Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Barrie's Earth Hour disappointment

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "City needs to power down its Earth Hour festivities")

Two years in a row now, Barrie’s Earth Hour electricity reduction has disappointed. I have a theory why.

First, the background: launched by the World Wildlife Fund in Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour went global in 2008, with Barrie among participating cities. Lights went off at City Hall, businesses and schools joined in, people was engaged. Barrie’s 8% reduction handily beat the provincial average.

Then in 2009, the City ramped things up with a massive downtown concert. Promotion greatly increased over 2008. Yet our reduction dropped by half – to a measly 4%. Despite the hype, we showed the poorest result among Powerstream’s nine municipalities.

Ditto this year. Although rebounding somewhat to 6.8% savings, we were still behind the pack, second-worst of Powerstream’s nine. What happened? Why, despite great efforts, do we fail to even meet the average?

As the only municipality hosting such an event, I suspect the culprit is the Earth Hour concert itself. No, I don’t think the party sucks up enough juice to cancel out the rest of us. Rather, it sucks up people. Allow me to explain.

Every neighbourhood has its green leaders: individuals or families most aware of environmental challenges and household responses to meet them. 30 years ago they reminded everyone on the block to save & bundle newsprint for the Boy Scout paper drive, 20 years ago turned us on to backyard composting & rain barrels, 10 years ago spurred us to bring “non-recyclable” plastics to the monthly Environmental Action Barrie alternative recycling depot. These local “activators” remind, cajole, or persuade the rest of us to do our part.

We saw that with Earth Hour 2008. Folks had neighbours over to share a glass by candlelight, tell ghost stories in a darkened room, or stargaze from the deck. They strolled down the street, stopping at lit porch lights and politely spreading the word. Or like the Hunt and Craig families of Rose St., they held massive block parties and got everyone involved.

But in 2009 & 2010, those local enthusiasts flocked downtown for the festivities, leaving no-one on their block to remind or remonstrate the recalcitrant. No checking the lights down the street, no shared Earth Hour vigils. The absent-minded or unaware sat undisturbed on the couch watching TV, lights ablaze.

Of course, Earth Hour isn’t about the actual savings, a mere drop in the bucket of electricity use. It’s about raising awareness of the folly of waste, the wisdom of conservation. If a concert creates more awareness, perhaps it’s worth the lackluster reductions. Yet, to me, the power of Earth Hour isn’t in the mega-media event, it’s in forging links within our own corners of the community, sharing our caring with those who live near. Building that kind of energy is as important as conserving the other kind.

So perhaps Barrie should skip the Earth Hour concert next year – or have it on Earth Day instead. Express our civic pride on our own home streets instead of at City Hall. Instead of big bands on a big stage, let the garage bands move out to the driveway for an hour. Have a wee shindig in every local park. Looking around at family, friends, and neighbours, we’ll gain a better understanding of just why Earth Hour matters so much.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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