Magazine April 18, 2011, Issue

A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven

This year’s “Earth Hour” came and went without much hoorah. A few cities turned off their lights downtown for 60 minutes to show how glorious the world could be if we were all kickin’ it Pyongyang-style, and people swooned. The objections are obvious: It’s symbolic. It accomplishes nothing. It flatters those who believe they are better people because they fret about carbon, compost their fair-trade coffee grounds, and lecture people who use superglue when they could use Himalayan yak spittle. (Seriously, you can find it at any co-op.) If Freud were around these days, he’d reduce their psyche to the Id and the Super-eco.

Here’s the problem with Earth Hour: How do you know when it’s over without consulting some carbon-powered instrument? I know, I’ll check the sundial, like the wise old carbon-neutral Greeks! Someone light a candle so I can see what time it is. But candles give off the CO2, the Devil’s Breath. One candle, it is estimated, gives off 0.00000001 PBs of carbon, with 1 PB being the amount it takes to melt a glacier and strand a photogenic polar bear on a floe. So no wicks, no tapers. Better to curse a candle than to light the darkness.

Perhaps one could use a wind-up timer to know when the Hour’s done. That would have a symbolic message possibly lost on the celebrants: Civilization, like an egg-timer, winds down unless maintained and resupplied with energy. The problem with our current energy situation, though, is that we won’t hear the Ding! when time’s up. Things will just grind down until the economy is on blocks in the front yard because gas is six bucks a gallon, inflation is galloping like a stagecoach horse, and the entitlement state has become so enormous the only thing Congress can do is meet twice a year to turn it over so it doesn’t get bedsores. We’re supposed to be panicked about unsustainable fuels and switch to putt-putt plastic cars that run on hemp, but we could sustain ourselves for some time with the oil we have and the nuclear plants we could have. Might give us some breathing room, so skylines need not be darkened to divert the last precious watts to a hospital’s ICU.

Anyway. In the high holy holidays of the ecology movement, Earth Hour is the precursor to Earth Day, the annual reminder that despite four decades of laws and regulations, the planet is still precariously imperiled. Grade-school students will spend the day writing letters to Congress so the Koch Brothers don’t inject plutonium into the earth’s core as part of their “Mwah hah hah! Die! Everyone die!” initiative. But just as Earth Hour has lost steam, Earth Day has challenges. The latest Gallup poll indicates that Americans are caring less about global warming than before. They care the most about “contamination of soil and water by toxic waste,” which will surely spur the moribund EPA to fight all those laws that permit American Cadmium and Lead to pour their industrial waste into ponds by the elementary school. Most people also worry “a great deal” about “air pollution” — 28 percent don’t give it much thought at all, but they’re sitting in boardrooms lighting cigars with $100 bills to kick off National Belching Smokestack Week. A majority of people — 57 percent — are worried about “urban sprawl and loss of open spaces.” That is also the percentage of people who have never flown across the Midwest and looked out the window.

#page#Bottom of the list: global warming. Fifty-one percent “worry” about it “a great deal or a fair amount.” The poll didn’t dig into specifics, alas; one would love to know how the people who worry a great deal go about their day. Sitting in a room, chin on fist, brow furrowed, worrying for a solid uninterrupted hour? Scattered flurries of worry throughout the day, spurred by a weather report that says tomorrow’s temps will be above average, or the sight of a Hummer? Perhaps they say that because decent people say they’re concerned. Not being Very Worried is like razoring the Free Tibet bumper-sticker off your car bumper. Admitting you don’t care about global warming, in some circles, is like admitting you’re worried about Iran getting the bomb. That’s really all some people need to know. Back away. He may quote Glenn Beck without irony at any moment.

The beauty of Earth Hour: It’s predictable, it’s voluntary, it happens at night, and it doesn’t interrupt anyone’s dentist appointment. Countries that have their own unscheduled “Earth Hours” several times a day must look at the West like a starving person regards a trencherman who announces he will abjure oysters once a year between 3 and 4 p.m. We can give it up because we don’t have to. Yet. If the grid goes down for good, and the human infestation on aching Gaia is reduced to hominids huddled in huts, children may ask toothless Gramps to tell them what it was like when the great dark towers shone at night, when the night was banished by the proud gleam of our hasty and tireless servant, Electricity. But if Gramps was a green, he might well scoff: “’Twas a vain boast that man could outmatch the stars, and what did we get out of it? Besides a century of unparalleled prosperity? A half-degree rise in global temperatures. Or so some say. The instruments that compute such things had to be plugged in to work. Anyhow, stop your fussin’ and go to bed.”

Sun’s down. Day’s done.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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