It's easy to turn your lights out for Earth Hour, but is that enough? What else can we do on a daily basis to achieve environmental sustainability?
Hey, you! Do you want to support environmental sustainability without making a donation, volunteering your time, or even leaving your home? You do? Excellent! And better yet: you only have to be green for one hour. All you have to do is turn off the lights for Earth Hour.
Just don’t think about it too much. Because then you might realize that burning those paraffin candles instead of leaving your CFL light bulbs on may actually increase carbon emissions. And when everybody flicks their switches back on an hour later, you may be dismayed to learn that the resulting power surge might negate any benefit. But hey, don’t sweat the details—you did your part for planet Earth.
Illuminating Earth Hour’s dark side
Earth Hour is now observed around the world, but when the global meets the local, the effects can be comic, or even tragic. Take Vietnam for example. In 2009 the young people were so excited to celebrate Earth Hour, they went joyriding on darkened streets, caused a massive traffic jam, and burned large amounts of petroleum. In Finland for Earth Hour 2010, the darkened streets claimed a life as an elderly man was run down by a young motorcyclist who couldn’t see the road.
Some detractors see Earth Hour as anti-technology, as extinguishing the very light of civilization itself. But perhaps turning off the lights is symbolic of our reliance on technology more than a rebellion against it. Far from scorning Thomas Edison for inventing the light bulb, most of us are happy to snuff out the candles and return to reality. It’s fun to giggle in the dark for 60 minutes, but if Earth Hour were Earth Month, the movement would never catch on.
Perhaps the most damning critique against Earth Hour, however, is not its unintended consequences or ineffectiveness in reducing carbon emissions (even die-hard green loyalists will admit this isn’t the point). It’s that Earth Hour smacks of slacktivism—a feel-good activity that does absolutely nothing practical, such as updating a Facebook status or sporting a snarky bumper sticker.
Earth Hour supporters are quick to counter such criticisms by pointing out that the true purpose of Earth Hour is to raise awareness of global warming. But let’s be honest—if you haven’t heard of global warming by now, you must be living in a cave. And if you are living in a cave, you have nothing to worry about because you’re far greener than the rest of us.
Saving the environment is not particularly rewarding. You won’t receive earnest hand-written letters from planet Earth in exchange for a monthly donation. Scientific environmental reports all bear bad news. Developments in solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy are slow, and replacing fossil fuels entirely seems nebulous at best. The feedback all seems negative, the progress nonexistent. So, what to do?
Take it personally
The answer is simple—get personal. Research has shown that humans thrive on positive feedback through personal metrics. The concept may be familiar if you’ve ever trained for a marathon. When you run, you time yourself, and perhaps track your heart rate, distance, and altitude. When you chart your progress and see improvement, it motivates you to train harder.
When it comes to your energy usage at home, perhaps you’ve already taken some measures such as insulating your windows. You probably have some good habits too, such as turning off your appliances at night. But if you could visualize the impact these actions have on your long-term energy usage, you may be inspired to shrink your carbon footprint even further.
Fortunately, the technology needed to monitor your home energy network is now very affordable. How far you take it is up to you. You can buy a simple plug-in device that measures the power consumed by an appliance and translates that into money spent and carbon emitted. Then you can see where the power sucks are.
If you’re serious about energy management, several companies are racing to build consumer-friendly energy monitors that allow even the most fastidious to control every watt flowing through their home. These systems boast a touch-screen dashboard connected wirelessly to your thermostat and all your electrical outlets. This inexpensive investment could save you hundreds of dollars a year.
Although Earth Hour may bring the world together for 60 minutes, belonging to an ongoing community of like-minded individuals is so much more fulfilling. Fortunately, the rise of online social networking allows people to easily share ideas, offer encouragement, and even spur a bit of friendly competition. For example, check out makemesustainable.com if you want to share your progress, swap energy-saving tips, and compare your carbon footprint with others. For a little more spice, sign up at carbonrally.com to participate in a fun challenge.
True motivation comes from making measurable changes in our lives, not just by jumping on a bandwagon for a night. If we embrace technology, living a sustainable life gets a lot easier. Maybe this year you can turn out the lights—and then do a whole lot more that truly matters in the fight for our green earth.
Smart meter controversy
If tracking your own energy usage sounds too high-tech, then you can just wait for the government to drag you into the 21st century. Smart meters measure how much electricity each household uses and during what time of day. The data is sent wirelessly to your power utility in real time.
The Ontario Energy Board has already installed smart meters across the province, and BC Hydro will have them installed throughout BC by the end of this year. This upgrade will allow customers to track their daily energy consumption online or on their smart phones.
However, smart meter installation has sparked controversy among opponents. Their concerns include possible electromagnetic radiation exposure from the meters, compromised privacy, and increased utility costs.