Today we celebrate the Earth Hour. It signifies humanity's resolve to do something for the planet. People are expected to switch lights off for an hour, reduce load on the power grid and, therefore, its impact on global warming. Every year, according to its promoters, more and more people are becoming a part of this global 'exercise'.
However, the trouble is that while those of us who undergo this 60-minute-long 'sacrifice' believe that we are doing our bit for the environment, we tend to forget our responsibilities for the remaining 8,759 hours of the year. In these 525,540 minutes, we think mostly about ourselves. We think of ways to increase our wealth and possessions, explore new places, eat 'exotic' food and recharge our various electronic devices - in short, we wish to 'live the good life'.
But in doing so we tend to ignore how these activities impact our environment. We burn enormous amounts of fossil fuels, which adds to global warming. We produce tonnes of waste, solid and liquid. We use various plastic products. Our hydroelectric power plants displace thousands of people and results in deforestation. Nuclear power plants sometimes jeopardise the safety of the people who live around them (think Chernobyl and Fukushima).
It can be argued that the Earth Hour is only symbolic, that it is not meant to replace all other actions we should take to reduce our ecological footprint. But symbols acquire their own life and end up being treated as solutions in themselves. So while millions of people will 'celebrate' Earth Hour and feel good that they've done their bit for the environment, they will carry on with their usual ecologically irresponsible ways of life after it.
Such exercises are like giving donations to charities or assuaging the occasional bouts of guilt on seeing poor people on streets while thinking which designer shoes to buy next. In this way, the Earth Hour may actually be doing more harm then good by not letting us confront the real and underlying causes of ecological destruction, but giving the impression that we're at least doing something good for the planet.
One reason we get away with such symbolic acts is that many of us don't confront the impacts of our actions in our everyday lives. In our cocooned middle class urban existence, we don't face a shortage of water, food or energy resources and we do not know what getting displaced from home really means. Our houses do not get destroyed when forests disappear or rivers are polluted, as it happens with adivasis or fishermen. It is only once in a blue moon when our houses are flooded by 'freak' occurrences, like the Mumbai floods of 2005, that we sit up and take notice. But then we forget them as soon as life returns to 'normal'.
The impact of our actions on our planet is, by all accounts, stupendous. We have already overrun its capacity to provide us with resources that are crucial for survival. It's because of our actions that many species of birds, animals and plants have become extinct or are on the verge of disappearing for good. But the most frightening thing is that we are changing the climate itself. This is leading to catastrophic weather occurrences, which have already displaced or killed millions of people.
We urgently and desperately need to give the planet some 'rest' - more than a symbolic, hour-long rest. This can happen only if we reduce consumption of resources and our propensity to pollute nature. This will happen only if people do not over-consume resources and keep their wastage in check by changing their lifestyle. This will give the poor more ecological space and reduce our overall footprint. One hour of switching off lights won't help much. We need many more hours of action in this direction.
Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh; Gyan Kothari studies in a Delhi school. The views expressed by the author are personal.