This Saturday night, we’ll observe Earth Hour in Ottawa for only the second time, but already some traditions have become entrenched. Prominent among these is rubbishing the whole thing as inconsequential, phoney feel-good idiocy.
It’s an easy shot for the usual-suspect curmudgeon columnists and snide bloggers, always keen to recycle their favourite Fox News tree-hugger jokes, and even some environmentalists who feel Earth Hour trivializes the issue of global warming.
Criticism usually begins and ends with just how insignificantly energy consumption is reduced. Last year, power usage dropped four per cent in Ottawa during Earth Hour, enough to power a single house for four years, but short of the five per cent average across Ontario, which was itself the tiniest of drops in the bucket.
Some wise-asses are fond of further pointing out that light bulbs give off not only light but heat, and when they’re turned off at this chilly time of year, the home heating system simply ramps up to make for the lost heat, expending more energy. For their next trick, they try to calculate the emissions from the candles being used in place of electric lights.
And if the overriding goal of Earth Hour had been to save energy in the first place, perhaps the boo-birds would have a point.
But what’s happening on the grid is not as important as what’s happening in people’s minds, and in conversations in those darkened living rooms. An hour’s thought about the environmental fix we’re in and the amount of juice we waste is worth far more than the symbolic electricity savings.
Supporters hope that Earth Hour acts as a gateway drug for more sustainable behaviour. You turn off the lights for an hour and begin to realize how much power you use and find ways to cut it. Then maybe you look for other small ways you can do less damage.
A more telling criticism of Earth Hour is that when the 60 minutes are up, everybody, after congratulating one other on a planet well-saved, just goes back to wasteful normal. We go church on Sunday, and then return to being creeps the rest of the week.
But Hydro Ottawa this month announced that demand for power has slowed in the past year, growing by only one per cent instead of the usual 2.5 per cent. Yes, there’s a recession on and cutting back on electricity use is simply cheaper. But maybe something bigger is happening after all, and maybe for some of us, it starts with flicking off some lights for an hour.
– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; firstname.lastname@example.org.