Saturday, March 28, 2009

Empty Gestures: What I did for Earth Hour

Earth Hour is staged as a symbolic reminder to "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle." In fact, it’s a symbol of how self-aggrandizing people draw money, effort, manpower, and time away from important research and development by turning “awareness” into a trend rather than a means to the end: solving the fucking problem. This article was posted as a draft at the start of my time zone’s Earth Hour, throughout which I encouraged anyone I knew that was online to read it and recommend edits. For the full duration of American Earth Hours, I closed no programs and turned off no electronics. Why? As a symbol that moral superiority posturing solves nothing.

Whether it’s jelly bracelets or being Inspi(red), we’ve gotten used to the “social responsibility” buzzword of product marketing. In this day and age, even breast cancer ribbons are abused as a marketing gimmick (see Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, Season 5, Episode 3 if you are unaware of this. The episode also delivers lots of tits). Companies quell what outrage we would have by using the blanket term “awareness,” and as my main man Matlock (in later image as “S7411…”) sarcastically put it:

Awareness is all that matters because if people are aware then people care.

Most people – if you make the point – will recognize the logical fallacy in thinking that once you’ve created awareness, you’ve solved the problem. That is… unless you're talking about their pet issue. “Green” is the buzzword of the 21st century, and boy do people have a boner for acting like they care about the environment. Earth Hour is the newest Race for the Cure of environmentalism.

A short disclaimer
Some people and organizations such as Leadership in Energy for Environmental Design (LEED), the alliterative Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the World Resources Institute (WRI) do great work educating about and developing sustainability science as well as spreading awareness of emergent technologies and legislative initiatives. People like this are not in my crosshairs.

Today, my problem is with the fools pushing this Earth Hour nonsense like a panacea for power plant emissions. Since Earth Hour’s inception, technical personnel have been raising some important questions about the viability of the idea - specifically, "if air conditioning units and major servers consume more power starting up than they would idling in these reduced-traffic conditions, wouldn’t it be better to leave them on?" What do Earth Hour supporters say? "Shut up! Of course it’s better! It doesn't matter how effective the gesture is, what matters is that we unite under this symbol, make a reduction in power consumption, and most importantly: raise awareness." ...what?

Is there anyone out there who isn't aware of the unsustainability question? Shouldn’t we be past the national holiday point and instead be devoting our money, time, effort, and media coverage to answering the tough questions by now? I don’t doubt that Earth Hour’s net effect on power consumption will be positive. However, by dismissing questions like “Could the resulting spike in energy use at the end of each time zone’s Earth Hour cause our plants to hemorrhage a great deal of energy?” you’re just demonstrating that this isn’t about getting green, it’s about feeling like you’re part of a “movement.”

You want to get Americans green? Awesome! We want to be green. We're aware. Stop raising awareness and start funding new solutions – particularly ones that people will do for more reasons than just "out of respect for the environment." That's why litter laws don't work.

1. Cost: Develop and encourage products and services that are more cost-effective for the consumer (short or long-term). Solar roof panels, fluorescent light bulbs, LEDs, energy-efficient computer equipment, homebrew alternatives to toxic cleansers (like using black tea instead of wood polish), refillable fountain pens, computer scrapping facilities, mass transit, faucet filters (though municipal water has done this job for you), ink cartridge recycling incentives, programmable thermostats, tankless water heaters, cat toilet training…

2. Convenience: “It’s better for the Earth” won’t excuse a higher price point for people who are already strapped for cash. Convenience however… Municipally-funded recycling, multi-switch power supplies with remotes, motion-sensor lights, waterless urinals, digital distribution, smart residential electricity meters, better Li-ion batteries, electric cars that draw from home power sockets, Touchstone chargers, paperless office tools, Smoker’s Outpost ashtrays…

3. Quality: If it has to be more expensive without being more convenient, then make it more effective\healthier\multipurpose than non-green alternatives. Soy-based spray insulation, composting trash cans, compressed paper golf balls, bicycles, some organic farming techniques (as some others can’t be applied on a great scale without a major drop in yield), aluminum products, smartphones, reusable tote bags, landfill methane energy collection, green cosmetics, some hemp products...

“Dark greenies” love to imagine a world where mankind keeps 100% within its means solely by virtue, and I'm no different. Too bad this is the real world. Yes, we need to be humbler about our place in the universe, but don't draft initiatives as though we’re in your moral utopia and then be surprised when they have marginal effect. Every creature acts in its own, sometimes short-sighted, self-interest. Whether or not this overlaps with the common good is typically an afterthought. Just because our species has higher reasoning doesn't mean we aren't still dominated in many ways by our instincts. You want to make a difference? Play to the base instincts we all have, not the higher reasoning most people clearly lack... why else would Arrested Development be canceled while American Idol is endless?

Oh, and one more thing: nuclear motherfucking power you dreadlocked half-wits.