Is It Time to Pull the Plug on Earth Hour?

I forgot about Earth Hour.

I mean, it’s not like I forgot Earth Day, plus I have my excuses. I was moving on Saturday so I was distracted. Well, in reality we had finished long before 8:30 PM so I was actually relaxing on the couch with a cold one…which isn’t much of a defense…

Photo Credit: FlyingSinger

This is why I’m not a lawyer.

Checking in across the country, it seems everyone must have been moving. Early results from Toronto showed a drop in consumption of 115 MW (5% less than average), this down from a 296 MW reduction in 2010 and from 454 MW the year before. Similar results from PEI through Alberta (BC seems to have bucked the trend) seem to show a decline in participation for the annual event, started in 2007. Even overseas, other things seem to have gotten in the way of participation.

To be fair, Earth Hour is about the symbolic recognition of climate change issues rather than actual energy savings, and demand on the grid can change as the result of a variety of offsetting or contributing conditions (e.g. weather, demand from the industrial sector, etc.). But are we already done with Earth Hour?

In an age where online videos seem ‘long’ if they are more than a few minutes and the news cycle moves with lightning speed from crisis to crisis (Remember Egypt..? That is sooo two months ago), the acronym ‘TLDNR’ seems to have become a part of our mindset. It’s not that people aren’t capable of focusing, but rather we prefer things in small, manageable chunks.

The problem of enduring engagement is felt across the board, but it can be particularly challenging for those promoting a cause or managing a public-facing program. Behaving more like trends, sustainability programs will fall in and out of favour like music and fashion. Now working toward its 5th anniversary, Earth Hour may soon be going the way of the trucker hat, with some laggards still catching on while the engagement for the early adopters wears off.

So what should we do? Dismiss Earth Hour as passé? Those organizations already participating in Earth Hour should continue to do so, as it has become expected of them and a failure to support it will bring accusations of abandoning their environmental stance. Should we vigorously promote something that seems to be on the decline? That, it seems to me, is the very definition of ‘uncool’ and will be a great way to lose what’s left of the masses.

The very fact that I can comfortably refer to ‘Earth Hour’ without feeling obliged to explain it means the initiative has done its job. It is probably best to let Earth Hour go out with some dignity by focusing on supporting those who still want to participate. More importantly, there is now a need to find another initiative that can generate the next wave of engagement. As with film, viral videos and trends in general, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what will be a hit, but examining the lessons from Earth Hour, certain elements seem to be included in the winning formula.

Though more holistic models exist, I wanted to touch on three of the ingredients that should be considered in engaging a mass audience:

Make it social – Though Earth Hour is not necessarily social in nature, people have made the most of it by organizing candle-lit Earth Hour parties. Even those who end up participating solo can feel a part of the group since the overall effect is easily captured with before and after photographs of the city skyline.

Make it active – Engagement becomes much more real when people can actually do something themselves. Of course, an activity that is actually practical is ideal, but if awareness and fundraising are part of the mission, practicality is not something to get too hung up on. Growing a mustache for Movember will not directly contribute to the eradication of prostate cancer, but the spectacle of ‘growing your mo’ will certainly spread the message to a wider group of people, which should in turn help bolster the fundraising and support for the initiative.

Make it approachable – Working with elements that are common and accessible to most of your target audience is also important for planning an initiative. Anyone with electricity can turn off their lights for Earth Hour. Anyone who is physically mobile can participate in a marathon.  Most men grow some form of facial hair, the more ridiculous the better, so they can let it grow.

The common thread that runs through each of these criteria is the necessity to provide a positive net value for the individual. Though the extent varies with the individual, everyone behaves with some element of self-interest, and a successful initiative will tap into that. Whether that personal value comes from social interaction or getting out and doing something, it must be greater than the perceived inconvenience or cost of getting involved. The warm fuzzy feeling of doing good should be accounted for, but it is often not enough to create mass engagement.

All engagement programs have a life cycle, but it has become shorter as media are in fierce competition for eyeballs. The buzz of novelty is wearing off faster than ever, and though trying a new activity could be the factor that tips the scales for a program to be successful, one can’t rely on it to create enduring engagement. I don’t necessarily see this quick turnover as a bad thing, but rather a fact of reality that underscores the need for sustainability professionals and change managers to constantly develop new engagement programs and, perhaps more importantly, refresh the ones that work. Movember has enjoyed growing popularity for the past couple of years, but it almost seemed like a norm last year, which may signify its peak. As participation dwindles for Earth Hour, it at the very least needs a refresher. As you read this, the next big initiative may be already on its way, poised in a local market somewhere to spread like wildfire when it catches on.

As for me, I plan to mark Earth Hour in my calendar for next year. As the day gets closer, I may even set an alarm in my phone.

I just need to remember to do that.

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About Daniel Caunter

Who is Daniel Caunter? Daniel is a series of contrasts – Environmentalist MBA, anglo Montrealer, landlocked surfer, serious about fun, and creatively practical. He has lofty ideals, but is focused on finding veritable solutions that will work in reality. He is a work in progress, building a career in environmental business with a focus on stakeholder engagement, project management and corporate communications. Daniel can be reached via Twitter (@danielcaunter), or by commenting here on this site. If you’d like a real-time update on this work in progress, he may even be persuaded to come out for a pint or a cuppa. (Please note: the views expressed in Daniel’s posts are his personally - though sometimes satirical - and are not necessarily those of his employer or other affiliations...so don’t be silly.)
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