Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Earth Hour: Corporations Preaching Morality

When you dim your lights for Earth Hour, you’re protesting in a manner approved by multinational corporations. You’re allowing banks and insurance companies to tell you how to spend your Saturday night.

Let’s Kill Saturday Night, written & performed by Robbie Fulks

Once upon a time, back in 1969, a politician gave birth to Earth Day. His name was Gaylord Nelson and he was a US Senator from Wisconsin. According to an official account of those events, Nelson (a Democrat) persuaded a Republican Congressman named Pete McCloskey to be co-chair of his campaign – and the rest is history (backup link).

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970 and has been commemorated ever since. The UN has proclaimed April 22 to be International Mother Earth Day and events are held not just in North America but in countries as diverse as Italy and India.

But having an entire day devoted to the Earth wasn’t enough. Five years ago the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – a wealthy corporate entity with offices in 30 countries – decided there should be an Earth Hour. Perhaps the WWF deliberately chose to steal Earth Day’s thunder by scheduling its event three weeks earlier on the calendar (the last Saturday in March). Perhaps that was an accident.

In any case, whereas Earth Day was the brainchild of a politician, Earth Hour (as I explain here) was brought into this world by wealthy corporations. One third of this event is, in fact, owned by a media conglomerate – Fairfax Media Limited. It’s difficult to believe that Earth Hour would have grown so quickly had it not been in the interest of an entire chain of newspapers, magazines, and radio stations to promote it aggressively.

The Earth Hour website tells us that global warming “is the greatest threat facing our planet.” In 2007, it says, “2.2 million individuals and more than 2,000 businesses” in Sydney, Australia were inspired to turn out their lights for an hour to “show their support for climate change action.”

What action, precisely, these people were supporting isn’t discussed. Not all climate action is created equal, of course. Some ideas are simply foolish. Others sound promising but remain too expensive. Still others would cause energy-intensive industries to relocate, throwing thousands of people out of work.

But the Earth Hour website isn’t concerned with mundane details. A masterpiece of slick marketing, it wants us to believe that lots of us sitting in the dark all around the world will magically “build a truly global community committed to creating a more sustainable planet.”

According to its organizers, Earth Hour is now “the largest environmental event in history.” It’s important to understand that a long list of corporations helped make it that.

For example, the WWF is partners with Coca-Cola (backup link). Yes, this is the same symbol of American consumerism that, according to Wikipedia:

has been criticized for alleged adverse health effects, its aggressive marketing to children, exploitative labor practices, high levels of pesticides in its products, building plants in Nazi Germany which employed slave labor, environmental destruction, monopolistic business practices, and hiring paramilitary units to murder trade union leaders. [quote here; expanded discussion here]

One of the things that happens when multinational corporations forge such partnerships is that they begin to imagine they have the right to deliver moral instruction guidance to the public. In 2008, Coca-Cola issued a press release announcing not only that it was participating in Earth Hour, but telling ordinary people how they themselves should behave.

In Coke’s view the public should “take small steps…to help fight global warming.” With supreme chutzpah it advised:

In addition to turning off your lights at home between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. local time, you can shut off or unplug other non-essential electrical equipment – such as idle cell phone chargers, computers, microwaves, electric toothbrushes, etc. You also can have one hour of family time without computers or television, play games by flashlight, or read stories by the fireplace.

Family time doesn’t just happen, you see. What would we do if we didn’t have a multinational soft drink company urging us to play games with the kids.

A similar press release issued by Coca-Cola Canada declared – without pointing to an iota of evidence – that:

Climate change is the biggest environmental threat to the planet and the number one concern for Canadians. [bold added; backup link here]

Well I’m one Canadian who takes a dim view of multinational corporations deciding what my number one concern is. When I want Coke to speak for me, I’ll let it know.

Another Earth Hour partner is furniture retailer IKEA. I love its bookshelves as much as the next person, and I think its quest to reduce packaging deserves applause. But none of that changes the fact that IKEA is a corporate behemoth. It operates stores in 38 countries. Its primary goal is to make money.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but let us not be confused. Businesses are not spiritual leaders. Something has gone terribly awry if corporations think they’re entitled to express an opinion about how I, an adult in a free society, should spend my Saturday night.

In 2009, Ikea Canada issued a press release headlined: Join IKEA by Making Every Hour Earth Hour. Referring to the WWF as its “valued global partner,” the press release highlights one of the reasons corporations have jumped aboard the Earth Hour bandwagon: it gives them an opportunity to boast. According to the release:

IKEA has been committed to the environment for several decades…the company has practiced responsible retailing for decades…

Marvelous. What isn’t so marvelous is what the release then adds:

We are encouraging all our coworkers [aka employees] to participate in WWF’s Earth Hour 2009, both at work and at home. Every one of our 4,000 co-workers in Canada have received an IKEA candle as a symbol of our commitment to responsible environmental practices. [bold added; backup link]

So it’s now acceptable for corporations to pester their employees about how they spend their private time? It’s now OK for multinational banks – such as Australia’s Commonwealth Group – to use Earth Hour as an opportunity to urge people to re-think their “everyday lives”? (see here and here)

And it’s OK for multinational insurance companies – such as Britain’s RSA – to urge “customers and employees to sign up to Earth Hour”? An intrusive, meddling statement on that corporation’s website goes so far as to suggest that we “mark the hour with a candlelit dinner for friends and family” (source, backup link).

Who do these people think they are? Banks and insurance companies have no moral authority to preach to the rest of us. About A N Y T H I N G.

The world, it seems, has turned upside down. Once upon a time, activists intent on making a difference viewed corporations with healthy suspicion.

These days they protest when – and how – corporations tell them to.

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