The limits, and potential, of Earth Hour

Every year, I turn off my lights for an hour in support of Earth Hour. A few years back, I hosted a candlelit housewarming party. I understand my efforts contribute an infinitesimally small amount to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, every year I support the effort.

I participate, despite mixed feelings about the event, and a sense that, in very fundamental ways, Earth Hour sends the wrong message at the worst possible time.

It’s a chance reflect and start a conversation about living green in whatever city I happen to be in (I’ve celebrated Earth Hour in Paris, Vancouver and Edmonton in recent years). It’s a chance to, literally, unplug and unwind, to enjoy conversation without distraction.
Each location brings a new view of the challenges and opportunities for lightening my ecological footprint. In Edmonton, public transit was slow and difficult to navigate, while the city is one of the least dense in Canada. Paris has much better transit and far less efficient waste management and recycling. Vancouver stands out as a contender for Greenest City in Canada, and to some, in the world, and yet despite my bus riding, bicycling, energy saving practice, etc, my ecological footprint is still too high.

This is what is fundamentally misplaced about Earth hour – it says that the individual is responsible for both the problem and committing to the solution. Our homes, cars, and overconsumption of course matter. Without systemic change to how we design and develop cities or generate and transmit energy, there are strict limits on the ability of individuals to deal with environmental issues such as waste and climate change. If someone in Alberta chooses an electric car, they are increasing demand for electricity based on coal. That is not that person’s choice, but the result of government support for dirty industries and perverse subsidies privileging fossil fuels.

This is not meant to pick on Alberta – reliance on fossil fuels mean no individual, or large group of individuals, can possibly do enough to solve the problems we face. No amount of recycling and bicycling can overcome the lack of renewable energy in the mix, or institutional investment (e.g., universities and banks) in industries that damage the environment and our health.

Earth hour accomplishes what Michael Maniates calls the “individualization of responsibility.” By telling people that they as individuals need to do better and do more glosses over the need for rethinking the design of our economies and societies. Maybe our cities need to be smaller, and our energy systems decentralized. Maybe our values, as a society need to change: buying the latest gadget to replace a perfectly-good gadget should be shunned, not praised.

We have much work to do on our systems and on collective ourselves. To reconsider how we organize ourselves in a way that protects the ability of future generations to live happy, healthy lives is a communal undertaking. Together, it’s time to redefine what prosperity means and how we seek to achieve it. Such conversations can be had by candlelight, but also need to be taken to the halls of power – to demand our leader do more and do better.

Earth hour can be the start of a conversation, but it cannot achieve transformation.

 

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