Toronto Earth Hour

It’s hard to avoid discussing WWF’s Earth Hour as the annual campaign grows close each year. Since 2007, eco-conscious individuals from across the globe have turned off their lights, appliances, TV, and computer for an hour at the end of March to show their commitment to fighting climate change.

While it’s a nice gesture that’s intended to get people talking about reducing their carbon footprint, it doesn’t really involve making actual changes to the way we currently consume energy. And that makes it an easy target for journalists and environmental organizations.

Every year, articles decrying the project as “doing more harm that good” flood the web. Bloggers have pointed out that a whole city turning its lights back on at once might cause a short spike in power plant emissions and immediately cancel out the energy savings of the exercise. The fact that Earth Hour encourages people to use candles instead of lightbulbs doesn’t exactly do the environment many favors, either. Still others argue that Earth Hour is a vain project that turns people off of environmentalism by giving the impression that being green means living a “primitive” existence.

One of the biggest criticisms, however, is that Earth Hour simply doesn’t go far enough. Turning off your lights for one hour once a year doesn’t really make a dent in worldwide emissions, even if millions of people participate. At the end of the hour, everyone quickly returns to their normal consumption habits. Instead of giving people the easy way out with a once-a-year stunt, opponents argue, organizations like WWF would do better to educate people about their energy use.

The problem with this criticism is that education is the goal of Earth Hour. It’s pretty clear from their promotional materials and website that the hour of darkness is a symbolic gesture — and that it’s just a very small part of a greater commitment to the environment. The hour is meant to spark conversation, rather than being an end in itself. While it’s possible that some people participating in the event don’t “get it” when it comes to the environment, most of them probably do try to live sustainably in everyday life. If anything, welcoming people who may not know much about the movement can only be a good thing.

So how is WWF helping turn one hour a year into a year-round call to take action? Earth Hour’s newest project, I Will If You Will, aims to expand the impact of the hour year-round through fun challenges that encourage small lifestyle changes like giving up fast food, turning up your air conditioning by a few degrees, or switching to reusable coffee cups. WWF is even running a campaign to celebrate cities around the world that have shown a commitment to sustainability.

In the end, instead of sneering at Earth Hour for offering symbolic support to green causes, environmentalists would do well to use the event as a platform to inspire greater action. People who participate in Earth Hour do mean well — and if they need a little education on how to help the environment year-round, that’s an opportunity to spread the word.

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