Everything Old is New Again on Earth Day

The World Revs its Heat Engine

Last year for Earth Day I asked Santa >the Easter Bunny Congress for a U.S. Energy Policy with far greater emphasis on energy efficiency and renewables. All I got was socks. Again.

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Here at GRACE, we often discuss the efficacy of participating in or writing about events like Earth Hour or World Water Day or the granddaddy of the annual events – Earth Day. Events like these can be effective at raising awareness about specific issues and consumer behavior around specific issues. But do they actually result in any meaningful change?

If you're wondering what Earth Hour 2011 looked like in The City That Never Sleeps, check out these photos. I took the first one on the roof of my Harlem apartment building looking toward Midtown on the Saturday before, at roughly the same time as Earth Hour. You might recall that this was the night of the Super Moon. The second photo was taken in the same place during Earth Hour. New York City was definitely darker in observance of the event, but there were still a lot of lights on.

Earth Hour, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, presents a basic message with a simple action - “Click the light bulb to show your support.” From their website:

“Earth Hour started in 2007 in Sydney, Australia when 2.2 million individuals and more than 2,000 businesses turned their lights off for one hour to take a stand against climate change.”

Taking a stand against climate change is a great message but I wondered what the actual impact on energy demand in New York City was, so I contacted ConEd spokesperson Chris Olert to find out.

According to Olert, “The drop in energy demand in ConEd’s service area during Earth Hour was virtually zero.” If you think about it, Saturday evening is a time of lowered demand anyway because office buildings are closed and many people aren’t home.

Olert said that the consumer appliances with the highest energy demand are air conditioners, refrigerators, heating units and certain flat screen televisions. So the fact that I was sitting in the dark watching a movie on my flat screen TV with my refrigerator running in the next room really did nothing to lower demand during Earth Hour. Doh!

While taking a single day out of the year to educate people about tough environmental issues is a great goal, some argue that it can lead to oversimplifying complex issues like climate change, energy consumption and global water security, giving the false impression that those issues can be resolved by consumers in a few easy steps. Just turn off the lights or take shorter showers and your job is done, environmental problems sorted!

Consumer habits create demand for resources but industry practices have a major influence on resource consumption and pollution. In the United States we seem unwilling to ask our industries to continually improve and work more efficiently, leaving consumers with the challenge of resolving the problems based on making the right choices. This goal will never be met.

This tendency to want to simplify issues isn’t just a consumer sales pitch. Brett Walton of Circle of Blue had this to say after attending last year’s World Water Day events in Nairobi, Kenya, “Water quality and wastewater management are not simple problems. Simple problems are easily solved – that’s what makes them simple.” Walton also pointed out that “scripted talk is cheap,” referring to the numerous polished and repetitive speeches given by global leaders that day.

Even Earth Day, the quintessential environmental event, is not without its detractors. Critics have charged that Earth Day has outlived its usefulness saying that it now amounts to nothing more than a day of corporate greenwashing. Ecocentric editor Leslie Hatfield can attest to this, and says she receives hundreds of extra press releases in the days leading up to Earth Week, most often from industry PR reps and most often for products that we would never feature on Ecocentric. This is a disappointing evolution given its powerful and influential beginnings.

A group of architecture and planning students from Philadelphia were motivated to organize the first Earth Day (Earth Week, actually) after watching press coverage of a speech given in Seattle in 1969 by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. In his address, Nelson called for a national “environmental teach-in” to call attention to environmental issues. This was just after the country witnessed its worst (as of that time) oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and there were serious air and water pollution problems that had to be addressed.

As far as events go, it was pretty damned effective. Over 20 million people and thousands of schools across the country participated (without the benefit of Twitter, Facebook or email!). Soon after Earth Week, the country saw two landmark environmental events with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the finalization of the Clean Air Act of 1970, followed closely by the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Check out this Rainforest Action Network “Greenwash of the Week” video from Earth Day 2010 to find out just how bad greenwashing has gotten.

And lest you think the original organizers eschewed corporate backing for their programs, check out the history of the funding that got them started. Spoiler Alert: major funding came from Philadelphia Gas Works.

When you compare our current situation to the conditions that existed at the creation of the original Earth Week celebration, it’s hard not to draw parallels, but for some reason, we don’t seem to be learning from our past (oil spills, war and weakened environmental legislation anyone?).

Environmental disasters, and responsibility for cleanup after the fact, hurt businesses tremendously. And yet we aren’t demanding that the government impose stricter regulations and fines for polluters. In fact, it seems like we're headed in the opposite direction in the name of supposed job growth.

So, what, then, is the value of the many environmental recognition days, weeks, months and decades we have to celebrate these days? Is the message still being heard amongst all the anti-environment noise?

People do care about the environment -- that much is clear. When 31 million people watch a video stream of eaglets hatching in a nest and worry that a passing storm may have harmed them, it’s clear that they care. The task, then, is to help people make the connections that the problems that existed on the first Earth Day persist and environmental legislation exists not to kill jobs but to protect our livelihoods and our health and safety.

Just as in 1970, we need a renewed sense of urgency that care of the environment must be at the top of our list of national priorities, not just for economic prosperity and sustainability but also for our very survival. Maybe we need another national teach-in so people can more fully understand that natural resource depletion at all costs is a path toward a very risky and uncertain future.

Perhaps all of the environmental awareness days have become constant reminders for people to stay committed to their actions. After all, small changes do collectively add up to large gains. According to ConEd’s Olert, if millions of people in the New York City area each turned off an incandescent light bulb, then there might actually be a ripple - on the scale of megawatts - in energy demand (which speaks volumes about the need for energy efficiency in our energy policy). Now imagine if all those people also recycled and stopped driving every day and stopped eating so much meat and cut their household water use. Now imagine if the government created an energy policy that placed a high priority on efficiency and renewables as a key to our secure future. Oh man! It would be just like Christmas, only much, much greener.

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You can calculate how much electricity your appliances consume by checking out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Saver website. You can use this site to help you decide on major appliance purchases.

Take Slate’s Energy Quiz and see how well you know the energy usage of common appliances compared to a 100W light bulb.

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