Vincent Barbieri: Facing the futility of Earth Hour

On March 27 GW students were asked to participate in Earth Hour, an event aimed at reducing electricity consumption. For an entire hour between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., students were encouraged to join a worldwide movement and shut off their lights to reduce energy consumption. But while the goals of Earth Hour may be laudable, the real effects this event has on the environment are negligible at best.

Earth Hour’s futility is only surpassed by its ridiculous implications that a person’s style of living needs only to be minimally altered to save the environment – as if turning off a lamp also stopped planes from flying and freighters from shipping that day. The extent to which these two modes of transportation pollute is far greater than any event like Earth Hour could ever negate, as airplanes and freighters create more sulfur pollution than all the cars in the world combined, according to a Daily Mail column by New Scientist Magazine’s Fred Pearce. Sure, for an hour electricity consumption will be reduced substantially, but what about the other 23?

Similarly, GW is approaching the green movement by urging students to reduce water and electricity consumption over the year. There is no doubt that our school’s heart is in the right place, but these small-scale attempts at change have little impact on the grand scheme of things. You wouldn’t put a band-aid on an open wound and consider it healed. Yet, with the minimal steps students can take to help the environment – such as taking shorter showers or participating in Earth Hour – this is just what we are doing.

Instead of looking at the person who uses the technology as a polluter, why not look at the technology itself? Urging students to be energy efficient in a system that is innately energy inefficient is absurd. Considering that GW students cannot choose how we acquire heating, air conditioning and running water, it is ridiculous that we are being asked to cut back when it is the technology itself that should be cutting back.

What is most decreased when an individual reduces consumption may not be pollution, but cognitive dissonance. Even if every single room on the GW campus participated in Earth Hour, it doesn’t change in the slightest the pollution caused by our heating, air conditioning and electricity in facilities on campus. Besides, the consumption of some GW residence halls has even increased in the past quarter, according to the GW Eco-Challenge Web site.

It should be noted, however, that over the past few years, GW has made improvements in energy efficiency. For example, the College Sustainability report card gave GW a B this year – an improvement from last year’s C+. Some of these improvements involve creating our own sustainability department at GW, starting an initiative to plant trees throughout the D.C. area, and serving fair-trade food products throughout campus. There is no doubt that the effort by GW to be more green exists. But I would not consider GW to be in front of the race by any means. If this were indeed a race, everybody would be losing.

Ultimately, if GW wants to really lead the way in energy efficiency, it should focus more energy on the major contributors to pollution by not only making new facilities more efficient, but revamping old ones as well. Events like Earth Hour only further our false sense of security when it comes to saving the environment by making us believe that an hour of no electricity has a significant impact. Until then, I look forward to next year when we can again “contribute” to the green movement by shutting off our lights for another hour and slip further into denial about the negative impact we really have on the environment.

The writer is a sophomore majoring in psychology.

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