confessions of an Earth Hour sceptic

Saturday the 26th of March was Earth Hour – a social marketing phenomenon that started in Australia in 2007  and is now known around the world. The high visibility of switching off lights makes Earth Hour  a corporate responsibility dream.  In just 5 short years it has captured the imagination of a global audience with its initial intend to

” make a bold symbolic statement about the critical issue of climate change and to engage Australians in taking action”.

This rapid growth must make it one of the most successful social marketing campaigns globally.

I have been an Earth Hour sceptic since its inception, wondering how on earth switching the lights off for one hour could possibly assist in moving us towards a sustainable lifestyle – although I did switch off our lights on Saturday at 8.30pm.  I do, however, recognise Earth Hour’s potential to build on its success and speed up positive social change.

My main concern is that this ‘bold symbolic statement’ let’s us off the hook, offers an easy way out.

We switch off the light for an hour and feel good about the difference we make. Earth Hour’s local and global ambassadors, Miranda Kerr and Jamie Durie, have enormous public appeal and are walking and talking sustainability contradictions: both are directly involved in promoting consumption through modelling, advertising and re-modelling or landscaping gardens.  (Like the rest of us who may drive a hybrid car, buy organic vegetables & meat;  use organic cosmetics; and fly around the world for work and leisure.)

We think of ourselves as environmentally responsible by switching to ‘green’ consumer products often with a hefty price tag. We know we should reduce, re-use, recycle and offset in that priority order but at best dabble in reduction and maybe off-set our bad habits .  We lead a  pseudo-sustainable lifestyle of the well to-do.

All this makes me think about  the effectiveness of social marketing strategies to bring social change to scale – in this case, reducing consumption to a sustainable level. Earth Hour has succeeded in raising awareness and making a global statement about climate change but is it translating into action?

The Earth Hour website states:

Earth Hour is not just about one hour of darkness, it’s about a lifetime of sustainability.

Earth Hour has so far been mainly a public relations exercise, displaying an effectiveness rarely seen in awareness raising strategies directed at changing attitudes. While it needs to keep the momentum to reach more and more people, Earth Hour now needs to go beyond the one page “take action beyond the hour” on its website and link to action oriented tools.

The behaviour change required to galvanise us into action can only be achieved in collaboration with existing organisations focussed on the  same goal  and by building on existing resources to create a transition to a lifetime of sustainability.

Sustainable development requires collaboration beyond anything we have seen in the past. 2010 saw the beginning of a potentially transitional decade. We need international cooperation that brings about real long-term structural changes and deepens collaboration.

Earth Hour has a real opportunity to translate a bold statement into transformative action! Bring it on!!!

Earth Hour is organised by WWF. WWF’s mission is

“to stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and build a future where people live in harmony with nature.”

To go beyond the hour visit WWF and check out your ecological footprint.

  • Kara

    Great article. Sustainability isn’t going to come about by switching off, we need to switch on to the need for renewable energy. You may be interested in this article on Earth Hour http://therealewbank.com/2011/03/26/the-poverty-of-earth-hour/

    • Thank you Kara, I checked the link out. it is an interesting perspective on Earth Hour. I tend to agree with the sentiments. I love your analogy: it’s not about switching off – it’s about switching on! Kind regards Ulrike

  • Great points! I agree that we are too quick to feel good with our small actions to be green. I saw this Ted talk yesterday and he makes some interesting comments about the righteousness many of us have about energy consumption

    . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZoKfap4g4w&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  • Bonnie Koenig

    Ulrike – I agree with you and wrote a similar piece about the impact of these type of awareness raising campaigns, including Earth Hour as an example. “Raising Awareness towards what goal?” http://bit.ly/hh4eDM

    • Thank you Bonnie, just checked out your article and yes, we seem to be on the same wavelength. How can we mobilise these forces to go a little deeper? Maybe a topic for another blog? Ulrike

  • Hi Ulrike,

    Have always enjoyed your articles and while some of our views may differ, the mutual sentiments are far more significant.
    Earth Hour’s goals have always been to capture a global audience and inspire individuals to commit to positive change regardless of their race and social-economic backgrounds.
    In defense of our ambassadors, they have been key to influencing large numbers of people who were otherwise ignorant of the ‘little things’ that can be done to cultivate a more sustainable lifestyle.
    Perhaps in an ideal world, we would only consume based on need. We are mindful however that consumption is cultural and sustainability and conservation are more easily accepted if incorporated into modern way of life anywhere in the world. We’ve gone a long way from cave dwelling and yet there is a long way to go to a sustainable human modernity. We’d like to think Earth Hour will play some part in speeding that journey up.

    Very keen on having you guest post on our Earth Hour blog.
    Let me know if that is of interest, you have my email address.
    Look forward to hearing back.

    Cheers
    Winston

    • Thank you for your very constructive comment and I agree with you wholeheartedly, we have much more in common than divides us. It would be wonderful if Earth Hour became even more successful and known for its practical impact as well as for putting climate change on the public agenda at a massive scale.

  • As someone not on the forefront of the sustainable living push – ‘tho very conservative in my habits – but willing to be educated in those aspects of it I can adopt, one minor frustration I have is that I never know when Earth Hour is. I see it mentioned here & there, but never with a date and time. In recent years I’ve missed it all but once.

    So my suggestion would be for Earth Hour to always be promoted along with date and time. I know many are in my boat, because whenever I ask anyone if they know when it is, I get a shrug. I know Earth Hour itself is not the big deal, but it would help people feel some sort of ownership of the overall push towards sustainability if they could participate.

    Of course, this is something I should probably say on the Earth Hour blog.

    • Marlene, that is such a good point! despite all the hype and visibility it is such a minor detail and yet so often overlooked! I believe that Earth Hour is on the last Saturday each March and probably they don’t put the date into the logos because that makes them longer lasting, hence people don’t have to change graphics on blogs/websites or printed materials like posters and t-shirts! thanks for taking the time to read the opinion piece and comment. Kind regards Ulrike