At exactly 8.30pm on 29 March 2014, the cast of Spiderman 2 dimmed the lights of the waterfront cityscape of Singapore’s financial district. An audience of over 9,000 environmental advocates and fans gathered at Marina Bay in the name of the environment for an evening of performance and community, and to witness the co-operative efforts of a record 600 organizations switching off their non-essential lighting in observance of Earth Hour 2014. At the ground level, booths were set up for individuals to pledge to make four key changes: increasing their air-conditioning temperature by 1C; using fewer plastic bags; taking shorter showers; and switching to LED lights. An hour later, the lights came back on, and we returned to business as usual – except of course, for those shorter showers. Those same film stars – including Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Jamie Foxx – later gave a press conference expressing their support for Earth Hour and encouraging people to go to a new environmental fundraising website that was being launched that day.
Organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has recently relocated its headquarters to Singapore, Earth Hour began in 2007 in Sydney, and has since blossomed into an international event across many major cities. It claims to involve individuals, businesses, and governments in working towards a sustainable world by symbolically reminding the global community to commit to efforts on the environmental front. And it has been enormously successful as a branding exercise – Earth Hour is known worldwide, and many cities across the globe perform some kind of action to honour it.
And yet, while the WWF has been focusing on symbolic individual actions for the past seven years, this has coincided with one of the most disappointing periods on record for the worldwide environmental movement. After the successes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the fledgling ‘green’ movement was beginning to build real political power, and was translating that into sensible policy like the Kyoto Protocol, the last few years have seen the movement co-opted by corporate interests and a focus on individualism rather than collective action. After the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, subsequent UN meetings on the environment have simply become more and more depressing, and an increasing number of companies now use the language and symbolism of environmentalism to brand themselves while actually only performing minor, cosmetic actions…such as turning their lights off for one hour a year.
“With great power comes great responsibility”, the Spiderman franchise famously tells us, and linking the film with Earth Hour is clearly an attempt to suggest that each of us has the potential to exert some change on the world around us. And it is true that some good would be done if individuals did took these actions on a large scale, but in comparison to the impact of the decisions of businesses and governments, the change that individual citizens can effect through their consumer choices and energy behaviour is miniscule. Instead of continually guilting consumers to take minor actions, supposedly green NGOs like WWF need to turn their ire back onto the corporations that have the real power to change our environment for the better – this is what the green movement used to do, but which it seems to have forgotten about in recent years.
Policy and technology dictates sustainability, not the will of the individual, even when voiced in unison among a growing crowd. Sustainability is a lifestyle change that society must make even if some organizations will be forced to bear the economic cost of this, be it the business investing in architecture that increases energy efficiency like heat-deflecting screens for windows or a more sophisticated ventilation system, or the government committed to reducing carbon emissions or diversifying the energy mix, or the private organization funding alternative energy research despite the possibility of turning a loss.
If we are truly going to be empowered to create a better environment, we have to do much, much more than simply being environmentally-friendly when it is convenient and suits our lifestyle choices – or once a year for an hour. And we need to begin working on the societal level, not just the individual.
Report prepared by Janice Liu