On Saturday night, throughout Metro Vancouver and around the globe the Dog and Pony Show known as Earth Hour had civil service engineering staff, probably working on overtime, throttling breaker switches to dim the bulbs on bridges and public buildings for one hour.
At CityCaucus Tower we had the lights turned off, but kept the scamps in the research department writing out FOI's by hand under the glow of candlelight. Actually, this has been company policy since we discovered a bag of tea lights were cheaper than running the fluorescent bulbs.
Over in East Vancouver where I live, my family dutifully turned off the TV and hi-fi at 8pm, lit candles and pulled out a board game to pass the time. As busy people who are usually battered with some kind of media, it was a pleasant change to have some simple, quiet time with loved ones.
While our house sat in the middle of the block darkened, we couldn't help but notice that across the street from us the houses all remained lit up. The majority of my neighbours are immigrants who, if they knew we were deliberately camped in the dark inside our house, probably would think we were nuts.
And who can blame them for thinking that? Earth Hour reeks of good intentions. It's yet another symbolic environmental gesture, not unlike the Farmboy Mayor's capricious veggie garden, that will not save us from an abyss of unsustainability.
It would be easy to misconstrue my skepticism about Earth Hour as some form of climate change denial, but nothing could be further from the truth. Last year I organized an Earth Hour neighbourhood party that about 40 people attended. We cooked up hot chocolate on a camp stove and mingled under the cool night air with neighbours outdoors while all lights and appliances were shut down at home. We promoted the event through emails, Facebook and a few posters, and I met people that night who live nearby I've never seen before.
I've committed myself to the ideals of Earth Hour, but I realize now it falls far short of being able to create any real movement.
I had been thinking of this last night before I met a woman at a dinner party who had just traveled the Far East last November. What a exhilarating journey she had been on. She saw sights in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing I can only dream of encountering someday. I asked her what Beijing was like, expecting to hear there was some kind of residual energy remaining from last summer's Olympic Games. Her answer stopped me cold.
"Depressing," she said.
I asked her to explain what she meant. She told me the story of the opulent Mandarin Oriental Hotel, one of the most beautiful buildings under construction in Beijing, and how it had burned down to the ground thanks to some rogue fireworks display. The China government was so embarrassed about it they desperately tried to cover it up, and they very nearly succeeded (I'd never heard anything about it) if it weren't for locals posting videos up on YouTube.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel fire was emblematic of a larger problem in China's capital. She described how Beijing's citizens had embraced "disposable culture" as a by-product of their new found affluence. She said that mere two-year old buildings looked like dumps because their tenants didn't look after them. Everything, even the skyscrapers they were building, were temporary fixtures until they were razed and something newer replaced it.
It did sound very bleak to me. And it confirmed to me the immense challenge we face in letting the world know we have a sustainability crisis on our hands. Symbolic, hour-long exercises in shutting off lights must seem like a joke to many people, especially those who hail from villages without dependable electricity or sewers.
We'll continue to explore the subject of sustainability and our cities here at CityCaucus.com in the months ahead.