OnPoint by Keith Ng


Being a dick about Earth Hour

How much can you save during Earth Hour? If you completely stop using electricity in your house, by my rough but generous estimate, you'd saved about 2,800Wh and reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by 420g. (Workings at end.)

If you change a 75W incandescent lightbulb to an energy efficient equivalent, you'd save 65,700Wh per year (assuming it's on for 3 hours a day). That works out to 9,950g of greenhouse gases. That's one lightbulb.

(Ridiculous? I know. Every time I re-read this I have to re-check the calculations. 60W saving x 3 hours a day x 365 days a year.)

Blacking out the entire house for one hour every year = 420g reduction per year.
Replacing one lightbulb with an energy saving equivalent = 9,950g reduction per year.

To put it indelicately: Fuck Earth Hour.

Go buy an energy efficient lightbulb and spend Earth Hour with the lights on watching TV - you'd come out ahead by a long, long way. Better still, take an hour's wages and buy energy efficient bulbs for people who don't have them. That'd actually be worthwhile.

Earth Hour supporters retort that even if it doesn't do anything, that's okay, because Earth Hour sends a dramatic message (visible from space!) to our politicians that the citizens of Earth really care and want them to do something.

Earth to Earth Hour: Our politicians, despite their best efforts, do not live in space.

This is not how they will respond to Earth Hour: “I am staring out the observation deck of my orbital platform/looking at live satellite imagery of the planet on the giant screen in my War Room, as I often do at 8:30. Oh shit! All the lights have gone out! WTF happened? Where'd all the lights go? Oh, Earth Hour, eh? I guess I'd better Do Something about climate change, then.”

Politicians don't need to see people doing something stupid for an hour. They *know* people can do something stupid for an hour. That's the problem.

Take the incandescent bulb ban, for example. It was the most rational policy in the world. At $2, a CFL bulb pays for itself in 56 days, and saves you $118 in electricity over its 9 year lifetime. More if electricity prices go up. Even at full price, they'd still be a steal.

Uptake was slow, and there were two main reasons. 1) People were poorly informed about their benefit, safety and functionality. 2) Price signals weren't transparent – you can't tell how much of your power bill was for your lightbulbs, and how much was for your dryer. So even if your incandescent lightbulb wasted $118 more power, you'd never know, since the price signals weren't clear to the end user. That's market failure.

You've got public *and* private good. You've got market failure. An incandescent bulb ban would have resolved it with minimal costs, saved money for consumers in the long-term and had environmental benefits. It was a win-win-win scenario. But nobody saw the Dimmer brigade coming.

“[Lighting store owner] said things were also not so bright for chandelier lovers as the sharp white light from CFLs could not bring out the sparkle in a chandelier's crystals.”

It was as if the essense of uselessness took corporeal form, put on a suit and became a lobbyist. Then came a bunch of bullshit about exploding lightbulbs based on unverified incidences of blackened bulbs. Then scientific ignorance about their mercury content conflated into urban legend, and they became little toxic bulbs of mass destruction.

Piercing through the mangled layers of bullshit was the “freedom from nanny-state” line. Arguably, this was the line that had the most impact on election day, and it was the also line that killed the hot water efficiency standards. And it was balls.

The argument is drawn from classic liberalism's core claim to freedom: That we have the inalienable right to any activity as long as it does not impinge on the rights of other citizens.

Except that nobody really believes that. Especially not the Dimmer Lobby. If they really believed in such a right, then they'd also champion the right of private individuals to make and sell consensual man-donkey-love videos. How dare the nanny-state come between a man and his right to document and commercialise his love for his donkey? Now, I know some libertarians who would gladly and publicly argue this point - and I take my hat off to them for their consistency - but the people who make this argument are not really championing absolute liberal rights. Like the rest of us, they agree that restrictions on freedoms can apply for the public good, just not when it comes to lightbulbs. And that's an indefensible position. In fact, that's a fucking stupid position.

