Symbolic Protest

28 March 2009

The "bird's nest" stadium in Beijing during Earth Hour.

The "bird's nest" stadium in Beijing during Earth Hour.

Today, in various parts of the world, cities and individual buildings have observed, are observing, or will be observing “Earth Hour” by turning out their lights for an hour.

The BBC article on this includes the interesting formulation, that the action is intended as a “protest against climate change.” Probably this is just sloppy writing, as protesting against climate change is a little like proposing to amend the law of gravity. What is presumably meant occurs later the BBC piece: “the aim is to create a huge wave of public pressure to influence a meeting in Copenhagen later this year to seek a new climate treaty.” Seeking to influence a new treaty is a very different matter than protesting forces of nature.

While I understand the intended function of symbolic protest, and indeed have written in this forum concerning the efficacy of symbolic displays, I find the particulars of this protest somewhat problematic. If we are to be serious about conservation, why not turn out the lights for a day, a week, or a month? Obviously, people don’t want to be inconvenienced. A symbolic protest of an hour’s length can be accommodated by most, but inconveniencing anyone for a longer period of time might prove problematic. But if this is true, that people can’t be called upon for a sacrifice of more than an hour’s duration, how will industrialized societies even enact or enforce conservation measures that will really make a difference?

And suppose people all over the world kept their lights out for a day, a week or a month — what would they use instead? Would it impact the environment any less if six billion people used candles or camping lanterns? Could you imagine the soot that would be generated by a city of ten million or more in which all light was provided by candles or kerosene? We have already learned this lesson from the early part of the Industrial Revolution, when England’s ancient cities were turned black from the burning of coal. We have, in fact, dramatically improved the cleanliness of the generation, distribution, and consumption of energy since the Industrial Revolution began.

Also reported today were the protests in London prior to the opening of the G20 summit. The size and ferocity of the protests is a measure of dissatisfaction with the present recession and financial crisis precipitated by the widespread failure of mortgage-backed securities. People are protesting against perceived corruption and in favor of policies that are thought to favor the ordinary business of life by ordinary citizens. This is all very reasonable and understandable, but there is a sense in which protesting against an economic recession and its effects on the lives of ordinary people is a lot like protesting against climate change: the problem is beyond the reach of both those protesting and those who are the object of the protest.

Both world climate and world markets are very large and very complex systems. No one “controls” them. Rather, they control us. While it is true that we have partial control over our influence on the climate and partial control over the economy, any measures we take will be slow in acting and could easily be de-railed by other forces far larger than any we can bring to bear. If present climate changes are anthropogenic, they are the result of cumulative changes that go back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Any program that addresses them would have to be similar in scope and in duration for it to impact the changes wrought over a hundred and fifty years.

Moreover, in so far as the G20 protests are protests over the severity of the recession, and represent a popular demand that politicians do something, do anything, to get the economy growing again, to the same extent they represent a demand on the part of the public to increase our energy usage and industrial emissions. While technological innovations have made energy production and use cleaner and greener, we cannot, at our present stage of civilization, increase economic activity and production for six billion people without using more energy. That energy has to come from somewhere.

We are equally dependent upon the climate and the economy for our survival. As I observed yesterday in The End of the End of the World, the economic infrastructure keeps us alive, and if it fails the world constructed upon it fails also. It simply isn’t possible to sustain the lives of six billion people without a pretty sophisticated economic infrastructure. We are, to a certain extent, trapped by our own success in industrialization. Since the majority of people worldwide now live in cities, we have more than three billion people packed into small areas, who are dependent upon food and water being brought to them, and waste products being shipped out. We can turn out the lights for an hour in such places, but more than that would become problematic.


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