8pm local time, March 28, 2009. Switch off all non-essential electrical items for one hour.

It's not difficult.

Earth hour began in 2007 as a consciousness-raising exercise in Sydney, Australia. It was organised by WWF, the environmental group. In 2008 they took it international. 2009 aims to be the biggest ever world-wide switch-off.

On March 31, 2007, 2.2 million residents of Sydney responded to the call. Their actions, combined with a couple of thousand businesses, helped cut electricity consumption in Sydney by 10.2 percent for that hour.

Advertising billboards went dark. The famous Opera House switched off its floodlights. The Harbour Bridge disappeared into the twilight.

The 2008 project was even more successful, with all Australian cities and many more around the world participating. The organisers said "More than 370 {Australian} cities, towns and communities took part." Independent research indicated that 63 percent of adults in Adelaide actively took part by switching off one or more appliances. It has to be said that this research took place on-line and was largely self-selecting audience.

Most participants switched off lights and household appliances. About a third took one or more of the many charging units for mobile devices out of its wall socket.

Around the world, offices and business districts went dark. Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco, Detroit and other international cities responded to the call.

Even Google.com turned its front page to black to signify 'lights out'

If you want to know more and participate, there are websites, YouTube channels, and accounts on MySpace, Flickr and Facebook.

While the Earth Hour might help raise some consciousness, the point of the project is to make the hour last a lifetime.

Instead of getting up at the end of the Earth Hour and flipping the 'on' switch to all those unnecessary appliances, the aim is to leave them switched off, and to make sure they remain off, unless they are needed.

If Sydney can cut its energy consumption by 10 percent just by turning off unnecessary appliances, then together, as citizens; as concerned residents of planet Earth, we could cut our overall energy needs by the same amount. And that means we would need fewer power stations; less coal; less oil.

It's not difficult.

8pm local time, March 28, 2009. Switch off all non-essential electrical items. Leave them off.

I killed the lights; switched off the server, pulled the plug on four items that normally sit on standby. The standby items will remain off for the forseeable. The server will remain off overnight, until the kids need to use their computers. The lights went back on at 9pm.

I tried logging into the earthhour.org site. It was unavailable. Either someone pulled the plug, or this idea took off big time. I kind of think it was the latter.

Cities throughout Australia, Asia, Middle East and Europe switched off for an hour or more. Sydney, Brisbane, Bangkok, Manila all switched off for an hour. The same in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Dublin and London.

Overall, it seems, the event caught the Zeitgeist, with up to 30 million people around the world participating.

Just to balance the writeup below by Hazelnut...

Note that I said it began as a consciousness-rasing exercise. It's not really about directly saving the planet or anything as noble as that. it's about the people showing their respective governments that they care (or not) about those governments' approach to environmental issues.

Hazelnut says he is based in the UK. I am normally in the UK, but for the 2009 Earth Hour I happened to be in Singapore. The contrast in coverage and publicity was striking. In Singapore, the local papers were full of the story, ahead of the event itself. I noticied lights go off in the condominiums (apartments) all around my own. In the UK, the event was barely mentioned outside the specialist press.

Perhaps -- and I think this quite likely -- the over-educated techies (that would be me) who reside in Europe and the US can criticise this consciousness-raising exercise as mere gesture politics. perhaps we can scoff at the ineffectual efforts of a few tree-hugging weirdoes. Perhaps we feel that, by installing insulation and using bio-diesel and planting trees to offset our carbon emissions, we are doing all we can.

On the other hand, we could use the opportunity to pass a message to our politicians and power companies that we care. That we mean business. That we will choose one supplier -- or one government -- over another, depending on their own environmental agendas.

Hazelnut will know that the power companies monitor power consumption by the second. That they know when a power surge will come as we all switch on our kettles during an ad break in a popular TV programme. If a power company sees a dip on the same scale during a stage-managed publicity stunt, I would argue that it sends a message to the power companies that they need to take our views seriously, because if they don't we can upset their carefully-managed grid supply system.

During those power surges, power suppliers can switch on fast-power stations such as hydropower units which take a few seconds to bring onstream and then a few more seconds to take off line. Spare power from fossil-fuel-powered stations is used to pump the water back up to the holding pen in the low-demand phase of the cycle.

But I digress. My main point is that each of us has to do what we think fit for the environment. I do what I can, but one more thing I can do is make my voice felt in unison with others. Switching a few lights off is a zero-cost way of doing that. That's my choice. I don't ask you to follow suit. Just to take note.

And now, a more cynical view.

Earth Hour is the very sort of worthless gesture politics that has come to symbolise the modern environmentalist movement. That, and the fact that amongst the hordes of hippies, crusties, and other miscellaneous soap dodgers who occupied the City of London during the G20 summit last week were folks who were marching demanding "action on climate" without any real understanding of what they were actuall demanding be done.

The idea's this. You can turn off all non-essential appliances for one hour in the evening, during which, I presume (I, incidentally, was taking my new lady out for dinner at the time, so didn't engage in it and thus know not what you're supposed to do in this period) you sit around, in the candlelight, and feel suitably guilty. Then you flick everything back on and voilá, it's back to your normal routine of brutality and depravity. The idea is that by voluntarily not using energy for an hour, you help lessen your carbon skidmark by a percentage - oh, and it raises awareness (ugh) as well.

Except does it really lower CO2 output, to turn off all non-essential appliances for an hour?


