Feel-Good Politics

The futility of showing that you care.


Whether or not you celebrated Earth Day last month, odds are that you celebrated Earth Hour on March 29 the same way I did: accidentally. That night at 8:30 p.m., millions of people all over the world turned off their lights for an hour "to raise awareness for the planet." In doing so, they became "Super Heroes for the planet," according to an official Earth Hour press release.

Actor Jamie Foxx, who for some reason is quoted in the press release, said, "Earth Hour isn't just about lights off; it's about people across the world coming together…to improve the planet. Never underestimate your power." You have the power to turn off your power.

Though I did not celebrate Earth Hour at the scheduled time, I celebrated it 10 times as long. Before you applaud my environmental superheroism, I should say that while I turned off my lights for 10 consecutive hours, I did so not to improve the planet but because I wanted to sleep in the dark. Still, what matters is that I did it, and that I did it for 10 hours, which makes me, I suppose, a super-superhero for the planet.

Lesson of Earth Hour: If you want to be environmentally conscious, be literally unconscious.

It would be nice if some people were the latter more often. NBC's Bob Costas, to pick an example, loves raising people's awareness of his own awareness-raising. During an NFL game in 2007, Costas looked into the camera and announced, "We have turned out the lights in the studio to kick off a week that will include more than 150 hours of programming designed to raise awareness about environmental issues." It was up to viewers to decide whether to turn out their own lights while watching the 150 hours of programming devoted to showing how important it is to turn off the lights but not the TV.

General Electric isn't the only company that's aware of its planet-saving powers. According to a 2007 story in The New York Times, Goldman Sachs "sends its bankers home at night in hybrid limousines." Coincidentally, Goldman Sachs received a government bailout the following year.

Then there's Madonna, who has been on the planet long enough to devise innovative ways of saving it. "If you want to save the planet," she exhorted a crowd several years ago, "I want you to start jumping up and down!" "If you want to save the planet," she continued, "let me see you jump!" If you jump and Madonna doesn't see you, you're not saving the planet. You're just being stupid.

I don't ride in hybrid limousines, I don't jump for the planet, but I do turn off my lights regularly, though rarely for the planet. In fact, I unofficially celebrate Earth Hour every night (and many afternoons), which is why it seems only fair that the planet raise its awareness of me.

Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalistcalled Earth Hour "an ineffective feel-good event," which is half-correct. To the extent that it makes its participants feel good about themselves, Earth Hour is extremely effective. Like all feel-good activism, Earth Hour is more about earthlings than the earth.

Two decades before the first Earth Hour, there was Hands Across America, the purpose of which was to raise $50 million for hungry and homeless Americans by getting a bunch of housed, well-fed Americans to hold each other's hands on an arbitrarily picked day in 1986. The event failed to raise $50 million, but it succeeded in getting lots of publicity and in spreading lots and lots of germs.

One critic called it "one of the noblest failures in the history of American popular culture." But its point was not to "succeed" in any concrete way but to be noble, which it was, at least according to those who said so. The president of the group, USA for Africa, which sponsored the event, said, "If it demonstrates a unity of purpose, it will have accomplished its goal." Another organizer said it "exceeded our wildest dreams" by showing that "people do care."

Indeed, people do care—about making themselves feel good. That is the real lesson of Earth Hour. It is also why I sleep so comfortably at night.