On Climate, Symbols Can Overshadow Substance
Lights-Out Event More Showy Than Practical
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008; A01
March of last year, the World Wildlife Fund in Australia teamed up with
Leo Burnett, the multinational advertising agency that created the
Marlboro Man, to come up with a new environmental campaign called Earth
Hour. The idea was to get 2 million residents in Sydney to turn off all
the lights in their homes for one hour. The campaign generated wide
publicity, but the energy saved was small -- the equivalent of taking
about five cars off the city's roads for a year.
This year, Earth Hour expanded to dozens of cities around the world.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Buildingin
New York were among the U.S. landmarks that went dark. Many
corporations signed on to burnish their green credentials. A bar in
Phoenix served a drink called an ecotini -- organic vodka, green tea
and an edible orchid.
But if everyone who participated in Earth
Hour had left their lights on and instead switched to mundane,
high-efficiency compact fluorescent bulbs, simple calculations show, it
might have saved 1,368 times as much energy, because the bulbs would
have saved energy all year.
Such tension between substance and
symbolism runs through the modern environmental movement. After years
of conflict with climate-change deniers and a White House that
has resisted mandatory efforts to address global warming, the movement
has become a crusade that is partly moral statement and partly fashion
statement. Earth Hour, Earth Day and the Miss Earth beauty pageant --
"saving the planet, one pageant at a time" -- generate lots of
publicity, but they also tend to prompt people and companies to choose
what looks good over what works.
"There is a real problem in
teaching people not to do something that appears to work, but that
actually works," said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of
California's Energy Institute, which studies ways to save energy and
address climate change. Borenstein said it is hard to persuade people
to do things that yield the biggest energy savings, and not necessarily
the biggest returns in self-satisfaction.
"It is very difficult
to get people to invest in home insulation and energy efficiency, which
are much more effective than putting solar panels on your roof," he
said. "Solar panels are popular because you can see you are doing
something -- and your neighbors can see it, too."
Leslie Aun, vice president for public relations at the World Wildlife Fund and
the person with overall responsibility for running Earth Hour in the
United States, agreed that getting people to turn off their lights for
an hour has no discernible effect on the climate. What the event does,
she said, is give neighbors an opportunity to share candlelit dinners,
encourage churches to hold services about the environment and spur
schoolchildren to start family conversations about what they have
learned about climate change.
Photos of darkened cities raise the
visibility of environmental issues and make people feel empowered, Aun
said. Campaigns that raise awareness through symbolic acts of personal
sacrifice, she added, are not at odds with programs that produce
"You are not going to get people to change what
people do by engaging their heads; you have to engage their hearts,"
she said. "You need symbols to spur action. You are not going to get
people to take action unless you get them to care about the issue. You
are not going to do that by pulling out the U.N. report on blah, blah, blah."
stressed that the World Wildlife Fund wants to use the momentum
generated by Earth Hour to advance its scientific and policy goals. And
the organization handed out 1 million high-efficiency light bulbs
during the event.
Some 36 million Americans turned off their
lights, according to the group's publicity materials, which said that
"Earth Hour inspires people all around the world to show their
commitment and concern" and that the campaign is "about simple changes
that will collectively make a difference."
While the idea that
people who are emotionally committed can change their behavior in ways
that help the planet seems appealing, a growing body of research
suggests that this is not the way large-scale changes in behavior
occur. The behavior of individuals, companies and nations is largely
determined by structural factors, not personal choices.
person buys a house in the exurbs, for example (or once officials
approve such a subdivision), asking people to think about the
environmental costs of commuting isn't very effective, because they are
already locked into lengthy commutes. In the same way, installing
motion sensors that automatically turn lights off at night produces far
larger energy savings than depending on people to switch them off.
on people to make a hard choice every day -- don't turn on the lights
so much -- is a less-promising solution than getting people to make a
hard choice once," by paying more for a high-efficiency bulb, "and
thereafter having the 'save energy' decision be automatic," said Travis
Reynolds, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies how
societies save energy.
argument is supported by the numbers: Let's say people participating in
Earth Hour have 10 100-watt light bulbs in their houses, on average. If
you also assume that high-efficiency compact fluorescent bulbs last
three years and use only 25 percent of the energy of conventional
bulbs, you would have to persuade more than 400 people to turn off
their lights for an hour to get the same energy savings as persuading
one person to switch one conventional bulb to a high-efficiency bulb.
Flomenhoft, an economist at the University of Vermont, said his state's
decision to set up a public utility whose sole job is to reduce energy
consumption produced huge savings in energy use, most of which had
little to do with individual acts of virtue. The utility goes into
businesses and homes and helps people figure out practical ways to save
energy. As a result, Burlington today uses the same amount of energy it
did in 1989.
"Some people react to ethical and environmental
concerns, but a vast majority of people react to price," Flomenhoft
said. "The biggest effect on people's behavior is price. When gas
reaches $4 a gallon, everyone talks about hybrids."
prices have soared in recent months, the number of people using public
transportation has risen sharply, as has interest in fuel-efficient
cars. While the U.S. trends are a result of market-driven prices, many
European countries have obtained the same results by raising the price
of gas through taxes.
The powerful role of structural factors
also explains why some personal sacrifices count more than others. When
it comes to turning off lights, for example, Earth Hour would have
produced far more energy savings -- although no cool photos of darkened
cities -- if it had asked people to save energy during the late
afternoon, rather than at 8 p.m.
That is because energy use
fluctuates during the day. There are times when power companies bring
more plants online, and times when plants are taken offline. In
general, said Denny Ellerman, an energy and environmental economist at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, large energy
savings are produced when energy is generated and used in a steady
more a power plant operates steadily, the more efficient it will be,"
he said. "To the extent you can shift the peaks toward the valleys, you
are going to improve the efficiency."
Richard Kafka, manager of
transmission policy at Pepco, said usage in the Washington area is
highest between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and lowest between midnight and 4
"Which is smarter -- running on level ground or running up
and down a hill?" Kafka asked. "There is a characteristic of heat
engines that they are most efficient at some point, and anytime I move
off that I am less efficient."
Borenstein, at the University of California,
said he recently decided to take his own advice about focusing on
measurable outcomes. He bought a device called a Kill-o-watt, which can
measure how much energy is used by appliances and electronics, and took
it around his house to look for savings.
"It turned out the TV
and VCR in our guest room, which is almost never used unless I am
exercising, uses 17 watts all the time when it is plugged in, and it
does this 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. By unplugging
the devices when they are not used, Borenstein found he could save
nearly 150 times the amount of energy that a household with 10 100-watt
light bulbs would save by turning them off for an hour.
not going to solve this problem with voluntary measures -- it is a
problem of externalities," he said. "It is true of pollution and the
way we use oil. We address tailpipe emission problems by asking people
to make sure they meet emission requirements -- we actually check. We
have found voluntary approaches don't work when it comes to pollution."