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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spirit of Light or Darkness


- a view of a darkened London from the Eye

I saw an interesting article on Earth Hour in the Guardian ......

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Earth Hour: Turning out the lights plays into the hands of our critics

In my 25 years of environmental campaigning I have seen lots of inspired protests and lots of daft or pointless ones. But the WWF Earth Hour campaign has to be one of the most misguided and counterproductive actions I have ever seen.

On the face of it, this seems like a rather neat idea, which ticks every box for a mass action. Turning your lights off for an hour this Saturday from 8.30pm is a small, simple act that is easy to publicise.

It is highly visible. It's something anyone can do and can involve both individuals and large businesses. WWF expects hundreds of millions of people around the world to take part. And, best of all, the action is not just a symbol but it makes a positive and even measurable contribution to the core issue – reducing emissions.

Sounds great. However, let's deal with one assumption first: this will not actually reduce any emissions. Power companies always keep spare capacity and will keep their turbines spinning through this unpredictable fall in demand in preparation for when people turn their lights back on again.

Given that this action is entirely symbolic it deserves some more searching questions: who is this speaking to? What is it saying to them? And how does it speak to their existing attitudes and prejudices ?

If you are talking to dedicated green liberals this protest works fine. They already believe in climate change and soft symbolic forms of mass action. They already buy into the concept if reducing energy consumption and switching things off – even if, in practice, they aren't very good at it.

But right now greens are the last people we need to be talking to. The absolute priority is engaging the large majority of the population who are concerned about climate change, but feel deeply ambivalent about the motivations of environmentalists and government.

Repeatedly in focus groups, people adopt a defensive stance against people who – they feel – are using the issue to take away material benefits. Asking people to sit in the dark plays very well to a widely held prejudice that "the greens" want us all to go back to living in caves.

And if we examine the deeper symbolism, things become far worse. George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, argues that while we claim to listen to surface argument, it is really the deeper metaphors embodied in our language that create our attitudes.

Light has a vast range of positive and aspirational associations: civilisation, truth, health, intelligence, safety, hope, life and salvation. Those opposing action on climate change understand this well and frequently use images of electric light at night in their publicity as a metaphor for excitement, civilisation, and progress.

So it is hard to think of any image more destructive to our cause than turning off lights. The metaphors of darkness are overwhelmingly negative: danger, decay, and death. We see the dark ages as a time of brutality. Poets such as Dylan Thomas call on us to "rage against the dying of the light". Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the first world war said "the lamps are going out all over Europe". Really the cultural resonance could hardly be worse.

The overwhelming need at the moment is to inspire ordinary people with a vision of a better world, to make them feel that action on climate change is utterly desirable and positive.

We have so many positive metaphors on our side – emerging from the danger and filth of buried fossil fuels into the sunlight of solar power; the core values of locality and community; the health that comes from good diet and exercise; and, as a larger narrative, humanity's long journey towards a cleaner, smarter and more efficient future.

Oh dear. Why, after so many years, are we still getting it so wrong?

• George Marshall is founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network and the author of Carbon Detox and the blog climatedenial.org

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that light is seen as a symbol of life when a lot of studies are beginning to show that city lights are disturbing a lot biological processes and may be causing sickness and health problems.

Personally, one of the wonderful things that I find about living where I do is the darkness. If you really turn out the lights it is surprising how much you can see just by starlight. And the stars! Not just the Milky Way with its glow across the sky, but the glitter like diamond dust that is scattered across the rest of the sky. Except to the northeast where the glare of the city lights behind the mountains kills them leaving something that is neither light nor darkness, but an emptiness.

They can turn the lights out in the city for all I care, and then we would know if it was night or day.

Love and hugs,

Mike L

7:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

Light is strange - sunflowers are heliotropic before they bloom, I read, but on the other hand tumors are said to grow more quickly in people who sleep with night lights - eek! I can actually see better in the dark than in bright light because the cones are the part of my retinas that don't work very well. It sounds beautiful where you live!

8:37 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

More interesting stuff. I had mixed feelings about Earth Hour, though we participated by default, as we went to the cinema during that time.

I like how he discusses the metaphorical implications of light and dark as they pertain to this protest.

On the positive side, perhaps it made people realize that they could participate in helping the planet simply by turning (off) a few switches. We're lazy creatures. Maybe some ambivalent people said, "Oh, okay, I can do that."

8:12 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

We're lazy creatures. Maybe some ambivalent people said, "Oh, okay, I can do that."

Yeah, that would be me :)

10:30 AM  

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