Is Earth Hour just a publicity stunt?

Last Saturday saw the fifth anniversary of Earth Hour, a controversial event organized globally by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Despite being founded in the spirit of environmental awareness, the event has recently received much criticism from environmentalists for diverting attention away from what is deemed to be the real matter at hand: unrestrained capitalism.

Earth Hour was conceived in 2007 when the WWF and a local Australian newspaper inspired 2.2 million people to turn off their lights for one hour on the last Saturday of March. The event was intended to save on energy for the duration of the hour, as well as act as a symbolic gesture to raise awareness on climate change.

The success of the event quickly inspired other countries to follow suit.

Earth Hour 2011 saw 4,500 cities from 131 countries turn off all non-essential light and power between 8:30 pm and 9:30 pm. It was the largest to date, proving that the event is a growing phenomenon.

However, opposition parties claim that energy savings as a result of Earth Hour need to be seen in the context of the additional carbon consumed during publicity stunts for the event. These include: the flyers printed, cars driven to and from the events held in the name of Earth Hour, as well as all the electrical entertainment using heavy-duty equipment before and after the hour.

Such factors mean that the actual energy consumption saved during the event is statistically indistinguishable from zero – making Earth Hour a purely symbolic undertaking.

But still, environmentalists differ on their assessment of the event's value.

Critics say that informing and encouraging the public to turn off their electricity for an hour as a gesture towards climate change awareness is simply a misleading endeavor.

The true problem, critics say, lies in the prevailing unregulated capitalist philosophy, and in our tolerance of heavy advertising that encourages the acquisition of material goods — especially highly technical goods, which have a particularly high carbon footprint.

From this perspective, Earth Hour is considered harmful to the community because it gives people a false sense of environmental awareness and involvement, acting as nothing more than a controversial distraction.

However, Sarah Rifaat, a local organizer for 350.org, an international non-governmental organization aimed at creating climate awareness, makes a different case.

“Simplicity is the key. Talk of capitalism and philosophical concepts of radical change only work on people who have already converted to your cause and/or have the same mentality. Symbolic gestures are essential in gaining public interest. The idea is to continuously take it further, but in little steps – such as giving out energy saving bulbs and linking with other long term sustainable initiatives. I believe Earth Hour will continue to evolve for the better.”

Attempts by Al-Masry Al-Youm to contact officials from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to comment on the issue were un-successful.

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