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The Law of Intended Darkness

March 27, 2009

Tags The EnvironmentGlobal EconomyMedia and CultureInterventionism

Earth Hour 

Last year, on the last Saturday in March, Google's white background turned black, as a symbolic gesture for 2008's "Earth Hour."

They accompanied this gesture with a puzzling rationale:

As to why we don't do this permanently — it saves no energy; modern displays use the same amount of power regardless of what they display.

Such a gesture, done with an almost Faustian acceptance that such a gesture will make no meaningful impact on anything, demonstrates everything that is wrong with Earth Hour in its prizing of style over substance. Whether or not one believes the earth is heating, and whether or not one believes humans are the source, and whether or not one believes this is a monotonically bad thing, and whether or not we believe there is a viable political "solution" to this problem, it should be clear that the consequences of Earth Hour will provide a Pyrrhic celebration and will execute the opposite effect of what was intended — turning off light bulbs will almost certainly both increase energy usage and spend more money in the process.

Earth Hour provides a ready valediction for any environmentalist attempting to further it and a critical lesson for any student in economics. To understand this we need to consider one of the most critical laws of economics: the law of unintended consequences.

The law of unintended consequences is behind some of the greatest legal failures of any age: whether it be British attempts to provide high potato prices causing the Irish Potato Famine, red light cameras actually creating more dangerous driving conditions,Download PDF or rent control creating shortages of available housing for the people who need it, the law of unintended consequences is a reminder that human beings don't make choices in a vacuum; we make them with our next-best alternative always in mind.

Earth Hour asks people to turn off their lights on Saturday, March 28th, between 8:30 and 9:30 pm. The goal is to spread darkness around the world as a symbol of humanity's desire to affect climate change. Its website has an impressive catalog of contributors; 84 countries have pledged to assist in the cause. Let's consider Earth Hour for what it is: a myopic gesture that is a clear example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the effects of which will be more damaging to the planet.

Let's first consider what a family is saving by turning their "nonessential" lights off. To do this we'll do some very simple math: being generous, one 100-watt light bulb costs around a penny per hour to operate and generates around 1 tenth of a pound of carbon. If one therefore ran 10 light bulbs, then, a little over 1 pound of carbon would not be emitted and a dime would be saved by Earth Hour.

The question all individuals should ask themselves is, since this decision doesn't occur in a vacuum, what alternatives are present to sitting in a dark, lightless house. What is this family going to do in the dark? They might burn candles — and if they're paraffin, they are based in fossil fuels and will provide a dubious savings in either carbon or monetary cost. If they were to use flashlights instead of light bulbs the result would be an increase in carbon because candles and light bulbs are less energy efficient.

What if that family drove for 15 minutes, went and watched the stars, and drove back home? That trip would cost whatever a half-hour's worth of driving costs. If this trip took a gallon of gas, that would create around 20 pounds of carbon dioxide and would cost over $2 … for a dramatically increased cost in cash and carbon.

One can wonder further about the ramifications on safety and efficiency of turning off "nonessential" lights  and conclude that no meaningful savings can be had. Because households are responsible for only 25% of the total electric lighting, we must also consider the commercial and industrial sectors. Instead of being at home, in darkness, will shopkeepers have to return to their stores to guard them for an hour? Will adults turn on lights in dark rooms when they need to move around the house? Will candles generate more fires? Obviously none of these unforeseen circumstances — all of which seem plausible — will improve our carbon footprint.

All of these are alternatives that follow the letter of the law — to turn off essential light — but demonstrate the short-sightedness of Earth Hour. Even the data that are used to demonstrate Earth Hour's effectiveness can be easily turned upside down: while individual cities reported varying decreases in electricity usage from past Earth Hour celebrations, many — including the Australian progenitor city Sydney — saw such a small decrease in power (in Sydney's case, 2.1% in 2007) as to be statistically indistinguishable from zero.Download PDF

Even if a dramatic decrease in the use of electricity were to be seen, however, this would not tell the complete story of power usage or of the carbon footprint left by the society. As an example, if Sydney decreased its electricity usage by 2.1% by turning off light bulbs, what other less easily quantified and less efficient forms of electricity were used in its wake? It would be far more difficult to determine if more batteries and candles were sold in the weeks and months before and after Earth Hour and just as difficult to determine the most meaningful statistic — whether or not the carbon footprint was affected.

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The absolute inability to provide documentable objective success must be self-evident to the sponsoring organization, the World Wildlife Fund. In 2008 Leslie Aun, spokesperson for the WWF was forced to clarify that actually saving energy was not, in fact, the true goal of Earth Hour: "The purpose of the event was not to save money or power. It's a symbolic event."

Unlike previous years, this Earth Hour will not come with an estimation on energy savings because, in the words of Aun, "We think the value of Earth Hour is the lights going off … not the energy savings."

Ultimately, then, the effects of Earth Hour boil down to dim rhetoric. Maybe as much attention should be placed on humanity's hot air footprint as its carbon one.

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