step number two. Like all religions, eco-theology provides answers that change the questions, refocus the mind and, most importantly, reassure the followers with hope and sanctity. Telling people they can be ecologically cleansed by turning off a light-bulb for an hour is like a fundamentalist preacher telling a drug addict that they only need to give everything up and follow God and their prayers will be answered. Fundamentalist religions attract their flocks with promises based on a certain selective denial of facts.
Environmental activists are growing their ranks and extending the length of their Sunday pews by not threatening their emerging flocks with sacrifices that might hit their cherished lifestyles. If they were to tell us the full extent of the changes that need to be made in order to save the planet and live sustainably, the eco-religion would surely not grow, collection baskets will not be filled and sermons would cause unease. Sugar-coating sermons with simplicity while reaffirming continued good lifestyle is what is making eco-theology the fastest growing religion on the planet and Earth Hour will be one magnificent global jamboree.
But is it so simple? Turning my six watt light-bulb off for 60 minutes won’t save much more than my self-satisfaction that I am a planet saver. Real changes are going to be a lot harder and entail much larger sacrifices, but we don’t want to talk about them (any more than we want to talk about our pension mess or our debt crisis). Most green arguments are blissfully non-threatening in their simplicity, and so long as we do not critically examine the facts, we too can attain a certain eco-reaffirmation (rapture).
- We are told that we should drive electric cars or hybrids because we will reduce CO2 and attain a certain eco-proprietary from owning such a vehicle. This seems simple and plausible until we consider the amount of CO2 needed to make a battery-powered car with two engines (quite a lot more than a normal car) – studies are conflicting but a Hummer might actually be more eco-efficient. A real environmental commandment would be to not own a car and take the bus or bicycle (but who really would be attracted to that line?).
- It is said that recycling is a morally righteous act and a means to be absolved of one’s sins of consumeristic weakness. While simple and attractive, the amount of energy and wastewater used to recycle most products into second-rate base materials is far more destructive than what we would get from just incinerating the waste and recovering the energy. Not something that reaffirms our eco-piety so we would rather not hear that. What we need to be told in a sugar-free manner is that we should be consuming less (much, much less) and reusing more. This comes across with the sweetness of lemons.
Crusaders don’t have much pity for the infidels and may not dare to recognise the effects of their eco-missionary zeal. Africa has suffered greatly from the simplicity of these solutions, whether it is the daily malarial death toll (Saint Rachel’s DDT decision still costs 3000 lives a day), the increased sanitation threats (reduction in the use of disinfectants like chlorine) or denial of advanced agricultural technologies (GMOs have been denied to poor farmers because, well, we in Europe don’t need them). We are told that eating organic is the way to real liberation of body and soul, but as Europe is only able to grow 4% of its crops organically (Eurostat), we have to look elsewhere for our nurturing succor. Fortunately, subsistent farmers in Africa have many large families with little hands eager to pull weeds and break off pest-ridden leaves for our communal pleasure.
These are very simple solutions to complex environmental problems, and so long as we can sugar-coat them in a non-threatening benediction of ecological purity and absolution, these movements will continue to grow. And policy-makers would be loathe to unleash the wrath of the brethren.
So I look forward to Earth Hour for a moment of calm meditation. I plan to reflect on the true meaning of the exercise. I believe it is to prepare us for the consequences of our green energy revolution. Yes, the true meaning of Earth Hour is to prepare us to deal with the coming energy shortages, scheduled brown-outs and long duration electricity cuts. This Saturday will indeed be a good time to reflect.David Zaruk