Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Earth Hour and all that

Another Earth Hour has gone past. According to the official website, “For the first time in history, people of all ages, nationalities, race and background have the opportunity to use their light switch as their vote - Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, or leaving them on is a vote for global warming.”

As one who chose to study ecology years before it became fashionable, I am, just possibly, ‘greener’ than you. But I did not switch off all my lights at the appointed hour on Saturday.

Apart from the fact that I found the concept of voluntarily switching off lights ridiculous in a country where the government does it for us anyway – for several hours every day – I do feel the whole idea of Earth Hour trivialises the issue of climate change.

Sample this poppycock from a national newspaper: “Have you always wanted to contribute in your own way to preserve the environment? It’s simple now. Even your children can do it, and it’s akin to giving the ailing Earth a thousand hugs. Just switch off all your lights.” If only dealing with climate change were as simple as that.

Events like Earth Hour allow people to feel good by doing something that is essentially useless, even counterproductive. A lot of people will switch off their lights this Saturday evening and most will probably feel very righteous about doing their bit to save the planet. But once the hour is up and the lights, TV, refrigerator, music system, air-conditioning, and all the rest of it come back on, it’s back to business as usual. Apart from the warm and happy glow of ‘having done the right thing’, nothing would have changed.

For most people, participating in Earth Hour is not going to lead to any tough decisions being taken on lifestyle. They can hop back into their SUVs to get to the neighbourhood store to buy bottled water without feeling guilty. After all, they already cast their vote against global warming, didn’t they?
And then there are the candles. There are going to be the now-customary candlelight marches. Hotels and newspapers are promoting candlelight dinners. One major city mall will dim its lights and has urged citizens to illuminate the place with candles instead.

This would all be funny if it weren’t so serious. Clearly more people need to understand the link between carbon dioxide and the climate. Candles = wax = hydrocarbon = fossil fuel = carbon dioxide. Depending on its size, burning a candle for an hour releases anywhere from 15 to 60 g of carbon dioxide. A standard 100 W bulb in India would release between 40 and 60 g of carbon dioxide in an hour.
This is not to say we don’t need awareness about climate change. But time, resources and people’s attention spans are all limited. Couldn’t we direct our efforts into promoting awareness in a useful, meaningful way that would have long-term effect on carbon dioxide emissions, rather than waste them on an energy-sucking event that will lead to an insignificant blip on energy use?

Surely India’s innovative minds can come up with an awareness-raising exercise less useless and more appropriate to the country? How about a car-free hour? One Bangalore-based IT company already has no-car days every few months when employees are encouraged to take public transport, walk or cycle to work. Another has planned a bike camp for its employees to promote biking to work.

But these are too few and far between. We need more such intelligent initiatives. We need to learn that every hour every day is earth hour.

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