Cricketer’s call for switching off lights for Earth Hour could end up being counterproductive
INDIA’S BIGGEST icon has lent his name and face to WWF’s Earth Hour campaign this year. At 8.30 pm on 31 March, Sachin Tendulkar will turn the lights out in his new, swank apartment in Mumbai for an hour, joining and urging tens and thousands in India and across the globe to do the same. I won’t be among their number.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Symbolic acts such as turning off one’s lights for an hour may have their place. They take the issues they raise — in this case climate change, urban consumption, energy saving — to a wide range of people. Some of those people, particularly teenagers, may not have engaged with these issues before, and this event may well be for them the start of a process of engagement..
Unfortunately, ecological crises have deepened to such a degree that symbolic acts have little meaning now. Loss of species has been happening at such a staggering rate over the past 40 years that Edward Leakey and Roger Levin referred to it way back in 1995 as the “sixth mass extinction” of species in history. The fifth mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out. Groundwater is plummeting in many parts of India, making small agriculture even more unviable. Green Revolution strategies have spawned ‘cancer trains’ in Punjab, and now they plan to export those same methods to eastern India. Climate change is causing droughts in Bundelkhand and Texas, floods in Pakistan, declining maize yields in eastern Gujarat. We have known about many of these issues for years, and what do we choose to do in 2012? We turn our lights out for an hour.
It’s ironic that Tendulkar is the face of Earth Hour in India. He currently promotes 18 products. Having turned his lights out for an hour, he will spend many of the other 8,759 hours in the year convincing people to buy the very things that cause the problem in the first place. For the past 20 years, he has been the face of ‘white goods’ neoliberalism in India. Now, he is the face of Earth Hour. For the elites, there is no apparent contradiction. It is in this sense that symbolic acts such as these can be worse than meaningless; they can be counterproductive. They give people the nice feeling that they are doing something to save the environment, but underplay or hide altogether the inequality and the deeper systemic factors that cause the problem in the first place. They don’t want us to interrogate these. By systemic, I mean the system of industrial capitalism. Couple of years ago, a study in Nature looked at, and, interestingly, quantified nine ecological indicators worldwide since the Industrial Revolution. It found we had worsened significantly in all nine, and have already crossed safe boundaries in three of them — climate change, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle. Industrial capitalism’s inherent logic of growth, profits, and cutting input costs like raw material and labour are at the core of global warming and other ecological crises that Earth Hour seeks to flag. Unless we confront it, collectively, there’s no way we are going to solve them.
I’m not saying turning off your lights is a bad thing. I’m saying though that we need to do a lot, lot more, and urgently. At an individual or household level, identifying areas of our highest direct carbon emissions and embodied consumption, and minimising their use drastically.
Unfortunately, ecological crises have deepened to such a degree that symbolic acts have little meaning now
Doing more crucially means doing things collectively, for something or against, small or big. If we want to see the greater use of solar power in our city, if we don’t want neighbourhood vegetable vendors to make way for car parks, if we are for public transport, or against nuclear power — all of which connect to global warming — we need to get together with other people. Making salt was a great symbol, but it was part of a much wider mass anti-colonial movement. Turn your lights off by all means but let’s get the movement going.
Nagraj Adve is a climate change activist.