Beyond ‘Earth Hour’
Second Opinion

Beyond ‘Earth Hour’

/ 05:13 AM March 22, 2024

Tomorrow, millions of people around the world will mark “Earth Hour” by turning off their lights from 8:30-9:30 p.m., and the lead up to the annual event organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has once again ignited the lingering debate about whether this is a bright idea or an ill-conceived one.

There has been criticism aplenty since Earth Hour’s inception in 2007, inaugurated by a dramatic lights out of the iconic Sydney Opera House.

The first set of critiques involves measuring Earth Hour against its own supposed goal of helping the planet in quantitative terms. Various groups have pointed out, for instance, that turning off lights for an hour will not actually have any meaningful reduction in power consumption or carbon emissions. If going dark during Earth Hour causes people to buy and use candles, then that, too, comes with environmental cost.

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Others take issue with Earth Hour’s messaging and symbolism. While some have acknowledged that, from a communications perspective, turning lights off is a spectacle that can make for powerful visual messaging, others have pointed out that cultures around the world have associated darkness with negativity, anxiety, and fear: emotions that are not helpful in calling people to action and solidarity. Given that many households in the Global South actually don’t have access to electricity, others have also dismissed Earth Hour as a campaign borne of privilege: one that does not reflect or resonate with people’s experiences around the world—despite its big claim of being the “world’s largest grassroots movement.”

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Finally, there are those who have argued that it detracts attention from structural reasons for environmental crisis, and by lionizing a symbolic act, it belongs to a “feel good environmentalism”—alongside gestures banning plastic straws but not plastic containers—that can lull people into thinking that they—as well as the many corporations and governments that participate in it—are doing something good when all they accomplish is a “tokenism.” If #EarthHour2024 goes trending on X, does that really accomplish anything? Perhaps more ominously, as the environmental and climate change activist Rodne Galicha told me, “Corporations are taking advantage of Earth Hour. Greenwashing everywhere especially those which have unsustainable products and services without honest to goodness policies and commitments.

”Proponents have countered that while Earth Hour itself may not have actual benefit in decreasing carbon emissions in practical terms, it nonetheless serves an important purpose, in the same way that many events—from International Day for Biological Diversity (that’s May 22) to Earth Day (yes, there’s also such a day, April 22) can be both symbolic and meaningful. Gregg Yan, founder of the Best Alternatives Campaign and former communications manager for WWF Philippines, shares the conviction that “Symbolic acts generate a lot of public interest, which can eventually deepen people’s involvement in various issues like Earth Hour’s climate change solutions.” Corporations and governments alike may be trying to greenwash themselves, but their participation in Earth Hour can be a way of holding them accountable to their presumed environmental commitment.

WWF itself, through its website (earthhour.org), argues along similar lines, touting some accomplishments: “Argentina used its 2013 Earth Hour campaign to help pass a Senate bill for a 3.4 million hectares Marine Protected Area in the country” and “In Paraguay, WWF used the Earth Hour platform to build public support to gain an extension of the logging moratorium, helping to reduce deforestation.”

But in a sign that they are acknowledging and heeding the critiques, Earth Hour’s organizers launched a big “rebrand” last year, turning the event into what it now calls the “Biggest Hour for Earth.” Instead of just climate crisis awareness, the event is also a campaign for biodiversity. And instead of just turning off lights, the call to action is now “spending 60 minutes doing something—anything—positive for our shared home.” While some of the suggested activities in the event website (earthhour.org) may be intended for a privileged online constituency (e.g., “Cook a dish to make our planet and your palate proud”; “Bring out the popcorn [and] watch a nature documentary”), we do have examples of how environmentalists have used Earth Hour in creative, compelling ways.

Galicha, for instance, reminds me of the campaign they did in Sibuyan back in 2015, when, contrary to the usual practice, they turned their lights on from 11 to 12 at night, to shine a light on the fact that despite the threats their island is facing, they’ve managed to realize 100 percent clean energy. “If a small island can do it, why not the world? We are joining the Earth Hour by switching on our lights in Sibuyan Island, The Philippines. Be a light!” Elizabeth Ibanez, one of the volunteers, said at the time.

Whether we switch our lights off or on tomorrow night, it is clear that the time is running out for the planet and if we are to save it, we need, in WWF’s words, “to take action beyond the hour.”

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TAGS: climate change, earth hour

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