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Monday, March 30, 2015

Earth Hour and How the West Plays at Poverty

Turning out the lights is a dark joke

On Saturday night, millions of rich people played at being poor:

The Empire State Building dimmed its lights…The famous Las Vegas strip went dim, with the replica Eiffel Tower at Paris Hotel turning its lights off, along with several hotels and casinos that normally illuminate the main drag in Sin City.

Other US west coast cities marked the occasion by switching off, with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco going dim and the normally bright gateway pylons at Los Angeles LAX airport turned off after being lit in green in honor of the occasion.

Earlier in Paris, the Eiffel Tower went black for only five minutes — due to security reasons — while nearly 300 other monuments in the City of Light also switched off their lights.

In a move that resembles nothing so much as the end of Atlas Shrugged, millions of westerners (supposedly) extinguished their lights in honor of “Earth Hour,” an annual celebration of energy poverty. That might sound like hyperbole, but researchers have actually used the correlation between how bright a country is at night and economic growth to track the economic health of countries where it is difficult to get data from the ground, such as Somalia, Congo, and North Korea. New Scientist summed up the findings aptly: “When you're rich, you turn on the lights.”

Steve Horwitz directed my attention to this stirring defense of modernity and leaving the lights on by the Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, and it is worth returning to this time of year when smug hypocrites sit in the dark for a few minutes and then rush back into the arms of the 21st century to brag about it and shame their neighbors.

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity. Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labour and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water. Many of the world's poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that's how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their fridge, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don't want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply. If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don't want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

As Horwitz put it, “We are rich enough to play at being poor. The market has given the West such an abundance of wealth that we have forgotten the ugliness of real poverty and self-reliance, which we can only reconstruct in romanticized form as a fun leisure activity.” But we must not forget.

Look again at that photo of the Korean peninsula. China to the left, Japan to the right—North Korea is an aberration, a blip of darkness in a sea of light. But once it was the opposite. Once there was only dark. Turn on a light, hold it high, and see how far we’ve come.

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.