On the 27 of March, Earth Hour, an initiative from the WWF, was commemorated around the globe. Public institutions and individuals turned out their lights during one hour to demonstrate their willingness to deal with climate change, at leaste that's the way that the WWF motivates the Earth Hour campaign on their homepage.
Credit: (cc) Earth Hour Global
Yes, I did spend one hour alone in the darkness on Saturday night. Tragic? Not if you have an accordion at hand. I also took a walk around outside to see how my neighbours responded to the call, which they did not really do. In one window I saw the lights being turned out, though. Earth Hour? I don't know.
Darkness is somehow good for your thinking. Maybe because your mind must provide the enlightenment that we ususally borrow from lamps. I was thinking about poverty and development. Everything develops, but not all development is progress. When you hold an accordion in your hands, that is like a monument of how much more energy-intensive our life style is now, compared to those days when humans could actually throw a party without fossile fuels. An accordion is an entire sound system, that runs on nothing but a small input of human power, and intelligent mechanics. It is true that more people can feed and educate themselves in these time of discos, dancehalls and rock concerts. But the key question for humanity is how to feed and educate ourselves without wasting our resources.
And poverty... it is probably true that more individuals than ever live enjoyable lives. I am not protesting against that, only wondering how we can make progress sustainable. If we define wealth as the known resources you can spend in the future, rather than the money you are currently spending, the world is a poorer place than ever. After centuries of exploitation, the resources we hand over to future generations is considerably smaller than the resources we inherited. Like the oil, that we managed to finish in a little more than a hundered years.
Of course. Earth Hour will not change things any time soon. The exact hours - between 20.30 and 21.30 local time on a Saturday night, are not exactly designed to save as much energy as possible. They are rather chosen to disrupt business as usual as little as possible. Noone thinks that the energy saved during Earth Hour makes any difference - the question is if the demonstration has any impact on people's thinking.
Earth Hour was in deed being critizised in Swedish press and bloggosphere. Birger Schlaug, a green ex-politician denounced the initiative as a way for consumers to clear their counsciusness while planning their next trip to Thailand. This is a valid point of course - but I still think that a consumer who turns out the lights during Earth Hour has begun to think things over. That is maybe insignificant, but not bad. Initiatives appealing to our ethics, be it Earth Hour or calls for helping Haiti, always risk to become a way to sooth our conscousness. The indifference in Western media towards the problems in the developing world has already been discussed on this platform - maybe one reason for this indifference is that many people in the West have already contributed theri 20$ to helping Haiti and have now cleared their conscience?
In this sense, I can not see why Earth Hour sould be worse than any anything else, like buying Fair Trade coffee or wearing T-shirts with prints about global solidarity and environmental responsibility. The most conscience-soothing thing of all might be blogging. Blogging can be a way to keep a lazy conscience clear. But still we blog, and still we should.
The cynics would now point out that 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — live without electricity, and thus have no lights to turn out on Earth Hour. The whole thing is really a game for rich kids with a soar consciense. One Swedish thinker propagating this view was Johan Norberg. According to Norberg, electrical light is fundamentally a good thing. The world, especially the part that is still developing, needs more of it, not less.
This is a simplified truth, but Norberg completely misunderstands the point of the Eart Hour initiative. No one at the WWF, thinks that electric light is a bad thing in itself. The environmentalists that are hardcore enough to adopt such a view are probably among those who think that Earth Hour is a nasty commercial stunt. Eart Hour is not about avoiding, but about valuing electrical light. Jews eat unleavened bread for Easter, but not because they don't like yeast, but to remind them not to take yeast for granted. This is what we must also learn - that the resources we consume are not endless, and should never be taken for granted.
At the moment, the developing world is paying for our over consumption with climate change, health risks and disrespect for trade unions and human rights. As always, the poor are hardest hit, and women harder than men. Men like Johan Norberg or myself don't feel the bite at all.
Of course those 1.6 Bn people deserve electricity as much as I do. But how will they get it? Norbergs suggestion would be to increase consumption and the exchange of goods. That way rich and poor alike improve their lot, and we would quickly achieve the UN's Millenium Development Goals, just like the rising Chinese and Indian GDP numbers has lifted millions out of poverty. This view is politically easy to defend, but is simply a pyramide game in a world of ending resources. Any progress that is not environmentally sustainable, is a waste of time and resources, just as we have learned not to waste time on projects that are not financially viable.
Environmental sustainability is listed as number seven among the UN's Millenium development goals, even though it is the very foundation for continued human activities on this planet. I can see a real danger in striving to develop countries, and pushing environmental sustainability to the future. This would likely create as many problems as it solves. A suggestion is to add a caption to the Development Goals that they should be attained in 2015, without increasing the global use of energy and resources. That could either be achieved by the north consuming much less and the south a little more, or by finding smart solutions that bring sustainable development. Maybe something to discuss in New York in September?
The only endless things in this world are love and dreams. Hatred and disappointments fade and dry out - so do fossile fuels and natural resources. Earth Hour is maybe pointless, but it could also be a way to remind us that all the resources we use are borrowed from the future, or actually, from some people's present. In any case... an hour spent with an accordion can never be a bad.
Both Schlaug and Norberg are among the most important Swedish commentators on global issues. If you are a foreigner who masters Swedish language, don't miss their blogs! Norberg also posts in English.