My Earth Hour Story

Tonight is Earth Hour, when people across the world turn off all their lights and electronic devices (except the necessary ones – I don’t think you’re required to unplug the freezer) from 8:30 to 9:30 local time. This is meant to generate awareness about climate change and conservation. It’s really more of a symbolic action, to my understanding – I doubt it adds up to a significant dip in carbon emissions – but I take part anyway. I find that a lot of interesting conversations begin when there’s nothing to do but sit in the dark.

It was during the second official Earth Hour, when I was sixteen years old, that I agreed to babysit for friends of the family. Great, I thought, how am I going to get a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl to sit in the dark for an hour? I ended up turning it into a camping game, which was really fun. We made a tent out of chairs and blankets, ate popcorn, and played with a flashlight powered by a hand crank.

The girl was too young to understand the purpose of sitting in the dark – she just liked waving the flashlight around – but I talked to the boy a bit about why we were doing this. I told him how we needed to take care of nature, because it can be damaged if we don’t treat it well, and that can come back to bite us. I explained the purpose of recycling: “You can make paper out of trees, but you can also make paper out of old paper, and that way you don’t have to cut down any trees.” His face just lit up, and he said, “Oh! I get it now! Well, we should do more of that!” which was really great to hear.

Halfway through the hour, the kids went to bed, and I sat in the dark on my own until 9:30, when I turned the lights on and started to do homework. And that was the end of it…or so I thought.

Apparently, at some point during that hour, a neighbour had noticed that the house was in darkness and flashlights were waving around. He thought there was something wrong with that situation, and came over to knock on the door, but we were in the basement in our tent and didn’t hear him. So then he called the police.

It was 11 pm by the time they showed up. Suddenly someone was pounding on the door, and I, convinced that someone was trying to break in, was terrified. I froze in my seat, and contemplated hiding under the desk, but whoever was at the door refused to go away. Eventually I crept over to a side window and looked outside, where I saw a police car.

My first thought when I opened to the door to two police officers was, “Who got in a car accident? My family, or the kids’ parents?” The concept of police coming to investigate a house that had its lights off was completely foreign to me.

“It’s Earth Hour,” I said when they told me why they were there. They replied, “Yeah, we know, but we have to answer all our calls.” They took my name and my birth date, so this incident must be mentioned somewhere in the city police records. I imagine there is a note next to my name saying, “Attempted to indoctrinate children with environmentalism.”

Luckily the kids didn’t wake up, but they heard about the incident later from their parents. I still babysit these kids, albeit less frequently now that I’m in university, and the boy often asks, “Can we turn off all the lights again? I want the police to come. That would be fun.”

Lightbulbs Aren’t Enough

When you read about climate change in magazines, the articles almost invariably conclude with a list entitled “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”, or something similar.

Instead of driving, ride your bike, walk, or use public transit. When you do drive, avoid idling and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Insulate your home. Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Recycle and compost. Buy local food from farmer’s markets. We’ve heard it all before.

These are important actions to take. They can go a long way to improve local air quality and save you some money. Local food is yummy, and composting is fun to watch. But will they really help fight climate change?

Dr James Hansen, a climatology pioneer with an incredible track record, believes that atmospheric CO2 needs to be reduced to “at most 350 ppm” from the current 389 ppm. Kyoto required an average reduction of 5% below 1990 levels. The Waxman-Markey climate change bill that just passed the US Congress is aiming for an 80% cut by 2050.

It’s an incredible feat in today’s fossil-fuel dependent world for a country to even stabilize their emissions, let alone decrease them, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will stabilize, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will also decrease.

Is it enough just for the government to run a series of ads which encourage bike riding? Is it enough for them to give a tax credit on compost bins? Will that alone cut our global CO2 emissions the drastic amount that is needed? And most importantly, will enough people even make an effort?

Personally, I believe that governments need to take two different kinds of action against climate change.

1) Improve and expand on infrastructure to support a sustainable lifestyle. Basically, make it easy for everyone to follow the “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” list. Create a public transit system which is even more convenient than driving – in Ottawa, where I recently traveled, their rapid-transit buses are so efficient that most (or at least a good chunk of) people ride them to and from work each day. Build bike paths so cyclists don’t have to ride in traffic. Provide a curbside composting and recycling system. Make sustainability so easy for citizens that it won’t seem like an inconvenience.

2) Create legislation and financial incentives, including an emissions target, for industries to move away from fossil fuels and start using clean energies. Citizens and industries tend to care about money more than anything else. If cap-and-trade is designed correctly, it will be in a company’s best financial interests to reduce their emissions. CSS plants will be gold mines. If a carbon tax works correctly, clean energies will cost less than carbon-dense fossil fuels, so people will be more willing to choose them. Their demand will increase and they will become more present in the market.

If you make it easy for people to reduce their carbon footprint, and then it make it more expensive for them not to do so, they will change. If you introduce the freedom to pollute as a currency to industries, they will do what industries like to do, which is to make money and save money.

But simple encouragement will only work on the most ethical of people. And even then it doesn’t go far enough. I would live a far greener lifestyle if transit was better and farmer’s markets were easy to get to.

Until then, commercials encouraging bike riding and energy-efficient lightbulbs are nothing but a facade that make the government look like it’s doing something to support sustainability.

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Undeveloped

In Canada, where I live, there are recycling bins everywhere you go. Every public place, office building, or school has blue boxes that are almost as easy to find as garbage cans. In Canada, it is almost a public embarrassment not to recycle. I seem to remember reading that upwards of 97% of homes put out recycling with their garbage pickup every week.

In Canada, it would be hard to find a suburban street where nobody had a compost pile in their backyard. Most universities have some sort of campus composting program. More and more municipalities are even getting curbside compost pickups along with their garbage and recycling.

In Canada, most sit-down restaurants serve their meals in reusable dishes. Receiving a meal where anything other than the napkin was designed to be thrown out would reflect badly on the restaurant. Eating a hotel breakfast out of Styrofoam would make the hotel seem much less classy.

In Canada, we know we have a long way to go. We continually feel bad about our national ecological footprint. We compare ourselves to Europe and groan. We’re one of the worst per-capita polluters in the world.

I have never had reason to feel proud of the environmental practices of my country. Until now.

A trip south

This weekend, I travelled down to the United States for the first time since becoming interested in the environment. I already knew that the US was slightly worse than Canada in terms of environmental policy. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

Recycling appeared to be nonexistent. It was the exception rather than the rule. At the hotel I stayed at, there was not a single recycling bin in the entire building. Not even for paper! In my entire stay, I believe I saw recycling bins in two public places. I ended up hoarding all my recyclables and bringing them home with me. I couldn’t bear to throw out a milk carton, drink can or piece of cardboard.

Even worse were the widespread use of disposable products. The continental breakfast that the hotel served did not offer a single reusable plate, glass, or piece of cutlery. There were only two places that I ate where not everything was designed to be thrown out. One of those places randomly served water and soft drinks in flimsy plastic cups. Food just doesn’t taste as good in dishes designed for the landfill, at least for me. I ate out of a Tupperware container and a travel mug for most of my meals.

I am so used to, after every meal, separating my waste into three piles: recycling, composting, and garbage. It’s almost unconscious. And now, suddenly, I was expected to merge my three piles into the one that I avoided most of all.

How could the most economically powerful nation in the world lack basic sustainability practices? How could cities that have light rail transit not have a recycling program?

It never occurred to me that somewhere so developed could be so undeveloped in their environmental practices.

Please, America. Catch up to the rest of the world. This isn’t like health insurance where only the nation involved is affected. When you take no measures to decrease your environmental impact, every being on this planet is being harmed.