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Not switching off lights this evening? It doesn’t matter

I have asked this question a few times since 2007. Are you among those two billion people who will switch off their home, shop or office lights for an hour at 8.30 pm this evening to send a powerful global message that it is possible to take action against climate change?

Please do not feel guilty if you count yourself with a few billion others who have different plans for the evening. It really does not matter; unless you are prepared to mind your unnecessary appliances every hour and every day. Switching off for an hour is too damn easy, and dangerous.

he Empire State Building turns off its lights during Earth Hour last year. AFP

he Empire State Building turns off its lights during Earth Hour last year. AFP

Seven years ago, we were told to turn off lights for an hour and save the planet. Since 2007, when more than 2.2 million obliged, the movement has gown phenomenally, with 1.8 billion switching off in 2011. Last year, the dark hour was observed in 152 countries and territories across 7,001 towns and cities.

The annual global consumption of electricity, however, has shown no significant downtrend since 2005. Sydney, where the Earth Hour movement famously began in 2007, recorded a 16.6 per cent growth in power consumption in 2007-08.

In contrast, Delhi, a “developing” city with a higher population and no history of Earth Hour campaigns till 2009, was recording much less annual growth (4-5 percent) in power demand. What no climate change campaign could have done was probably achieved via the simple expedient of a power tariff hike and stricter anti-tampering initiatives. Now, after four years of Earth Hour celebrations, the capital has recorded a 10 per cent rise in power consumption last year.

Tokenism is always dangerous. Campaigns like Earth Hour offer us an easy bargain and cheap moral capital. Switch off for an hour, have fun (there is no bar on music blasts), and feel good that we have that you have voted for the planet. The next day, and the next 8759 hours, life goes on as usual. Naturally, the guilt of our civilisation requires heavy purging.

But celebrating a cause a day limits our options to just 365. So we have started observing different days the same day. A few days back, we celebrated the World Sparrow Day worrying about the vanishing birds while remembering to take time out to be cheerful because 20 March was also the World Happiness Day. In fact, every year we start on that balancing note but it probably discourages property litigations when we observe the World Family Day and the World Day for Peace together on 1 January.

But it is often gets trickier than that. Day before yesterday, on 21 March, asked to mind both World Poetry Day and World Down Syndrome Day, I did not flinch. But then, someone sent a reminder to observe International Day of Forests and World Puppetry Day as well. Really, how does one club the World Helping Day with World Blasphemy Day (30 September) or remember to remember victims of chemical warfare while observing the International Dance Day every 29 April?

At times, this scheduling of symbolism appears thoughtful though. We have designated 10 December as both Human Rights Day and International Animal Rights Day, perhaps to discourage man-animal conflict. It may not be a coincidence that the International Day of the Girl Child (11 October) is also the National Coming out Day. On 15 October, we reach out to the hinterland celebrating the International Day of Rural Women. I guess it helps that the Global Handwashing Day is also observed the same day.

Seriously, does tokenism help? Many of us accept the need to cut down unnecessary and unsustainable consumption. Some of us do not. But most of us simply do not care — either because we are too rich or too poor or just indifferent. This evening, at least 1.3 billion will anyway observe the Earth Hour because they live outside the global power grid. They do it every year without being counted.

But how many of those who switch off for an hour and are duly counted are expected to make “permanent lifestyle compromises” should their governments make a few mandatory by law? The answer lies in the refusal of most governments who do not risk green reforms because their people are not prepared to accept corresponding lifestyle changes.

I often wonder if the campaigners could invest their resources in enrolling people who would make commitments of cutting down, say, 20 per cent of their annual energy consumption. Members — individuals and organisations — would furnish energy bills to justify their pledge. It is not impossible to log such members on a global web register and quantify the change.

Instead of a billion switching off for an hour because it is fashionable, the campaign would do better to enrol even a few million converts making lifestyle changes because they care. Over time, this community could grow by convincing others. It would have been hard work and the figures would not have made the glamorous jump from 2.2 million to 2 billion-plus in just six years. But in the long run, this could have forced governments’ hands. But all these are speculation.

So will I switch off this evening? I have asked this question a few times since 2007. I anyway might; I have the privilege to enjoy darkness.