Earth Hour: Romanticizing darkness?
If darkness is the measure by which we gauge which nations top the list in this year’s Earth Hour, there’s no doubt that the winner will be none other than…North Korea.
The image below shows one of the most dramatic satellite photos of North Korea at night. Except for the tiny beacon of light that is Pyongyang, almost the entire North Korean nation sits in darkness. In contrast, neighboring South Korea and China are ablaze.
This glaring disparity in the illumination of North and South Korea at night is testament to the very different paths taken in the last century by these previously unified nations.
Whereas electricity is generally accessible and reliable to South Koreans, it is largely inaccessible to a great many North Korean households, and to those lucky enough to have access, interruptions and blackouts are commonplace. Whereas South Korea now enjoys prosperity, innovation, and integration in the world economy, North Korea is left in poverty, stagnation, and isolation.
The link between electricity consumption and prosperity is so intuitive and appealing that some studies (such as this one) show how lights at night (as captured by satellite imagery) can play a crucial role in detecting changes in economic growth at the sub- and supra-national levels, especially in countries where official income data are unreliable and hard to obtain. Data on changes in the intensity and scope of lights can also be used to predict long-term trends in economic growth.
The idea that electricity usage can reflect economic prosperity is applicable to the Philippines as well. In recent weeks a glorious night shot of Metro Manila was featured in the news. Taken from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2011, the photo depicted the outlines of the metropolis in beautiful detail, immediately giving the viewer a sense of the hustle and bustle of the metro at night.
Note how quickly the light diminishes as one moves north and south of Metro Manila, leaving much of the light concentrated within the Metro’s boundaries. Indeed, a quick glance of web photos of the entire Philippines at night will show that Metro Manila is already the largest concentration of light to be found throughout the country.
It is no coincidence that Metro Manila accounts for as much as a third of the country’s total output (as measured by GDP) and around 13% of the country’s population. Conversely, a great number of our people in the rest of the nation find themselves living in less prosperous areas and in relative darkness.
Electricity, our friend
Of course, Earth Hour is not about promoting darkness. The real message is revitalizing humanity’s bid for collective action in the midst of hazards posed by climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation.
And yet I am not sure that the “back-to-basics” idea inevitably linked to the gesture of turning off lights at night is the best way to symbolize our bid to protect nature. Indeed, as has been pointed out by many others in previous years, our use of electricity should be celebrated, not demonized.
In other words, consumption of electricity should not be necessarily linked to the notion of wastage and environmental harm, but rather to the many modern conveniences that have allowed people to become much more productive and satisfied with their lives. From the refrigerators which preserve our food; the light bulbs which allow us to continue learning and working even at night; the TV and the radio which have revolutionized communication since the last century; and the very computers and phones and tablets with which you read this article — all of this we enjoy thanks to electricity.
The idea that shunning electricity (even for a while) brings us “closer” to nature can also be trumped by the idea that electricity is not even a human invention. Indeed, electricity is everywhere in nature, and we have merely invented ways of using it safely for our daily conveniences.
The point is that there is much to celebrate about electricity (in and of itself) and how humans have used it over the past few centuries. This is beside the fact that electricity can be generated in renewable ways that do not exacerbate climate change and damage the environment in the long run. It is hard to imagine that harnessing energy from the sun, winds, waves, tides, and the earth’s crust will be harmful to the earth itself.
Indeed, there is continuing debate on the sustainability of using renewable energy. But as the world begins to wean itself from fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources, we need only the spark of human ingenuity to come up with inventions and innovations that will allow clean, efficient, and renewable energy to eventually dominate energy production for our future needs.
Powering up Mindanao
Yet another reason to ponder and rethink the message of Earth Hour is to consider the plight of many of our countrymen, especially in Mindanao, who experience “energy poverty” on a daily basis.
Rotational blackouts, sometimes lasting for as much as 6 to 8 hours a day, are currently in place in several areas in Mindanao. This stems largely from the inability of supply to meet increasing demand. A recent paper written by an economist at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) concluded that without significant additions to Mindanao’s baseload generation capacity, a power crisis in the region, similar to what happened in the summer of 2012, could recur.
Energy shortages have occurred not only because of inadequate supply but also because of steadily increasing demand. And as prospects for peace and order in the region improve with the development of the Bangsamoro peace process, more investors and businesses will flock in, further increasing demand.
That energy demand is steadily increasing is inevitable. But the proper response is not to discourage growing demand. Unfortunately, this is an idea used by some supporters of Earth Hour, including some of our government officials.
Just last year a DOE official claimed that observing Earth Hour daily will “significantly shave off power demand.” This year, the DENR secretary was quoted as saying that the “mass switch-off means less consumption of electricity.”
Indeed, Mindanao’s long-run growth — from poverty reduction to the growth of economic activity — will necessarily require more (not less) energy. Instead of encouraging shaving off demand, Earth Hour’s message should focus instead on finding ways to expand energy production using more efficient technologies that use cleaner and renewable resources. In this way, protecting the environment and promoting human development need not be inconsistent with each other.
Rethinking the message
Earth Hour is arguably the most viral environmental campaign of our time, and its core message cannot be emphasized enough. By all means let’s reduce wastage and come up with new ways to preserve the environment. Let’s turn off our lights when we don’t really need them. Let’s plant more trees. Let’s minimize our carbon footprints. Let’s promote and advocate renewable energy. Climate change is upon us, and conquering it will require the cooperation and participation of all of humanity.
However, in imparting this message, let’s not reinforce, however inadvertently, the misleading notion that saving the environment involves a throwback to life before electricity. I’d rather see a prosperous Philippines ablaze at night rather than a Philippines in a constant state of Earth Hour except for interspersed pockets of light coming from urban areas.
In other words, there may be other ways of campaigning for nature without inadvertently harboring the notion that moving away from and using less electricity is preferable to using more of it.
Indeed, as so strikingly reflected by the satellite imagery of North and South Korea at night, moving toward higher levels of prosperity will, in fact, require quite the reverse. – Rappler.com
The author is a graduate student of the UP School of Economics. His views are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his affiliations.