Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Last night I shut off the power, locked the door, and wandered through the neighborhood, following the lead of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), who suggest a cessation of non-essential energy use from 8:30 to 9:30pm on the last Saturday of each March. I left a couple of minutes early, hoping to witness a perceptible dimming of the city at the appointed moment, but saw only a normal March evening in Salt Lake City, with the glare of streetlights, automobile headlights and well-lit parking lots brightening the pallid bellies of migrating sandpiper flocks as they passed overhead. Even the newly vacant shell of a Circuit City continued to favor its interior with perpetual illumination. From my vantage, the tall buildings downtown were hidden, but a friend tells me that only the Mormon Temple darkened in deference.

The point of Earth Hour, as the observation has been christened, is to bring about greater consciousness of our everyday energy-consumption. Begun two years ago in Australia, it is said to have caught on a bit already in certain parts of the world. This year, the Swedish power transmission authority estimated a 2.1% drop in the nation's power consumption during Earth Hour, and reports of Toronto's decrease range as high as 15.1%. For the most part, though, Earth Hour was met with a big collective yawn. The mainstream attitude was reflected in a number of snarky articles; the smartest one I saw came from the Libertarian think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute, who lampooned the idea by vaunting a simultaneous observation of their own: “Human Achievement Hour,” where we're encouraged not to change our behavior in any way. The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto made a similar, feebler effort, and Keith Lokitch, PhD, that Ayn Rand Institute stalwart best remembered for his fallacious smear campaign of Rachel Carson on her 100th birthday, had his own suggestion:

“Try spending a month shivering in the dark without heating, electricity, refrigeration; without power plants or generators; without any of the labor-saving, time-saving, and therefore life-saving products that industrial energy makes possible. an entire month without fossil fuel.”

His tone was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but his recommendation was one that would do any of us a world of good. Before they die, Dr. Lokitch's grandchildren may well bring those very words to life, courtesy of the philosophy that Grandpa jovially celebrated.

Proud they may be of their grasp of the obvious link between porcine energy consumption and porcine standard of living, but the critics of Earth Hour miss the important points altogether. Like a secular Shabbat, last night's ritual benefited the individual, without intending a direct solution to global problems. Too few people ever spend an hour quietly reflecting on the issues raised by Lokitch, Taranto and the CEI, and too many find the very notion distasteful. During last night's peripatetic reverie, it occurred to me that a mere five minutes might be easier for the uninitiated to swallow, to eventually acquire the taste. I imagined for a mere three hundred seconds, an entire population moving with single intention, dousing their lights and their televisions, closing their storefronts and stifling their ignitions. Putting aside the concerns of ambition and commerce, stepping outdoors into the blackness and reveling, many of them for the very first time, at the simple beauty of the Milky Way.
illustration: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1997) acrylic 30" x 15"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, I have to say that I love your site, and understand that the Ayn Rand Institute is blatant in its promotion of untrammeled greed and capitalism as the solution to life's problems, a point of view I find odious in the extreme. But despite his snarky tone, he has a point. There is a decidedly socialist point of view that has merit here, one he wouldn't endorse. There is too little, not too much consumption in the vast majority of the world (including in the US). Starvation, lack of basic healthcare, extreme poverty and child mortality amid the richest and most scientifically advanced societies in human history. Desire for these things is not "porcine", but rational. I understand you mean those who have conspicuous wealth, as opposed to most of us... but to just say that the imbalance is due to overpopulation or average people not dimming their lights also misses the point. We can and should have progress, but we should do it sustainably and responsibly. This is not the responsibility of individuals, but of governments. Capitalism fails us here. So long as fossil fuels are the most valuable commodity on earth, there is no incentive to adopt new, clean sources of energy. Or seek peace. Surely we can strive to achieve both? Because the alternative condemns millions to misery. Sorry this is so long! Best, Jeff

4:05 PM  
Anonymous bev said...

Until about a week ago, I had been camping at a few sites around southern Utah and northern Arizona. I have to say that I was a little amazed at how few people at the campsites wandered off away from the lights to enjoy the incredible view of the stars. Most nights, I seemed to be the only one, but did run into a young couple who went out to the dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes S.P. one night. A few years ago, while I was visiting Kitt Peak observatory, a docent commented that the average person spends very little time looking at the sky throughout a year. I can't remember the statistics, but it seemed like a ridiculously small amount of time. However, now I'm beginning to think he was right. Anyhow, it's too bad that more people don't have an appreciation for night skies, or for discovering the neat creatures out moving around in the darkness. As you've suggested, maybe the way to get people interested is a few minutes at a time.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Jeff: Thanks for your thoughts. Here are more of my own: 1. “Earth Hour” is solely an exercise for the “first world.” The idea is to reinforce the sort of insights that are already common knowledge to, say, poor people in Chad. 2. It's true that Lokitch has a point, but it's so elementary as to be superfluous. Only a fool would claim that we should strive for the lowest possible standard of living, But that's how Lokitch depicts his detractors. Meanwhile, his philosophy errs by doing the exact reverse. At this stage, we all need to consider what standard of consumption we want to maintain, and what we're willing to ask our heirs to pay for it. You seem to want to set that standard higher than I do; I could never agree with your contention that there is too little consumption in the US. True, establishing such a standard is the responsibility of governments, but only in totalitarian systems are the citizenry absolved. Elsewhere, the government is an extension of ourselves, and by failing to participate we shirk our civil obligations. 3. Fossil fuels will not lose their prime value by being displaced by alternatives, but by becoming so difficult and expensive to extract that they move beyond the reach of most of us. 4. My use of the adjective “porcine” was meant to describe the consumption of the average American, including people like myself, who enjoy flying halfway around the world just to satisfy our curiosity.

Bev: Here in Salt Lake City, as in many places, one can only see the brightest 100 or so stars and planets on a moonless night. I really believe that most city dwellers would go to some lengths to be able to actually see the sky for a moment, and I think the experience would do us all a lot of good. On the last Saturday of September I plan to shut off my lights for five minutes and to encourage my friends to do likewise.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we turned off our stuff but sat with candles. next year we'll wander outside.
suz & bob

10:34 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home