Sydney’s Earth Hour: What the global environmental campaign means for the city that started it

Capture d’écran 2015-03-28 à 14.05.05Author: Lauren Collee grew up in Sydney, and is now completing a degree in English and French at Oxford University. This year she is living in Paris, where she has joined the CliMates communication team to help organise the 2015 cliMates photo competition. 

Capture d’écran 2015-03-28 à 14.05.17Co-author: Gina Wagstaffe is studying Law and Media Communications of University of Technology, Sydney. She is exploring new forms of multimedia as a way to communicate in an increasingly technological world.

 

 

A new energy

When Sydney switched off for the first time in 2007, a different kind of energy was palpable in the air of  the homes and business of those in darkness. Not bright and electric, but quietly human. It was energy that comes with mass connection – not through technology – but through a common goal.

The Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross stopped its neon loop, the Harbour Bridge shut down its arc, the Opera House went dull. Kids chased each other around in the dark and people went out to look at the stars. Nothing had changed visibly when the city was lit up again an hour later, but Sydneysiders had experienced something rare in this day and age: a sense of humility as an individual, and of pride as a nation.

Australia’s failure

Australia’s place in the global struggle against climate change is complicated. We are one of the hottest, driest nations on earth. Our towns and cities are ravaged by droughts and bushfires of increasing intensity and frequency. And yet despite having been relatively untouched by the Global Financial Crisis on an international scale, Australia has failed to take our place at the head of the movement towards a greener economy. We have failed even to reach internationally agreed limits to carbon emissions. The creation of Earth Hour is, sadly, among our few global contributions to the climate crisis.

The year before the first Earth Hour, the two of us had marched in the Sydney Walk Against Warming. We spent the afternoon painting placards and T-shirts, we carried an inflatable penguin through Sydney CBD and got our picture in the local paper. We were eleven years old, and walking in a crowd of 40,000, we were not too young too feel the thrill of really believing in what we were doing.

 

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Lauren and Gina in Walk Against Warming march, 2006 (credit: Deborah Snow)

Participation in the Walk against Warming rapidly fell between 2006 and 2010, with less than a quarter of the numbers it had at its origins. Now it has all but disappeared.

Earth Hour Revival

Earth Hour, by contrast, has been an enormous success. Just a year after its launch in Sydney it achieved international status, with the participation of 35 countries. In 2014, 162 countries participated worldwide.

For many young people in Sydney, Earth Hour was one of their first experiences in offline political action and real-time engagement. We exist at a moment in time wherein political action is primarily digital, as the onslaught of new Internet-borne technologies pushes us further from the natural world, and embeds us in artificial digital reality. Even in Sydney, where shaggy grey-green eucalyptus trees still line the streets of suburbia, where the CBD has its toes in the ocean and the sun beats down with terrifying force, it takes an hour with the lights off to remember the world that exists outside of human construction.

Earth hour allows silence to replace war-cries as the voice of protest. Indeed; silence and stillness can be powerful. It encourages reflection in a world that no longer has time to think.

But perhaps part of its success is that it demands little effort in comparison to a march. At its heart is the idea that no gesture is too small; that ‘every light bulb counts’. This is undeniably useful in so far as it empowers individuals to take action in their private lives,  and yet it is universally acknowledged that we are now past the point where we can afford to focus solely on small, cumulative environmental efforts. We need huge societal change; and for this we need to turn to legislation.

Australia’s responsibility

Despite being the point-of-genesis of the event, Sydney continues to boast the highest carbon emissions per capita. The lights may go out in the High Court and Canberra’s Parliament House; but there is little in their legislative and representative action that represents a real concern. How can we be sure that these sporadic, outward demonstrations of environmental awareness don’t lull voters into a false reassurance that Sydney, too, has its place in the global battle for the climate?

Earth Hour has been undeniably useful in stimulating worldwide engagement with the climate crisis. But it is time for Sydneysiders to complement this action with others that put pressure on our government to effect real change. In December last year, Sydneysiders buried their heads in the sand of the iconic Bondi Beach. Backed by international climate organization 350.org, the act was inspired by a similar event in Townsville, Australia, and aimed particularly at current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an infamous climate sceptic.

The Heads-in-the-Sand demonstration was repeated in locations New Zealand in December. Could it gain the same international following as Earth Hour? Perhaps. But what is important about the beach as a location for protest is that it shows Australians are finally ready to confront their national responsibility. We are a warmer country on the frontline of a warming climate. We are a neighbour to Pacific Islands that are already dealing with the devastation of rising sea-levels. We cannot remain passive.

As Sydneysiders turn their lights off for the 9th consecutive year this Saturday, we hope that they will take the time to think about what the gesture represents. Most of all we hope that the government will notice in the darkness a reflection of their own ignorance.

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Sydney Skyline before and during Earth hour, 2011. (credit: guardian newspaper)

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