While I'd love to extend the man-donkey-love erotica analogy, a more appropriate one would be restrictions on telecommunications equipment. It is illegal to sell telecommunications equipment that does not meet certain standards (that's why your phone has a Telepermit sticker on it).

We *could* spend hundreds of millions of dollars re-engineering our telecommunications network so that people can plug Tasers into their phone sockets without affecting their neighbour's service (maybe you can now, I don't know, the nanny-state won't let me have a Taser), but that would be stupid. Instead, we put restrictions on telecommunication devices, and we don't whinge about it being the heavy hand of the nanny-state molesting us.

Similarly, we *could* spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading our transmission lines and our generation capacity. But it's stupid to do so when we could first make substantial savings by banning inefficient lightbulbs and with more energy efficiency building standards at a fraction of the cost. (And that's not even considering climate change yet.) Sure, that's trampling people's god-given right to lightbulb-determination for the public good, but that's what democracies do every single day, with phones and drugs and food and cars - its ridiculous to argue that our right to incandescent lightbulbs is unique and sacrosanct.

The supposed principles behind the nanny-state argument was a gut-feeling at most. It never stood up when you thought about it. But nobody did, and the nanny-state argument held political currency.

A similar fate befell the hot water efficiency standards. By that time, I got to watch first-hand as the last government tried to unravel the layers of irrelevant bullshit that just kept piling on (“cold showers!” “nanny-state!” “cost for homeowners!”).

I watched as they tried to explain that the shower flow limit was just one option for increasing efficiency - you could also get some insulation for the hot water cylinder and keep the shower flow. But that was a complex sentence involving - gasp! - two inter-related clauses. Therefore, it was politically worthless. As the strands of retarded arguments built up, it quickly became too politically costly to try to explain why they were retarded. The policy got dumped in the too-hard basket - they weren't going to die in a ditch over hot water.

These were cheap, immediate, effective and economical policies. They paid for themselves and had no downside. And they're history. So what's the point in talking about the kind of climate change action that is expensive, that will spread the cost throughout the economy, that will slow down growth, that will hurt households?

Earth Hour talks a good game, but we need to get real here: We're pretty fucked. The front on climate change action in New Zealand has collapsed. Our political environment is so toxic to rational debate that the simplest, cheapest, easiest measures can get defeated by dimmer switches and pseudo-liberalism. Solidarity of the human race and global action to save the planet is all well and good... but it's perverse to talk in those terms when we can't change a lightbulb.


I was inspired to write the first part of this after hearing of people who turned off all the lights during Earth Hour, then lit up their fireplaces and burned candles instead. From sixth form chemistry: Burning organic material (like wax and wood) produces CO2. Tell your friends.

While I'm being a dick about this, I should also address the people who are opposing Earth Hour by joining "Edison Hour", which encourages participants to "use as much power and energy as possible in order to celebrate the advancement of mankind."

Please, learn some fucking science.

What do you think the *wheel* is, if not an energy saving device? Why do you think incandescent lightbulbs were successful? Entire fields of science and engineering - from cavemen with flint to nuclear power technicians - have advanced humanity by using less to do more.

If you want to celebrate human progress, use a CFL lightbulb and stick up a photovoltic panel. If you want to use as much power and energy as possible, just start burning shit. That is not an analogy. That is a literal intepretation of "use as much power and energy as possible". That's how fucking dumb your idea is.

Going out of your way to waste energy is the antithesis of technological progress and human enterprise, so don't you dare claim to be on the side of rationality and science. And take those goddamn chandeliers with you.


(Workings: Average household uses 8,000kWh/year. Earth Hour is at 8:30, just past the peak usage period, so I'll be super generous and estimate the usage at triple the average rate, putting it at an estimated 2.8kWh per hour. NZ electricity generators emit 150g of greenhouse gases for every kilowatt-hour generated (March 2007 quarterly average). Transmission losses ignored. Because I'm lazy.)

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