I can’t believe I missed it! The 10th annual Earth Hour to shut off lights in support of energy conservation and protecting the planet. Me--the avid environmentalist since my youth—who to this day constantly goes around my house and other people’s houses shutting off lights—welcome or not! Two days later I saw the back page Strib article: Cities worldwide go dim. Other Minnesotans apparently missed it too—and most of the country. New York City gave a nod to this environmental movement (begun in Australia in 2007) by dimming the lights atop the Empire State Building and some billboards in Times Square. But I could have been the poster child for this environmental campaign! O.k.—more accurately--the poster matron. You can always count on me to turn out the lights.
You see, I was well trained in my youth. There was a time when conservation was the norm—even in the U.S. It had been a strong civic virtue at least through WWII. But social, political and economic events converged after the war to propel America into an age of unbridled consumerism, consumption and excess. Yet conservation remained a stalwart personal value among many poor and working-class families well past mid-century. And being raised by conservative parents in a rural community, I always thought conservation was a conservative value. My parents epitomized that value and instilled it in their children.
How times change! Over the course of a few decades, America became the “Little Shop of Horrors” whose appetite for more stuff was insatiable. Some modest grassroots movements and bi-partisan policy efforts were attempted in the 60s and 70s to curb the appetite of the beast, but a decisive change in our civic values emerged with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He helped bury the value of conservation—at least among conservatives—as he sold the country a Hollywood version of America that still holds sway today. Continuous growth, unregulated excess, maximizing profit and unfettered personal choice are held up as civic virtues of our time. Along with the trope that we can have it all. Or at least some of us supposedly can. Until we can’t.
Now it’s mostly progressives who have taken up the banner of conservation given the stark reality of climate change. But it is indeed a hard row to hoe these days. Our economic system, our infrastructure design and our social conditioning have trained us to consume as much as we can as fast as we can. We’ve become addicts. Every day we are able to acquire more and more stuff that makes life easier, more pleasant with more options, so that most of us leave a bigger and bigger carbon footprint with every passing year.
We might dismiss Earth Hour as a useless symbolic gesture to consume less electricity for only one hour. But its focus is completely on point. We need to consume less—to actually conserve resources. It is not enough to support renewable energy—important as that is; we also need to consume less energy. It is not enough to eat locally grown foods, grass fed beef or cage-free chickens. We need to waste less food and substantially curb our meat intake. It is not enough to drive a Prius or another fuel-efficient car. We need to drive less, and instead hop on the bus, train, a bike—or even walk—a whole lot more. Of course we should re-use and recycle, but we also must reduce our consumption all together.
As humanists and environmentalists we accept the responsibility to appeal to our better selves. We pay attention to the issues, we study the facts, we chart a course and then we walk the talk. Often it will happen little by little, hour by hour, day by day as we develop new habits and new passions that befit our changing world. We encourage, support and challenge one another in the process. As humanists we take our commitment to the well-being of all and the sustainability of the planet seriously. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We have each other and we have allies across the globe.
This year Earth Hour events in China were promoted with the slogan- “Consume less. Enjoy more.” Let’s explore the many ways we can do this together here. Share your ideas. For instance, I’ve been seriously thinking about taking the pledge for 30 Days of Biking in April as a way to develop a biking habit. But I’m afraid to commit. Anyone want to join me? In any event, you can at least count on me to always turn out the lights. J