the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

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Earth Hour Redux

My Earth Hour grumble prompted some discussion in the M-P household, the general theme being that it was perhaps a bit of an 'asshole post.'

I think the gist of it is that it's impolite to criticise things like Earth Hour because no matter how wrong-headed or downright dangerous people's views or activities, as long as they mean well, then they should be given the benefit of the doubt. I recognise the social instinct but I still think it's wrong. And I also think that Earth Hour and similar slacktivist efforts are also as much about signalling concern and assuaging guilty consciences as they are about solving problems. This is human nature and we all do it, but we should see it for what it is.

But anyway. My real gripe isn't about the psychology of Earth Hour, but about what it suggests as a solution to the very real worries about climate change. As with Earth Hour, the issue is so often about going backwards, about austerity, about doing without. Yet this is doomed to failure. I think the only solutions will come from looking forwards, not backwards.

In an earlier draft of this post I put it this way: the world is full of poor people who are becoming less poor, and they all want cars and hamburgers.

Now, the first thing to accept is you're not going to stop them, and the second thing is that it's arrogant of wealthy westerners who've been enjoying these things for years to start preaching about going without.

Cars, and hamburgers aside, I stumbled across this TED talk tonight by the inimitable Hans Rosling, who says it far better than I could, and he points to an even simpler indicator of rising wealth and increased energy consumption (and, as I recently heard it put, one of the most valuable inventions and one of the most fundamental tools of female liberation in the 20th century): the washing machine.

If you have 9 minutes to spare I highly recommend his talk:

The whole thing is worth quoting, but this gets the point across:

But when I lecture to environmentally-concerned students, they tell me, "No, everybody in the world cannot have cars and washing machines." How can we tell this woman that she ain't going to have a washing machine? And then I ask my students ... "How many of you doesn't use a car?" And some of them proudly raise their hand and say, "I don't use a car." And then I put the really tough question: "How many of you hand wash your jeans and your bed sheets?" And no one raised their hand. Even the hardcore in the green movement use washing machines.

And this is why I don't think people deserve a free ride for supporting ideas like Earth Hour - if they had their way they would be hurting people:

My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day. She said, "Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry; the machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library." Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines ... This is where I started my career as a professor, when my mother had time to read for me. And she also got books for herself. She managed to study English and learn that as a foreign language. And she read so many novels, so many different novels here. And we really, we really loved this machine.

And what we said, my mother and me, "Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books."

{2011.03.30 - 22:23}

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