Friday, March 26, 2010

Earth Hour Guest Post: Delhi activist Nagraj Adve explains why he won't be turning out the lights this year

Earth Hour is upon us again. “Cities across the globe”, says an ad today in the Hindustan Times, “will switch off lights between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm.” Millions across the world will doubtless join in. I won’t be among them. 

Don’t get me wrong. Taken by itself, I’m not against symbolic acts such as these. For one, they take issues like climate change,  sustainability, urban consumption, energy saving, etc. to a whole lot of people, young and old, some of whom may possibly not have engaged with these issues before. Actually participating in such an event helps many people engage even more deeply. Two, by being observed across the world, it hints at the worldwide nature of some of these problems and the recognition that these issues are being debated all over. 

Having said that, events such as these may give many the feeling that they are doing something to save the environment when actually the direness and urgency of the crises suggest that a lot more need to be done. When someone is having a heart attack, one does not take a Dispirin, we rush them to hospital and intervene to the degree necessary. Well, the Earth is having a heart attack. How has it been manifesting itself? In climate change.  In ongoing loss of species, at a rate so staggering that Edward Leakey and other folks refer to it as the 6th mass extinction of species in history (the fifth was when the dinosaurs were wiped out). In the loss of biodiversity. In peaking oil production, which is imminent. In declining groundwater, deepening across India. In stagnating food production. In polluted rivers. It has been having this multi-pronged heart attack for a while; some very respected folks talked about some aspects of it 20 years ago, some even earlier. And what are we doing 20 years later? Turning our lights out for an hour. 

The second thing that bothers me is that the Delhi government is actively involved in this. It promoted it last year. This year, the CM Sheila Dixit is inaugurating the main programme at India Gate. She heads the very government that is emitting tonnes of CO2 by spending crores on useless events like the Commonwealth Games, that has been cutting trees to widen roads for cars, and to build parking lots. The Indian government’s policy for two decades has been completely directed towards higher carbon emissions via consumption by the rich. 

Governments and elites tend to play up such symbolic events to hide the systemic nature of issues like climate change. By systemic I mean the system of industrial capitalism, which is at its core. Unless we take that head on, collectively, there’s no way that we are going to be able to deal with climate change or any of the other ecological crises it engenders. 

So I’m not saying turning your lights out is a bad thing. I’m saying one needs to do a lot, lot more. (And by that I mean us better-off; the poor are anyhow consuming less and emitting less CO2 than is their right.) At an individual or household level, doing more would mean identifying all the daily things that consume a lot of energy, water, etc. Taking the bus where possible instead of an auto or car, the train instead of flying. Speed is bad. Cutting out or minimizing the use of gadgets that consume high levels of electricity. It may make life more boring for a while but there are no shortcuts to cutting consumption. The elites promote shortcuts and call it energy efficiency; it does not work.

Doing more also means doing things collectively. Now, that is not easy in this fragmented world we live in. But there’s little option, as that is possibly the key way large social change happens. If we want the BRT bus corridor to extend beyond Moolchand, if you don’t want trees cut in your neighbourhood to make way for car parks, if we all want adequate water harvesting and cycle lanes, we need to get together and make sure it happens. And all these things are only a start if we want to intervene in large issues like climate change. Switching off one’s lights is nice, but we need to do a hell of a lot more. Urgently.

Nagraj Adve is an activist with Delhi Platform, a non-funded organization active on issues linked to global warming. Contact him at:


  1. Very well said. I agree entirely. Switching off lights once a year seems like a little gimmick we partake in and console ourselves that we are being environmentally friendly.

  2. I wish I could find some hope in what you say. But I feel that the time for action is long past. We'll never be able to or won't make the necessary changes in time to escape unscathed.

    Personally, I'm having to come to grips with the fact that the human race may die out - long after I'm dead of course. I know that's something that generations have said one after the other, but this time I really think it's going to happen

  3. @pRiYA I'm glad you liked this. I was (am still) expecting to get some heat for it, but I thought the post was provocative and struck a chord. If you look at it one way, it is "lightbulb environmentalism" at its worst.

    @Bhagwad, We are too far gone to talk of unscathed. But we may yet survive with some dignity. However, there is a grief that comes with the loss of an imagined future full of sunshine and rising tides (the kind that raise all boats, not the kind the swamp coastal cities:). I am also feeling that grief lately.

    @Naga--thanks for this post.

  4. I think the best reason Naga gives for disavowing the action is that it is a cover for a government that confines itself to the symbolic while continuing its destructive practices. If Sheila Dixit were to make an announcement about concrete policies for change then the symbolic would have meaning. As it stands we are living a lie.

