A Dim Idea
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A Dim Idea

Photo of Toronto during Earth Hour 2008 by scienceduck from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

We are, just to be clear, very fond of Planet Earth. Big fans. Huge. We are, likewise, fond of initiatives which safeguard our environment, and also in favour of consciousness-raising efforts that promote such initiatives. Therefore, when we say that many of the events being held to celebrate Earth Hour tomorrow are vacuous publicity exercises that insult our intelligence and with which we want no truck, we are not doing it because we think this whole environmental crisis we’ve been hearing so much about has been overblown. We are doing it because they are so vacuous and so insulting that we have been rendered awestruck by their inanity, and find our consciousness to be depressed, angry, and frustrated rather than uplifted.

About a week ago, a press release arrived in our inbox:

At 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, 2009 all of Toronto will join over 1000 cities worldwide in darkness for sixty minutes in honour of EARTH HOUR. Guests of The Fairmont Royal York hotel will have a chance to “green” it up by checking in by candlelight while enjoying a Greater Toronto Area (GTA) resident’s rate of $99 (exclusive of taxes, based on single or double occupancy)…Throughout the EARTH HOUR evening, The Fairmont Royal York’s Library Bar welcomes lounging guests to candlelight service and a special Earth Hour drink menu created just for this year’s cause: the Polar Cap, a cool drink in a highball glass; the Organic Globe, an icewine martini; and the controversial Carbon Footprint.

To which we could only say: are you fucking kidding??
The thing which drove us crazy about this release in particular (we’ve received many others) is that the Royal York’s parent company, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, has actually has been working on some legitimately praiseworthy environmental initiatives over the past few years. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise gets half its energy from wind and run-of-river electricity generation; the Fairmont Winnipeg banned styrofoam in 2007; the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver donates four tonnes of leftover food to those in need each year; and the Fairmont Royal York has a rooftop garden in which it grows its own herbs and from which it collects its own honey. This is not a company which needed to concoct a cocktail list (a cocktail list!) to demonstrate its interest in the environment.

Earth Hour, brought to you by Coca-Cola. Poster courtesy of World Wildlife Fund Canada.

So why did it? Even if you think that Fairmont is merely nibbling at the edges with its initiatives, they actually do at least some small bit of good—as opposed to an Organic Globe icewine martini, say, which only makes you dizzy when the lights come back on. Fairmont could have simply trumpeted what it has measurably accomplished to date, and invited guests to tour the roof and learn how they might install some new green spaces in their own homes. What is with the suggestion that we all take a sustainability-themed trip to the bar? Is it possible that they are using the occasion to try to sell us stuff, more stuff than we’d otherwise consider purchasing, under the guise of celebrating our shared love of the planet?
The Royal York is hardly the only culprit. During Earth Hour you will be able to browse the artful particleboard arrangements at a 30% dimmer IKEA (shopping’s sustainable if you can’t see what you’re buying!); pick up a free Brita water filter (filtered is the new bottled); eat numerous candlelit dinners; and catch a flick minus the annoying glare of backlit posters.
Coca-Cola is a major Earth Hour sponsor, an odd partnership if ever we saw one. Since the best thing Coca-Cola could do for the environment would be to cease operations entirely, we simply fail to understand how its involvement is supposed to help matters. That Coke rated a spot on the official poster at all is worrisome evidence that Earth Hour is suffering from a severe case of greenwashing. Of course, Coca-Cola’s sponsorship is just an instance of the broader problem. In general, the environmentally friendly choice is almost always to consume less, but that is hardly a winning business strategy and so no corporation will ever advocate it seriously. As soon as Earth Hour ventured into the world of corporate sponsors it became almost inevitable that its message would become diluted and undermined.
And what of the organization that launched Earth Hour in the first place, the World Wildlife Fund? In a move that boggles our already frustrated minds, WWF Canada is giving away a vacation for two, airfare included (courtesy of Sears Travel). Yes sirree, you can now exercise your environmental conscience by winning the chance to burn fossil fuels you otherwise couldn’t afford. (Estimated carbon emissions: 1.59 tonnes.)

We realize that all of this might make us sound churlish. Slamming Coca-Cola is one thing, but the WWF is a bona fide conservation organization that is sincerely committed to improving the state of our environment. This we do not dispute. And there are many smaller Earth Hour events worth checking out. But here’s the problem with all this consciousness-raising (or one of them, at least): our consciousness has already been raised. We know that the planet is in peril and that we need to drastically revise our lifestyles if it is to survive even somewhat intact. At some point we need to back up our awareness with concerted and increasingly aggressive action. At some point, we need to raise the bar on what counts as an environmental feel-good moment. Ten years ago—five even—these kinds of events and promotions might have served a real purpose, might have shifted public discourse in the right direction. Today they have nothing left to teach us.
Last year Toronto’s electricity demand dropped by 8.7% during Earth Hour. While that is no small feat, what we really need is to learn how to permanently reduce our demand for energy. Let’s have an Earth Hour by all means, but a real one, one which involves activities that actually help the environment and offers education that actually teaches us how to maintain that effort the other 8,764.8 hours of the year.