It’s easy to bag Earth Hour. I’ve been doing it for four years. Lets face it, as far as utterly ineffectual token gestures designed to massage the consciences of touchy-feely city-dwelling greenies goes, this one is right up there at the top of the list. I attended my first (and only) Earth Hour bash back in 2007. It was a swanky, or “schmancy” as McDonalds would say, affair atop Customs House overlooking Circular Quay. Breakfast canapés. A glass of champagne. They were all there; Morris Iemma, Barry O’Farrell, a handful of journos and a couple of pop stars. I’m sure I glimpsed Tom Keneally engrossed in conversation with Bryan Brown, so I knew it must be a Significant Event. But I was nonetheless baffled. “This is a joke,” I sniggered to my advertising companion. “Switch your lights out for an hour? And save the planet? Give me a break.”
Earth Hour started out as a self-promoting publicity stunt, of course. Most people don’t associate Earth Hour with the World Wildlife Fund (why should they? Shouldn’t the WWF be out saving polar bears from dying in German zoos rather than bothering about electricity consumption?) but it was Greg Bourne, head of the Australian WWF, who appears to have dreamt the whole thing up. But like any great success story, it has many fathers. Fairfax, Leo Burnett’s and others were quick to recognize the potential of the idea. In fact, Earth Hour’s popularity grew out of a period when many in the media and advertising were beginning to feel deeply uncomfortable – in the wake of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”- about the unrelenting role their industries play in advocating useless excessive consumption of all manner of goods. Thus, a cause that could harness the power of advertising and the media to promote a green, anti-emissions message was a wonderful vehicle to help salve their troubled consciences. Earth Hour went on to win huge advertising accolades around the world, culminating in a “Titanium” award at the most prestigious event of them all; the Cannes Advertising Festival, where the advertising agency responsible for promoting Greg’s stunt as well as numerous fellow-travellers all walked away literally festooned in creative “gongs”. In fact, over the last few years, just about the quickest way to notch up some creative kudos for yourself was to hop onto the Earth Hour bandwagon.
But this only prompted the cynics – such as myself – to point out that successful advertising is supposed to sell something. And what on earth was the planet in the shape of a 60 selling us? The answer – indeed the justification for the whole show – always struck many of us as being a tad spurious. “Drawing attention” to the cause, and “raising awareness” of the drastic “need to take action”, were the common phrases used to skirt around the slightly embarrassing fact that even after all the hoopla nobody could point to any genuinely worthwhile achievements, beyond, of course, “awareness.” Emissions saved? Er, probably not. Electricity consumption plummets? Um, not significantly. Agreement at Copenhagen? Oops, lets not go there. In fact, so unimpressive were the first couple of Earth Hours that in the second year the Sydney Morning Herald apparently had to fake up the “before” and “after” shots of all the lights going out around Sydney Harbour, because the difference between the two shots without retouching was barely noticeable – an ironic foretaste of the University of East Anglia’s fake research results scandal that erupted later that year.
As the Earth Hour bandwagon nonetheless gathered steam, so too did the indignation and fury of her detractors. Denounced as a “return to the dark ages”. “anti-humanist” and so on, there were plenty of experts quick to point out the insanity of demonizing electricity; the most important and life-saving invention our species has thus far been responsible for. A world without light and power, which logically appears to be the end-game Greg must have in mind, is clearly not an attractive option for those who enjoy partaking of life’s little luxuries –such as feeding ourselves to stay alive and providing a shelter for our offspring.
But interestingly, it is here that the (possibly unintentional) message of Earth Hour is worth dwelling upon. Because what Earth Hour does superbly highlight is that if the theory of anthropogenic warming is true, then there is only one way to genuinely mitigate against or prevent it occurring. By switching everything off. Permanently. Competing statistics are continually bandied around and argued over, but the gist of them is clear enough. In order to make any significant impact on reducing greenhouse gases, the reduction in coal-based power generation has to be on a scale that is, quite literally, unimaginable. We have to switch everything off. Not just the lights. But everything. Off.
Windmills, solar and the other renewables – even including hydro – will only ever provide a piddling amount of the power we currently consume. That’s the really inconvenient truth. Even if we give the planet the benefit of the doubt, as we are constantly being reminded to do, and assume giant leaps forward in renewable resources and technology, Mother Nature simply cannot do the job of providing we humans with the energy we desire without coal.
Or uranium. But lets not go there, either.
So the only real choice we have, as Earth Hour quite rightly points out, is abstinence. We have to learn to do without. Each and every one of us. Each and every day. For as long as it takes.
The good news is, it’s not as if we don’t know how to. During World War II people famously and ingeniously coped without all sorts of things, from sugar to stockings. More recently, Sydney-siders very successfully managed to curtail their water usage for several years by making huge sacrifices on a daily basis. Sure; gardens died and cars and pavements looked filthy, but we got used to it. So let’s do it again, only this time with our personal energy consumption.
The Government would have us believe that there is a magic pudding solution available through a carbon tax coupled with targeted tax cuts that allows us to merrily carry on with our current high-energy lifestyle whilst someone else magically makes the emissions disappear. Forget it. The only way to tackle Climate Change, if you feel so inclined, is to give up all the stuff you love. The lot. Or at least the vast majority of it. Now.
That’s the real message of Earth Hour.
copyright Rowan Dean 2011