  5. Bhagwad,
    I too feel it's unlikely we will be able to prevent dangerous levels of warming, with horrific consequences until there and beyond. Unfortunately, they will be felt by the poor everwhere.
    not that the human race will die out. The most bleak assessment I have come across is by James Lovelock, whose says that about half a billion will survive. His understanding of the Earth as a connected system is considered remarkable but I've not come across any serious scientist who seconds his bleak prognosis.
    Mridula, for me the key reason is not the govt lie since I don't expect better from govts, but that these events are promoted to hide the systemic nature of GW and other crises.

  6. I find this nothing but a tactic to attract people to your blog. You say you don't support it, then you say you do support it, but then we need to do more. Nice one, but I don't like the method you have used.

  7. I thought this was Nagraj Adve's blog. I was mistaken. Nevertheless, I still don't like his tactic. He should be more straight-forward.

  8. @Mridula, thanks for stopping by; good point.
    @Naga-thanks again for the post, glad to see you stop by anytime.
    @Nick, I'm glad you came by, even if you didn't like what was on the menu today. Hope you stop by again sometime soon.

  9. earth hour in india is a joke. a sick one too. in india, where 4-10hrs of load shedding EVERYDAY is not uncommon switching off your lights for 1hr is supposed to mean something? i pity the fools who "participated" in this farce.

  10. Completely agree with you, had read this report sometime back about some professor who analysed and said that one hour shutting down has very marginal effect.
    But nevertheless it is a good way to make more and more people aware that we are in crisis.

  11. @Goli and Neeraj,
    Nice to meet you both. While I'd never deny how important Earth Hour is for many people, it certainly reminds us that the problems we face demand much more serious action.

    I find it interesting, by the way, that Delhi government officials so often find it necessary to put a "green" face on so many things they do. They talk about banning autorickshaws--they say it will be "green." They talk about "state of the art carts" for street vendors--they say they will be "green." Of course whether or not the initiatives are motivated by green concerns is another matter. But it's interesting that they are justified in these terms, isn't it?

  12. I agree with what Mr. Adve has to say. Dispirin is not needed for heart attack. The very same organization which is promoting this kind of event is actually the corporate mouth piece in civil society movement. They have nothing left to give salaries to their employees so they decided to use this new propaganda to fill their pockets. The Brand ambassador this year is selling highly polluting SUVs on one channel and on the other promoting Earth Hour. Irony! People are promoting Earth hour, but how many of them remember the date when Bishnoi Community members were slaughtered for protesting against lumbering in Khejari. Bloodshed for saving the very own environment. Nobody commemorates Chipkoo in India, the place of its origin. We need to get rid of this Corporate Populist Propaganda. Something which is close to the soil, air and water of the country should be brought forward.

  13. Is this the new art of seduction??? Well the thought is well conceived but not the way which will help most of the ignorant or the many I don't care syndrome suffering people...It can be a good tact when the issue is in its adolescence not when it has only been conceived. I think your opinion will make many now inclined to environment disheartened. well tried anyway..


  14. Yeh Saala Kya Tamasha Ho Raha Hai! Dharti Ke Liye Ghanta Ya Fir Din. Kya Sikhane Ki Koshish Ki Jaa Rahi Hai? Woh Bhi Uss Sanskriti Ke Logon Ko Jinhone Vrikshon Ke Liye Vanya Pranyion Ke Liye Aapne Prano Ko Nyochhawar Kar Diya. Tamasha Karne Waalo Ko Khejari Jaana Chahiye, Ya Fir Chamoli Aur Khamosh Waadi Ki Ziyarat Karni Chahiye, Niyamgiri Ko Bachane Ke liye Chal Rahe Sangram Ki Baat Karni Chahiye...Bas Kar Ji Hun Bas Kar!

  15. @Kabir, yes, we need much, much more than Earth Hour and Earth Day! Sometimes a reality check is what is called for. (And the idea of having a "Brand Ambassador" for something like earth hour makes me wonder what we are thinking!)

    @Anjali, I'm glad you stopped by. Maybe disheartened is not a bad feeling, if the alternative is complacency. I think many, many people are apathetic because they sense something very bad is going on, but have understanding about what that is or what to do about it. Let's try and change that...

  16. I like the term you have used 'lightbulb environmentalism' This kind of environmentalism is just to make people feel good about 'doing something' for the environment. Wear "save the planet" t-shirts for event such as these and then go back and sit in air conditioned homes.

  17. Pranietha and I have seen propagation of a false sense of "doing something good for the environment" even among the "environmental elite" in our city!
    Sit in air conditioned auditoriums and "motivate" people to do something!
    Sorry doesn't work!!!!
    Nagraj is absolutely right!
    A lifestyle change is important!!

  18. @Pranietha and Meenal--
    Absolutely. This year's slogan ("Go beyond the hour") is kind of a joke, really. OBVIOUSLY this has to "go beyond the hour" or it's not even the smallest of blips on the consumption charts. The fact that they had to say it seems a little silly. Real change is going to have to be year round and probably uncomfortable--at least for the people used to air conditioned auditoriums. It's certainly going to mean learning how to do things like walk and sweat more.


What do you think?