Fast Company

Happy Earth Hour! Remember to Keep Your Lights On

earth-hour

For one hour on Saturday at 8:30 PM (whatever your local time), lights in businesses, homes, and landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Acropolis and the Eiffel Tower will go out for the World Wildlife Foundation's (WWF) Earth Hour. Companies including Walgreens, Coca-Cola, and JPMorgan have pledged to turn out their lights, and the mayors of cities like Boston, Mumbai, and Miami have proclaimed support for the cause. But if you really want to make a difference, keep your lights on.

Earth Hour is officially the kickoff for the WWF's campaign to get world leaders to agree on a global deal at UN climate talks in December 2009, but it has morphed into much more than that. Turning out the lights for that one blessed hour is, according to WWF President and CEO Carter Roberts, "casting a vote in support of the future of the Earth." Well, if that's all we have to do to show that we're in favor of sustainability, sign me up.

The truth is obviously more complicated than that, but there's a real problem with Earth Hour: one hour of complete darkness is sending the wrong message to anyone who is not a staunch environmentalist. As George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, points out in the UK Guardian,  "Asking people to sit in the dark plays very well to a widely held prejudice that 'the greens' want us all to go back to living in caves." Darkness symbolizes fear and negativity (ever seen a depressed teenager dress in all white?) while light symbolizes innovation, creativity, and everything else we love about civilization. There's a reason that cartoonists put a lightbulb above characters' heads when they come up with ideas. 

And the thing is, we don't have to hunker down in the dark and forsake our worldly pleasures to be sustainable. Yes, you might have to get rid of that Hummer, but you can replace it with a sleek Tesla Model S. Yes, it might be more environmentally-friendly to put solar panels on your roof than to feed off the grid, but it will also save you money. Maybe it's more sustainable to eat local food, but with cheap, tasty and healthy food available at your local farmer's market (or Burgerville, if you're in Washington or Oregon), why wouldn't you?

Turning off the lights is poor symbolism. We need light, innovators, and creative people to get us through our energy crisis. Awareness isn't always about cutting back. It's also about moving forward. So today at 8:30 PM, I'm going to leave the lights on--at least until I leave the room.

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10 Comments

  • Heath Sellers

    Look for my house on Google Earth. I will be the one in north Texas that makes Clark W. look like a 40w light bulb. at 8:30 I plan to turn on every light, run the 52" plasma TV, crank down the A/C, turn on the stove, run the hot water, have all 4 computers connected to Al Gore's internet, idle both Jeeps and the BMW in the drive way, wash and dry clothes, buff the car, grill steaks, cut the grass (using flood lights - of course) and drink cold beer (out of the sub-zero fridge)

    I encourage all of you sheeple to join me in a healthy dose of reality.

  • Lynne d Johnson

    You're kind of a ****. It's just symbolism. Of course there is much more that needs to be done to slow our energy consumption. If you think turning out the lights is so worthless then you should be doing something more to help out. People like you are all talk. If you have a problem with something help find a solution instead of just saying how dumb it is. You should go join the people that are turning on everything in their homes just to show the "libs" how dumb the idea is. Next time you want to write an article save me the time and don't do it.

  • Lynne d Johnson

    I believe the gist of the post is that we need more than just symbolism. That people actually need to start doing things, no matter how small. The symbolism of turning out your lights for one hour around the world can be equated to a march or rally, it does much to mobilize people around an issue at that point and time, but what are the future plans. What are people learning overall about conserving energy and how they can make a difference? Or did everyone just jump on the bandwagon for that one hour...with no follow up? I think that's the bigger question. And I also agree, that we don't necessarily have to sit in darkness for an hour to conserve energy, we can cut down on our use of electricity overall...over time. The real question, is whether people truly got that message.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    @Shannon - You're right, I should have included suggestions. I actually think Earth Day is a great example of a symbolic event celebrating the Earth that actually does some good. Just take a look at http://earthday.net to see all the clean-up events, fundraisers, and donation drives going on around the world. Earth Day is an event that raises awareness, makes a statement, *and* gets things done.

  • Mark Martin

    Due to other commitments I pushed earth hour back to about midnight, and extended it for 8 hours. I didn't notice any difference from my normal way of life. It was very restful.

  • shannon hoffman

    I think that the most interesting part of this article is the lack of suggestion offered for what the WWF should do instead of “sitting in darkness”. What do you think, Ariel, would be something that anyone in the world could do, regardless of location, financial status, education, etc…? What would have been less frightening to people? Clearly, if someone has no interest in stopping the reckless use of natural resources, Earth hour isn’t going to impact them. But for those “fickle” people out there, you may get a few of them to make at least some small change in their lives. Unfortunately, some people are good at condemning any effort made by people to bring awareness to a problem. They feel that people should only do something about the problem. Why not do both? By making a statement in turning off your lights, you say “I am identifying myself as someone that gives a damn!” Many of the “fickle” people are swayed into doing whatever is popular. If enough people identify themselves, some other people might feel like, “hey, I don’t want to be left out” and in turn, join in. Unfortunately, articles like this one give people an easy out. It tells them that it is more important to use that hour productively rather than as making a statement. However, many of those people never make good on that promise, they are only abgsolved from having done anything. There are 8760 hours available this year to do active things for the environment in. Last night, I used one of them to make a statement to both world leaders and my neighbors.

  • Cristina Calzadilla

    I think the point you raise about the association between negativity/fear and darkness is an interesting one, but I have to agree with Dirk that by no means is the point of Earth Hour to go back to the "dark ages," nor should anyone with a bit of reason perceive it to be. Turning off your lights is a very visible way to send a message; it's less about conserving energy for that one hour than it is about making a point that we need to find a way to do so on a day-to-day basis, and I would hope people understand that. While sitting in the dark (ok, candles?) isn't the most fun, it's a very obvious, visible way for individuals to send a signal to policymakers that is hard to ignore. In any case, I realize you probably do understand this and are just making a point about finding more appealing/sustainable/practical ways to encourage the average person to embrace environmentalism, but I wanted to post a comment to urge you to consider the implications of undermining grassroots initiatives that ARE out there, just because you think they might not be the best approach, in a popular, high-visibility publication... the people you are discouraging from participating in earth hour are not likely to be the ones who will innovate to find new solutions, more likely they are the more fickle ones who only hop on the bandwagon once in a while, and at least my opinion is that while bandwagons aren't what will get us to your end goal, they at least will start moving us in terms of awareness.

  • Francesco Sinibaldi

    Sending the memory.

    That candle,
    when the greatest
    level tries to
    forget a loving
    intention, appears
    in my mind
    like a distant
    idea, and also
    this care invents
    an emotion.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • Ariel Schwartz

    @Dirk. I do agree with you that the people taking public transportation and putting solar panels on their houses aren't the ones who need a message about conservation. And I realize that Earth Hour is symbolic--I'm just saying that the symbolism is wrong. Sitting in the dark for an hour is not helpful symbolism for those people who *do* need to learn about conservation (see 3rd paragraph).

  • Dirk Husselman

    Who said anything about going back to the dark ages? It's symbolism. When millions of people turn off their lights for one hour, it sends a message. "We need to do something", "We need to be aware how much energy we use". "How much we waste", etc. Doing nothing will bring us back to the dark ages for sure! I agree with your point of what we can do today. However we don't need to send the folks that put solar panels on their house and drive electric cars or take public transportation a message. It's the people that don't (want) to think about conservation and eliminating wasteful behavior!

    Dirk - San Francisco