Earth Hour revisited: Critics and symbols

One of most popular pages on this website is the post I wrote a year ago called “Earth Hour: 60 Minute gimmicks”. The title is a bit of a giveaway; I disliked 2008 Earth Hour’s gimmicky nature and its purely symbolic meaning. But as this year’s event approached today, I was also increasingly uneasy about my role in criticising it. As someone who trusts scientists when they say the world is going to hell in a handbasket, was I really “resort[ing] to sabotage” as my commenter “am” pointed out last year? And as most of the people who read the article got here via searches such as “Earth Hour critics”. I wondered was I really the Earth Hour detractor (fifth in the search) Google painted me out to be?

I began by checking the four pages ahead of me. First was Wikipedia. It was a typical Non Point of View Wikipedia article but did suggest last year’s Earth Hour resulted in a net increase in energy usage. MonstersandCritics was fourth in the search. M&C said the Hour appears to be a flop statistically speaking, but environmentalists are mostly in favour of it as an awareness tool.

Blogger Damien Tan was second in the search because he put critics in the title. But he is arguably not a critic. He offers a very balanced account of the problem. seeing the rights and wrongs of the event, but ultimately supporting it. He reasons: “it’s doing something no global warming roadshow, blockbuster movie or NGO has been able to do – create real excitement and buy-in around a cause, on a global scale.”

FoxNews was third and the least balanced of the four. They acknowledged the global scale of the event but headed their story with a critic of the event. Before he was identified, the “critic” announced he was unimpressed with the UN’s involvement and used my word “gimmick” to put it down: “U.N.’s participation in the event is a “self-serving,” thinly guised “gimmick” to sway public opinion ahead of the U.N.-led conference in Copenhagen in December at which world leaders will seek to approve a new global warming treaty,” he said.

But who was he? He was later identified as Thomas Kilgannon, president of Freedom Alliance, a Virginia-based non-profit organisation founded by Oliver North. Sourcewatch calls them a 501c3 (tax exempt) “educational and charitable foundation” founded in 1990 by Lt.Col. (Ret.) Oliver North, who “now serves as the organization’s honorary chairman.”

Freedom Alliance, according to their own blurb, is working to “keep America strong, keep America prosperous, and keep America free.” They are not fans of a global approach to cutting carbon emissions. “A United States bound by global law to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels and forced by the United Nations to send tax dollars and technology to poorer countries, is a country that has lost its will to lead the world,” it trumpets. With opinions as severe as that, it is little wonder they dislike Earth Hour.

But that didn’t describe me. It was just the symbol I didn’t like, not what it represented. I wondered whether other critics disliked Earth Hour for similar reasons. Tim Blair is one of those more fervent critics. He is an “ultra-orthodox” adherent of the Hour of Power established in opposition to the event. I asked him whether the purely symbolic nature of the event could overcome whatever shortcomings the hour might have in terms of actual electrical power saved. He doubted if any electricity was saved at all but agreed “every protest, action or ‘awareness raising’ about climate change is purely symbolic.” He said if Australia was to shut down everything, the effect would be so minimal as to be symbolic. “Symbolism is all the anti-carbon movement has,” he said.

Blair has a point, but the event does now have something more to go along with the symbolism. What is changing most rapidly about Earth Hour is its growing international flavour. The event started in Sydney in 2007 with two million taking part. Now just two years later it is a widespread global event with a potential audience of a billion people. The UN is behind Earth Hour and urging people to “demand action on climate change”. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the event was “the largest demonstration of public concern about climate change ever attempted” and a “clear message” that people want action on climate change.

Earth Hour is increasingly a clear message. I agree with Earth Hour’s FAQ (pdf) that climate change is the greatest threat to life on Earth. Earth Hour is no longer getting hung up on how much emissions are actually saved in the hour. The question really is one of awareness, done in “an enjoyable, yet powerful way.” And so one of the climate change issues that Earth Hour has successfully promoted is about land clearing which is the second greatest source of carbon emissions in Australia. Queensland is the worst culprit and WWF and Earth Hour are to be praised for putting it back on the agenda.

Other issues I wrote about last year are still relevant. There is greenwashing as 99 out of Australia’s top 100 companies take part. Earth Hour encourages this and has a 4.1 MB corporate pack you can download from the site. There is also the vexed matter of ownership. It is not Earth Hour it is “WWF’s Earth Hour”. The Australian concern is also partially owned by Fairfax (who have a vested interest in talking it up) and ad agency Leo Burnett. Between the three, there is very slick marketing going on to get the brand out to a wide audience.

But that is how World Wildlife Foundation operates. They are not hippy tree-huggers – they cultivate alliances within the elites of the society they want to change. What I’ve changed is my mind. I probably used to agree with Tim Blair when he told me it was about “middle-class slumber parties and candlelit dinners.” But Earth Hour is not just a gimmick: it’s a very powerful symbol of change that is seeping into the political, corporate and social culture with astonishing speed. Earth Hour is one of the primary movers in making the green movement mainstream. Like it or hate it, it looks like it has weaved itself into the fabric for keeps.

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