ENVIRONMENT: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Earth Hour: World Wildlife Fund publicity stunt
, March 3, 2012
On March 31, Australians will be asked to turn off their lights for one hour to save the planet, as part of the global campaign known as Earth Hour.
It is now six years since the first Earth Hour. What began as an event organised by the conservation organisation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Sydney, has become a global “event” which takes place in 130 cities across the world.
The idea of turning off lights to cut energy consumption is a very good one.
Most Australians are concerned about protecting and improving the natural environment; but Earth Hour is no more than a symbolic gesture which distracts attention from the world’s real environmental challenges, including poverty, pollution and deaths from extreme cold — not global warming.
If they were half serious, Earth Hour would be pushing for a complete switch-off of unnecessary electricity usage, not a one-hour event, restricted to lights (not power), once a year.
It is instructive to look at how the Earth Hour project was established.
A revealing article appeared on March 25, 2011, in Earth Periodical, an environmental website, which contained a profile of Earth Hour’s founder, Andy Ridley. Mr Ridley was communications director of WWF, before establishing Earth Hour.
The article explained that Earth Hour was an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, an organisation whose focus is wildlife conservation, not global warming.
Back in 2006, they wanted to get into the global warming issue, and, in conjunction with their advertising agency, decided to set up a separate body to do this.
Earth Periodical said: “In early 2006, WWF set about coming up with a campaign that would, in Ridley’s words, engage the ‘60% mainstream of public who aren’t engaged’ by the environmental debate, stoked by John Howard’s refusal for Australia to act without international agreement on climate change.
“WWF’s initial response flopped. Ridley says the scheme, called Future Makers, was a ‘Kennedy-esque’ call to arms for the nation’s young to contribute to Australia’s environmental future, but it lacked a core idea to turn it into a mainstream movement.
“However, a story spotted online about Bangkok authorities asking citizens to turn off their power because of fuel shortages inspired Ridley.
“Over breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, the idea of a ‘lights off’ campaign was floated among the WWF team and its advertising agency, Leo Burnett. The concept gathered pace and Fairfax, Australia’s second largest media company, jumped on board in support.
“Outside influences helped too — Al Gore’s doom-laden oeuvre An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Report on the economics of climate change were both helpfully released shortly before Earth Hour’s launch,” the article said.
The initial Earth Hour was a huge success — aided by both the mainstream media and the use of social media such as Facebook, to mobilise the young.
An estimated 500,000 people gathered around the shores of Sydney Harbour to watch the lights on some of Australia’s most iconic structures, including the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, turned down, if not off.
Earth Periodical acknowledged that the Earth Hour campaign had its critics. It said, “Earth Hour has been criticised for encouraging the use of candles, which commonly contain crude oil-derived paraffin, during blackouts....
“But the more mainstream grumble is that Earth Hour is a gimmick that convinces people that turning their lights off for an hour a year somehow equates to sustainability.”
And what does World Wildlife Fund (WWF) get out of Earth Hour?
First, it gives WWF a high profile as an environmental organisation, rather than one whose focus is just wildlife conservation.
Second, its website encourages people to “sign up”, so it has got the names of hundreds of thousands of Australians who are concerned about environmental issues. These people can then be mobilised for Earth Week and similar campaigns. According to its website, there are now 10 people employed by Earth Week in Australia alone.
And finally, millions of people around the world can be organised for a symbolic campaign which leaves everyone feeling good about their contribution to stopping climate change, without having to make any sacrifice to do it.
This is an example of what the American political scientist, Murray Edelman, termed “symbolic politics”, in which sophisticated political organisations enlist the media to create events which mobilise large numbers of people in pursuit of their unspoken political objectives.
As Ben Eltham wrote in New Matilda, “While the effort will no doubt fill many with a warm inner glow, there is little evidence that the initiative actually leads to sustained reductions in energy use or greenhouse gas emissions — even from Earth Hour’s official supporters. In fact, in some cases the green credibility these corporations receive from supporting the initiative works to obscure their lack of real action in reducing their carbon footprint” (March 27, 2009).