March 27, 2009

The Hour of (no) Power: Reflections on Electricity

As a city employee, I received an email today from the mayor's office about Honolulu's official participation in Earth Hour 2009 beginning tomorrow night at 8:30 pm local time. In case you haven't heard about it, Earth Hour is an international event organized by the World Wildlife Fund that began 2 years ago in Australia when 2.2 million Sydney residents turned off their lights for an hour to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues. Since then, the intentional blackout idea has spread around the globe and this year's affair is set to include at least 2100 cities in 82 countries (there, I just saved you a trip to Wikipedia).

I distinctly remember participating in last year's event because we took great care to ensure our 9-month-old was soundly asleep by 8:30 with enough lead time to allow his customary lullaby CD to run its course. Even though I grew up as a candle-literate missionary kid in countries with frequent blackouts (some scheduled, most not), I can't imagine raising a child without electricity. At least not in this county. How would his food and milk be refrigerated? Where would the energy come from to heat his bath water or wash his clothes and dishes? How many of his favorite toys and activities require a wall outlet or batteries? There would be no digital cameras to take his picture or vacuum cleaners to mitigate his messes. No cell phones to check in with his babysitter or Skype to chat with Grandma online. No electric fans for ambient noise, no air conditioners to keep cool and certainly no bathroom light switches to forget about.

It wasn't always this easy. The overwhelming bulk of world history pre-dates Thomas Edison's invention of the first commercially practical light bulb in 1879. With the exception of the last 130 years, every human civilization has been "in the dark" so to speak. There were no spotlights for the stage performances of ancient Greece or floodlights for the construction of China's Great Wall. The artists and revolutionaries of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation did their work without any "power." From the ancient Egyptians to 19th-century European colonialism, empires rose and fell without so much as a mouse click. Sure, there were candles, lanterns and flames of varying sizes, but those would also be perfectly acceptable light sources for a measly hour without electricity tomorrow night.

So what exactly will I do with myself for 60 odd minutes of electricity-free darkness? At our house, 8:30 pm is usually when the TV, computer, dishwasher, microwave, DVD player and washing machine are all in use. As any parent knows, the time between your kid's bedtime and your own is very precious; hence the habitual consumption-fest. Earth Hour, for all of its simplicity, will change all of this, if only for one night. Since there will be no blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, craigslist, fantasy baseball, channel-surfing or microwave popcorn during this sacred hour, I might actually have to unplug my brain and interact with another human being the old-school way. Maybe we'll play cards, drink tea, tell stories or just quietly enjoy the solidarity with other darkened homes.

To the cynics who think this event is pure pageantry and does little to make a difference in reducing carbon emissions, say what you will. Exercise your energy guzzling rights for all I care. For me, Earth Hour is a timely reminder not only of my dependence on electricity and technology, but also the responsibility and stewardship required to use them well. That I'm a middle class American should not entitle me to frivolous energy consumption, even if I do "pay" for it every month. If renowned structures like Sydney's Opera House, Rome's Colosseum, the Empire State Building and even (oh yes) Manila's SM Mall of Asia can shut off their lights for just one Saturday night hour, I don't see why our household shouldn't do the same.

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