Author’s note: This article first appeared in the Manila Times on March 23, 2013. Since it is no longer available online, and since, more to the point, absolutely nothing has changed from one year to the next except maybe the exact nature of whatever goofy promotional stunts have been contrived to mark the “event”, I am sharing it again here. I will be spending the hour doing something a little more substantial — fighting another skirmish in the effort to reduce everyone’s power bills, at least a little.
Later on this evening (between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, to be precise), the Philippines will join 151 other countries around the world in celebrating Earth Hour, an annual exercise in environmental slacktivism that began in Sydney, Australia in 2007. The main activity of Earth Hour is, of course, switching off one’s residential and other non-essential lighting for one hour as “a symbolic gesture encouraging people from all over the world to commit to more sustainable lifestyles through smarter choices,” according to the Earth Hour page on the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Philippines website. Fueled by heavyweight corporate sponsorships and a global population who have become accustomed to social media-inspired “symbolic gestures,” Earth Hour has become increasingly elaborate, with dozens of “events” scheduled to mark the occasion.
To be fair to the WWF, the organization behind Earth Hour, at least some attempt is made to deliver the message that the single hour is not an end in itself, but should be used as inspiration to become more attentive to the environment and our impact on it. New this year is the “I Will if You Will” challenge, wherein people are invited to pose an environmentally-related challenge to others; for example, Earth Hour Philippines Ambassador Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski has posted a challenge that she will donate 500 trees to the Abuan Watershed if 500 people stop smoking for at least 5 days. On a somewhat sillier note, WWF-Philippines Ambassador Marc Nelson has pledged to kiteboard from Boracay to Panay wearing a panda hat if 1,000 people pledge to use reusable coffee cups.
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Inasmuch as we might give the organizers and supporters credit for good intentions, when one begins to take a hard look at who’s behind Earth Hour and what it really accomplishes, the entire event seems a bit dubious. For starters, there is the potential environmental harm Earth Hour “events” actually cause in the form of litter and vehicle emissions (everyone’s got to get to the celebration somehow) during what would otherwise be an off-peak hour for traffic. The carbon dioxide emissions saved by turning off one light for Earth Hour are promptly cancelled as soon as someone lights one of those little candles that have become standard equipment for Earth Hour observances, to say nothing of things like fireworks displays and sky lanterns. According to a recent article published online by Project Syndicate and Slate Magazine, national grid operators in the UK have found that CO2 emissions from power plants actually increase because of Earth Hour; the problem is caused by the surge in electricity demand once the hour is over.
Of course, Earth Hour’s organizers do characterize it as a “symbolic” event, so it is perhaps too much to expect a positive environmental impact from the event itself. The problem is, there does not seem to be too much of a positive environmental impact “after the hour,” despite the WWF’s insistence that Earth Hour is meant to encourage more sustainable lifestyles. While on the one hand Earth Hour organizers make the claim that humanity’s energy use and environmental impact exceeds the planet’s capacity by half, Earth Hour Philippines National Director Gia Ibay assures us that dealing with that enormous deficit is entirely painless. In a press release posted to the organization’s website she suggests that, “It can be as simple as switching to energy-saving lightbulbs, turning off your mobile charger when not in use, or signing up for paperless banking… It’s about committing to change your lifestyle on your own terms, to change how you live in ways you can manage, in order to sustain the Earth.”
Assuming that Atty. Ibay is not being intentionally inconsistent with the WWF’s “we are using one-and-a-half planet’s worth of resources” line, consider the contradiction in terms of a simple analogy: You earn P1,000 a day, but your accountant is telling you that you’re spending P1,500 a day; if you don’t wish to soon be bankrupt, you had better find “ways you can manage” to cut your spending by one-third, preferably more. That degree of change in one’s lifestyle can in no way be “simple”.
But there may be good reasons why the people behind Earth Hour would rather public lifestyles didn’t change too drastically. On an international level, Earth Hour is a corporate marketing manager’s wet dream; Earth Hour Ltd., the corporate entity spawned by the WWF (itself a formidable multinational enterprise that had revenues of 652 million Euros in 2010, the latest year for which financial statements are publicly available) is 33% owned by Fairfax Media, the Australian media giant which owns, among other things, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review, The Canberra Times, The Dominion Post, The Press, and The Sunday Star-Times. Here in the Philippines, major corporate sponsors include all three major TV networks, Smart Communications, the Ayala Group (the Ayalas hold two seats on the WWF-Philippines Board of Directors, and four on the National Advisory Council, of which Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala is the Chairman), JG Summit Holdings (Lance Gokongwei is a WWF Board Member), and SM (by way of WWF Board Member Elizabeth Sy).
Those involved would call it corporate social responsibility, of course, but WWF-Philippines’ own financials tell a slightly different story – of the organization’s revenues (a little over P100 million as of their last available financial statement), only 8% is contributed by corporations, compared to 17% from government and aid agencies, and 25% from individual donors.
Concern for the environment and working to change lifestyles to minimize the damage we cause is important, but after taking a closer look, one has to wonder if Earth Hour is actually about “Earth” at all. Whether or not taking part in a carefully-managed, large scale marketing event is actually the best way to take the message of environmental sustainability and climate change adaptation on board and share it is something everyone will have to decide for themselves.