Earth Hour fades at US border


Students in Cambodia (left) celebrate Earth Hour 2011, a symbolic event launched in Australia in 2007 that has gained traction globally but made little progress in the United States – in contrast to Earth Day, which has seen robust acceptance stateside since the first event (right, in New York City) in 1970. Photo of students courtesy WWF/flickr. Photo of NYC Frank Castoral/New York Daily News

March 30, 2012

Saturday's symbolic effort to turn off the lights for an hour is gaining traction across the globe – everywhere, that is, but within the United States.

One U.S. coordinator versus five in Brunei.

By Bill Kovarik 

for the Daily Climate

Consider an hour without power, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, local time. Organizers say as many as 1.8 billion will join in the symbolic environmental event worldwide. But if you live in the United States, your neighbors may think you just blew a fuse.  

Earth Hour starts in the mid-Pacific Islands on Saturday night, March 31, with an hour of voluntary electrical blackouts in Tonga.  

Few Americans have ever heard of Earth Hour, and only a few dozen high profile events are scheduled.

The event moves on to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, where stars helping promote the event include an Australian model, an Indian cricket champion and a Russian heavyweight boxer. 

Following the sunset, Earth Hour heads west, where hotels and office buildings across the Persian Gulf will go dark. In Dubai, the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – will stand lightless. Five-star hotels in Saudi Arabia will burn a few hundred gallons less oil in that quiet hour.  Even Libya, fresh from many involuntary blackouts, will host Earth Hour events. 

A long list of events are also scheduled for Europe: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa will all go dark for one hour when the clocks strike 8:30 p.m. 

Barely notice

Yet few Americans have ever heard of Earth Hour, and only a few dozen high profile events are scheduled. While the Empire State Building and the United Nations in New York City will go dark, most of New York will barely notice.

The serious news about Earth Hour is nearly all international.

Earth Hour has only one U.S. press coordinator to publicize the event. Slovenia has two. India has three. Brunei has five. 

Conceived in Australia in 2007 at World Wildlife Fund's Sydney office and promoted by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, Earth Hour’s global popularity may reflect a disparity between U.S. and international receptivity to environmental symbolism.   

"In Asia and the Middle east, you'll find that people are less aware about the risks of climate change and global warming," a spokesman for the Kuwaiti team said. "The Earth Hour campaign carries a simple message … so that people can be easily engaged environmentally."

Of course, the United States has had its own original Earth Day celebration since 1970. A Google news search delivers 33,000 links focused on Earth Day, more than three weeks away. Earth Hour, meanwhile, had only 6,000 hits hours before it began in the far Pacific. 

Strikes a chord

The original Earth Day has been the centerpiece of the U.S. and European environmental movement for four decades, and it continues to engage grassroots groups around world, said Dennis Hayes, the principal organizer of the original Earth Day who continues to chair the global advisory committee.

The lack of enthusiasm stateside for Saturday's event could be cultural: From Earth Day to Earth Hour seems like downsizing, a concession to the less committed, Grist Magazine joked. 

But the serious news about Earth Hour is nearly all international.

Hundreds of items in small publications in Asia, Africa and the Middle East show that the event strikes a chord in smaller cites as much as large ones, and in traditional societies as much as westernized ones. 

Typical was a statement by the mayor of Taguig, a city of 600,000 in the Philippines. "Participating in the activity signifies one's support for environmental protection, as well as the campaign to solve or at least mitigate the ill effects of climate change to the environment," said Lani Cayetano.    

Clarification (March 30, 2012): The late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson called for a national environmental teach-in on college campuses in 1970 and is considered the founder of Earth Day. Denis Hayes, with his staff, named the event "Earth Day" and served as the event's principal organizer.

Bill Kovarik is a journalist and a professor of communication at Radford College in Southwestern Virginia. is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.


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