See, most electricity generation in Britain, where I live, comes, alas, from fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas. Now, if you don't know how a coal-fired power plant works, it's a bit like a giant steam engine. Okay, technology has advanced since the Victorian era, and they're more efficient than they would have been 100 years ago, but still... it's a steam engine at heart. Vast quantities of coal is burnt to produce heat, which is harnessed by a turbine of some description and turns a dynamo. Given the size of the machinery involved, this is not a piece of kit that can be flicked on and off with a switch - unlike the televisions and hairdryers and laptop computers that the people who participate in Earth Hour are flicking on and off. Now while these appliances may cause there to be a lower drain on the power grid, does this actually alter the fact that the same amount of coal is being burnt in the power stations, and thus the same amount of smoke and carbon dioxide is going up their chimneys? It does not, because to lessen or increase the energy output of a big coal-fired power plant takes an awful lot longer than an hour and so it's probably easiest just to leave the power stations happily burning up coal at the same rate as before.

Hence, in participating in Earth Hour you are doing precisely Sweet Fanny Adams to lessen pollution.

But then, it's not about lowering pollution meaningfully, is it, or any similar stunts? It's about "raising awareness" and "showing your support." On one episode of the BBC's Top Gear a while back they were reviewing a car called the Honda FCX Clarity, which will be the concept for an affordable, reliable, hydrogen-powered car. (Though hydrogen is not a panacea; in order to produce it you have to split it off from compounds containing it, which I. requires energy, and II. the easiest compounds to get it from are found in fossil fuels. But that's a digression.) During this segment, they got the talk show host and car collector Jay Leno on camera talking about it, and he said that any such hydrogen-powered car would sell like hot cakes. Why? Because, as he put it, "in America we like people to see the good work we're doing anonymously." Which is just it when it comes to Earth Hour - it's not a way of actually doing anything, it's a badge of honour. Look at me, it says, when you sit in darkness feeling guilty. I'm a concerned citizen. I'm ecologically responsible, I take an interest in things, and as such, I'm better than you. Look upon me, you great unhosed, for I am your moral superior, and if there were any justice in the world, you wouldn't be fit to cast your shadow within 500 metres of my allotment. That's what Earth Hour is about at heart - tacking onto a cause for one's own personal moral highgrounding.

Oh, but it "raises awareness." Hrmph. There's enough awareness about global warming, don't you think? Barely a day goes by without some transcribed press release in the papers about how we're all going to die. In order not to be aware of environmental worries, you would have to be totally dead. Sorry, but "raising awareness" doesn't wash. And I think that's pretty much what's wrong with the environmentalist movement as a whole - it's all about awareness, and not about action. So, we're in danger of accidentally cremating the planet. Fair enough. What can we do about this then? What positive, economically viable and politically realistic steps can be taken? The IPCC has deep enough pockets. Surely the vast sums it spends on propaganda, sorry, public relations, can be diverted into, say, investment and research into non-fossil fuel energy sources (including nuclear energy), CO2 capture and storage - or better still, usage in some application or other? Is that too much to ask?

I sincerely hope so, but alas, I fear not, for reasons that will be explained in Part III of my ongoing "What's wrong with environmentalists?" series of nodes.

This has been a "What's Wrong With Environmentalists?" node.

Emissions trading |||||||||||||||| Environmentalism is big business

This is the third write-up in this node, and is in response to the above. Please read the above write-ups by AspieDad and Hazelnut first in order to understand all the references.

Hazelnut's view is certainly more cynical. It is not, however, very well reasoned. Putting aside irrelevant opinions regarding the personal grooming habits and level of understanding of the demonstrators at the April, 2009 G20 Summit in London, Hazelnut's main thrust is that Earth Hour participants are deluding themselves by believing that their action is beneficial, either as a direct impact on power plant emissions or as an consciousness-raising event to help increase public awareness of the dire need for revised energy policies. He is wrong on both points.

An electrical generating station does not operate at the same level constantly, but varies its output depending on demand. A good analogy is an automobile cruising along a high speed motorway with the cruise control set at 120 km/hr. When the car has to go up a hill, the motor works harder to maintain the set speed, using more fuel. Conversely, going down a hill, less work is required and less fuel is consumed.

The generator is set to operate at a constant speed of 50 or 60 Hz, depending on your location in the world. When load on the power grid is constant, fuel consumption is constant. As load is reduced on the grid it takes less power, and therefore less fuel, to keep the generator spinning at its set rate. Lower fuel consumption means lower CO2 emissions. While it is true that power plants don't respond well to large sudden fluctuations in load, as AspieDad points out, the power generating companies are well aware of impending load changes, and the idea is to make the reduction permanent.

I don't know who Sweet Fanny Adams is, but if she used less electricity during Earth Hour, she did help lessen pollution.

Now to digress into Hazelnut's digression on hydrogen powered vehicles. It is true that hydrogen is not a panacea as a fuel, and it is true that it takes energy to produce hydrogen. However, like electrically powered vehicles, hydrogen fueled vehicles put no greenhouse gases directly into the environment. Rather, they transfer any pollution to centralized power and manufacturing plants where they can be more easily contained and use less harmful fuels. The greatest source of hydrogen is water, and if a non-fossil fuel source is used to produce the electricity for electrolysis, then a hydrogen fueled vehicle has no carbon emissions at all.

Technical issues aside, Hazelnut has a great disdain for any action that may be taken because it is "the right thing to do", or because the intent may be to "raise awareness" of an issue in society. His cynical viewpoint is that these motivations are disguises for personal aggrandizement and that society has reached saturation in its awareness of environmental issues. He asks "what positive, economically viable and politically realistic steps can be taken?" In a democratic society, in order to make any solution politically realistic it must be seen as having a potential to affect votes, and that means raising awareness.

I agree that if we are to implement effective solutions to the imminent environmental crisis, they must be done on a large scale, and that requires political will. No matter what the motivation of the individual, any action that helps convince politicians that their re-election depends on action on global warming is helpful. So what if it makes you feel good while you do it?

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