Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Earth Hour 2009: inspiring example, or pointless flop?

By Guest contributors on April 3, 2009

Submitted by Keith Lehman

On March 28, Earth Hour was celebrated by the turning off of lights in more than four thousand cities and hundreds of thousands of households around the world. It's a major symbolic event intended to focus attention on the need to change our energy production and consumption habits. I celebrate it every year, and I'm proud to do so.

But there are those who believe that it's a wasted effort, or worse. Joel Makower of, whom we know and respect, weighed in with the viewpoint that Earth Hour is a “media event in search of a meaning,” is pointless because it’s merely symbolic, and sends the wrong message: that energy conservation means sitting around in the dark. Read his commentary on Earth Hour here.

I disagree, and here's why:

Although Joel’s right that Earth Hour is mostly a symbolic, feel-good gesture designed to raise awareness, I don't think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t find his article useful. Quite simply, Joel is missing the point.

Earth Hour is not about teaching people what they can do directly about global warming. Its purpose is to sound a collective call to action. It is a statement from ‘the masses’ to our ‘leaders’ that we all want change. That is what all protests are about – a way for a large number of individuals to non-violently gather together and prove to the political and corporate leaders that we are ready for and, indeed, demand a significant change. By Joel’s logic, Martin Luther King's March on Washington and Gandhi's non co-operation movement were also little more than feel-good gestures.

While Joel is technically correct that the Earth Hour page does not contain any direct information about “how to address climate change the other 8,759 hours of the year,” I think he's splitting hairs. The following links on that page take you fairly quickly to sites where you can find out what to do with the other 8,759 hours:

Granted, residential energy use accounts for only 25% of the total energy consumed by humans on this planet. As a way of slowing global warming, reducing your personal energy footprint is not particularly effective. However, group protest acts as a very loud counterpoint to the standard bromides that “no one really wants change.” The point is to influence those who are responsible for the other 75%.

The reality is that, as individuals, switching over to compact florescent lights or turning your lights off at night is an equally hollow gesture. Yes, doing so saves an individual a very small amount of money, but each individual contribution is lost in the noise. The actual energy saved is essentially 0, since the utility has to produce the energy that you would have used just in case you turn the lights back on or screw in an incandescent.

It is only when thousands of people switch over or turn out their lights simultaneously that the combined contribution becomes a large enough blip for utilities, corporations, and governments to notice and begin to change habits, laws, and policy. This year, that one hour ‘blip’ ranged in size from 2% in Ireland to 15% in Toronto.

Rather than throwing stones, Joel's article might have pointed more directly to steps that individuals, corporations, and governments can take to address the other 8,759 hours in the year. So that I don't make the same mistake, here are a few links:

A) For individuals:

B) For corporations:

I welcome Joel’s ideas. He has been a fearless and thoughtful advocate for changing the way we think about, and act on, our place on earth. I’ll continue to read his insightful work on with interest and enjoyment.

But pardon me, Joel, if I continue to celebrate Earth Hour by turning off my electric lights, encourage my friends to do so, and in the intervening year, follow some of the advice from the links above. Join me?