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Is Earth Hour a Crock?

Tomorrow at 8:30 pm people around the world will be turning off their lights for one hour in a symbolic gesture. What does that symbolize? On the plus side, it’s a symbol of widespread awareness of the impact of humankind’s activity on the climate. It also serves as a reminder  each of us has the power to make a difference, and when large numbers of us do something, it adds up. For those reasons I’ll be participating in and supporting Earth Hour.

The truth-teller and cultural critic in me, however, also feels compelled to comment on how we can and should improve on Earth Hour. Obviously, we need to extend our awareness and our actions to the other 8,759 hours of the year. If your family observes Earth Hour Saturday night, please gather in the dark and make plans for how you will shrink your footprint throughout the year. If all you do is douse the lights an hour each year, you are wasting your time.

WWF organizes the event, and I want to commend the organization for pointing out that humankind’s overwhelming impact on the Earth extends far beyond the climate. This page at WWF explains, importantly, that the scale of human activity began overshooting the Earth’s capacity to sustainably support us over 30 years ago:

Humanity is currently using natural resources faster than they can be renewed. For more than three decades, we have been living beyond the carrying capacity of our planet.

Another of WWF’s Earth Hour pages offers:

Across the world, biodiversity and natural habitats are disappearing at a greater rate than ever before.  We are depleting the earth of wild animals, water, wood and other natural resources faster than they can be replenished; polluting and altering natural habitats and changing the entire planet’s climate.

These statements are commendable, as is WWF’s annual publication of the Living Planet Report, which utilizes data from the Global Footprint Network to report on the relationship between our impact and the carrying capacity of the planet (the source of the statements above about overshoot).

Still, WWF stops short of telling us the complete truth, leaving us with the impression we can make modest, comfortable adjustments to our individual lives and the way we do business, to achieve sustainability, when in truth we need to do much more. Their Transforming Business page indicates population hitting 9 billion is a given, and then lists many good initiatives, but none of them are dramatic enough to truly fix the problem. And nothing is said about working on the population part of the problem.

7 Easy Ways to Help Tackle Climate Change offers some good advice – switch to renewable energy, purchase energy-efficient products, reduce energy use (walk, take bus, change light bulbs) – but again, not dramatic enough. Doing the right thing is not going to be easy. Get over it.

The urgency of the situation and the dramatic nature of the needed changes are not in the messaging. This could be the result of denial among WWF staff. Or it may simply be a marketing decision. The conventional wisdom is we are all big babies. We can’t handle the truth, so paint a rosy picture if you want us to do something. The only problem with that is it doesn’t ask us to do enough.

Is it true, that being more truthful about the need for change would result in even less change? We will likely never know, because there is not a broad consensus to try it. All we do know is the track record of the PollyAnna approach is pretty pitiful. Still, many cling to the belief that people need good, positive news to inspire them to action.

Earth-Think-Small_FB_EventPoster_1000px_2012-03-13-300x300 So, is Earth Hour a crock? No, I support it. It’s better than nothing. It’s a start. But, personally, I think we are expecting way too little of ourselves – and therefore getting it.

If you expect more of yourself, I ask you to visit our Pledge to Think Small. This Earth Hour , this Earth Day, this year… don’t just change your light bulbs. Change your life, and begin to change the system. This is not 7 easy ways to do anything. It is a more realistic list of things we all need to do, but they are things we can do, if we just stop expecting so little!

Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is the director of the new documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet.

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