Photo: Small actions can make a world of difference

Millions around the world quietly announced, through actions instead of words, that they think environmental conservation is important (Credit: Gwendolen Tee via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

As you no doubt know, last week's Earth Hour took place in several cities around the world, including many in Canada.

The project was spearheaded by the World Wildlife Fund, which successfully tested the idea in Sydney, Australia, last year. The idea is simple: ask everyone to flick off lights and non-essential appliances for an hour.

Earth Hour was a fascinating experiment. It's a bold idea. As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, we live in a global village. And Earth Hour is an expression of cooperation and support between the other villagers on our little blue planet.

It's easy to downplay this idea.

Many people did. Last week, it seemed as if all of Canada's contrarians got space in newspapers and radio to complain: "Turn off the lights?! Says who? I paid for them, and I'll leave them on as long as I darn well please!"


We live in a free society and we are free to do as we please. But these naysayers have a myopic view of the world, and the important social networks of which we are all a part.

When individuals do something beneficial for the environment—turning off the lights for an hour to show support for a good idea, or using energy-efficient appliances, or purchasing fuel-efficient cars—they aren't just taking a simple action. They are expressing a bold statement about their values.

On Saturday, millions around the world quietly announced, through actions instead of words, that they think environmental conservation is important.

It's not much different from the audiences who attend hockey games or rock concerts. When a fan sees a goal scored, or hears the opening chords to their favorite song, they put their hands together to make a noise. Clapping is one of the simplest things that humans are capable of.

But it has an effect. Just ask anyone who's been to a stadium recently. The air fills with thunderous applause. People start to hoot and holler. Chairs start to vibrate. And you can see the passion that fans have for their teams and musical heroes.

The simple act of turning off lights and appliances for an hour has an incredibly important symbolic value, and it's as profound as a applause in a crowded stadium.

When we express our values, others take notice and we are energized by not being alone. And pretty soon a lot of inspired individuals start operating as a collective. And once this happens, unusual things occur.

You don't have to look far to find inspiring examples. The history books—and Wikipedia—are full of them.

Who can ever forget Rosa Parks, who became an icon of civil rights by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in the segregated south?

Who can forget the lone Chinese protestor in 1989 who bravely showed the world his courage by refusing to move from oncoming tanks in Tiananmen Square?

And who can forget Terry Fox, who continues to inspire thousands around the world to take part in the non-competitive run that bears his name each year? All this, even though this brave young man didn't live to complete his own cross-Canada journey.

As single acts, in and of themselves, these actions aren't all that special. Certainly noteworthy, but not earth shaking. Yet, in a sense, these simple acts became larger symbols, succeeding in shaking up our thoughts about racism, authoritarian regimes, and cancer research.

This all brings us back to last week's Earth Hour. On Saturday night, news footage from around the world showed several cities making a difference, albeit symbolically. It showed conclusively that there are millions out there who aren't afraid to show that we care about the environment.

Of course, after the allotted time, lights were turned back on and many people resumed their usual Saturday night activity. But regardless of whether it's considered a success or failure, this was an important experiment. And it's a symbolic act that all the people and organizations in our social networks should listen to.

After all, if millions of urban dwellers care enough about the planet to participate in Earth Hour, so should the businesses we deal with and the governments that represent our interests. We need to let them know and keep reminding them.

Turning off lights for an hour all over the world is a great place to start, but it isn't where we want to end.

April 4, 2008

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