Earth Hour began this year where it always begins — on the east coast of Australia. For the next 24 hours it moved steadily through time zones around the world as millions of people switch off their lights, appliances and television sets for one symbolic hour. Around the world familiar landmarks faded to dark — Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, the Parthenon, Forbidden City and Mount Rushmore. In the Philippines a few television stations even halted their broadcasts. Organizers are still tallying the numbers, but Earth Hour 2010 was already counted as the biggest on record, with more than a billion people taking part.
Jed Goldberg admits that events like Earth Hour don’t really benefit the environment in any appreciable way, but he says they are powerful symbols nevertheless. Goldberg is the president of Earth Day Canada, an organization that coordinates Earth Day events, promotes year-round programs and educates Canadians on environmental issues. “The fact that so many millions of people around the world take part in these events shows that there is an environmental consciousness out there that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s very encouraging.”
In fact you have to go back 40 years to truly gauge the progress of the environmental movement. The first Earth Day took place in the United States in 1970, in the era of the Kent State Massacre and campus sit-ins. Environmentalists like Rachael Carson, Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall were starting to become household names, while an iconic photograph of a fragile planet Earth on a background of black nothingness — an image taken by Apollo astronauts on the way to the moon — captured humanity’s imagination. “Earth Day was supposed to be a one-day wonder,” says Goldberg. “Another excuse for a college sit-in. But it touched a nerve, and 20 million Americans took part.”
That’s a small number, in retrospect. Last year 90 million Americans switched off their lights for Earth Hour, and many more millions took part in Earth Day and Earth Month activities around the world. But is the movement really having an appreciable affect on the environment? Goldberg says yes. “Today environmental awareness is part of our culture here in Canada,” he says. “It’s part of our daily routine. Twenty years ago a lot of people didn’t even know what composting was. Nowadays a lot of urban Canadians have composters in their back yards. Recycling programs are ubiquitous and there’s a real awareness of things like organic food and energy saving.”
In fact, studies show in just the first four years of the last decade, composting increased the amount of organic waste diverted from Canadian landfills by 70 percent. Recycling has also increased by nearly 10 percent since 2006, decreasing the amount of waste coming from Canadian households by about 4 percent. But carbon emissions in Canada are increasing faster than the population, and recent events like the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan and last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico point to the fact that much more needs to be done. “We’ve just scratched the surface,” says Goldberg. “Shifting our environmental sensibilities is just the first step, but it’s an important step.”
Ten steps you can take now
1. Shop smart: Buy what you need, not what you want, and consider borrowing or renting things you use once in awhile. Think “second hand.”
2. Save: Use compact florescent light bulbs, low flow faucets and shower heads.
3. Consider alternative transportation : Municipal transit, bicycles, car share programs and proper car maintenance can have a big impact.
4. Make sensible food choices: Eat local and organic, and cut down on meat products.
5. Wash clothes responsibly: Think cold water and air drying.
6. Heat and cool your home carefully: Set summer air conditioners to around 25°C and winter thermostats to around 20°C. Install programmable thermostats and ceiling fans.
7. Stay close to home: Vacation, work and shop as close to home as possible.
8. Think bathroom basics: Take short showers instead of baths and turn off faucets when brushing your teeth.
9. Clean Carefully: Choose natural, non-toxic cleaners or make your own with things like vinegar, baking soda and water.
10. Don’t discard: Reuse, recycle or donate instead.
Source: Earth Day Canada