Let There Be Dark

On March 27 half the world was plunged into darkness. No, this is not a scene from the latest sci-fi movie at a cinema near you. This is the world’s latest gesture to show compassion to our environment- by switching off all electric lights and appliances for about an hour (8:30 pm to 9:30 pm local time). A new approach towards climate change, the campaign aptly named ‘Earth Hour’ was started in Sydney, Australia back in the year 2007 by the combined efforts of advertising agency Leo Burnett and World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Australia. Today, it is an in-thing, almost fashionable for other countries to be switching off their lights in concordance with this campaign. Thus iconic buildings like Sydney Harbor Bridge, The CN Tower in Toronto, Rome’s Coliseum, India Gate, The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and many more stood in darkness in contemplation of our planet Earth.

 The real beginnings of the Earth Hour goes back a few more years to 2004 when WWF Australia begins to look at new ways to emphasize the dangers of climate change and take it from the political to the public domain after being confronted by serious and somewhat intimidating scientific data. In 2005, a campaign was launched with the help of Leo Burnett to highlight hope and not fear in the face of the daunting data and the ‘harm’ that mankind was inflicting on their environment. The idea of a large-scale, cross-country ‘switch-off’ was proposed. It came to be known as the ‘The Big Flick’. Fairfax Media, Australia backs the campaign in 2006. Al Gore’s movie about climate change An Inconvenient Truth releases. The spotlight is on saving the environment and reducing carbon emissions. The Stern Report, which discusses the effects of climate change and global warming on the world economy, is released in October. Words of warning for what lays ahead from an economist – not from a scientist – sends a warning to governments globally about the cost of ignoring the threat of climate change. On March 31 2007 the first Earth Hour is held in Australia where 2.2 million Sydneysiders and 2100 business houses participate. In April, Earth Hour is made a national event but international interest also develops. Cities across the world sign up for it. On March 29 2008, 35 countries participate in Earth Hour. In December 2009, global awareness of climate change soars to unprecedented levels during an historic meeting of 192 nations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Vote Earth campaign culminates on 16th December with Earth Hour Copenhagen. The People’s Orb (a shimmering silver sphere encasing a 350 GB hard drive with video and images and documents from millions who signed up for Earth Hour) is entrusted to UN Chef de Cabinet Vijay Nambiar to be presented to world leaders. This year, the darkness that prevailed half across the globe was said to be the biggest global extravaganza ever!

It almost sounds fantastical the way the Earth Hour was conceived, with an earnest intention to make people see their carbon footprints in the dark, and the way it is now made into the greatest show on a global stage perhaps even surpassing the Olympics or the Oscars. The point being, all those who celebrated the 60 minutes of darkness did so with a sense of smugness: light is available at just a flick of a switch. Is this one hour of darkness enough for teaching humankind to respect the environment and the easy availability of natural renewable energy resources? As the flick of the switch lands us in darkness, our subjective mind takes over. What would, say, people in Iceland be doing to celebrate Earth Hour? Or people living high up in the Himalayan valleys? Well, for the former, the thought of even a minute without the heating system on is enough to send very very cold shivers down their spine. And for the latter, most of them haven’t seen a light switch in their lives. So what purpose does this blanket campaign of darkness serve? And by what degree can an hour of global darkness every year reduce carbon emissions? The fun campaign raises some very disturbing questions.

For now, let’s just say that the real meaning of the Earth Hour lies in its symbolism. It is possible to cut carbon emissions by moderated use of electricity. Big corporate houses in Australia make it a point to tell their employees to switch off the air-conditioning or their cubicle lights before leaving office. The same practice is now being adopted in schools and colleges. Parents are telling their children not to sleep with lights on. Teenagers are now switching off their laptop computers and televisions instead of leaving them in the idle mode. The change is coming. Slowly. The Earth Hour campaign helped plant a very basic seed in peoples’ minds: ‘We can save energy’. As we stare at the dark Harbor Bridge or the Golden Gate or the Statue of Liberty or the CN Tower, man’s testimonies of progression and advancement rising towards the inky black sky, we suddenly feel closer to nature. Almost primeval. Notice how beautiful the Milky Way looks from my terrace? Sure honey, the lights are out. Its Earth Hour now isn’t it!

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