Tomorrow is Earth Hour!

Will you celebrate this event for the environment – and how? Watch this video from the World Wildlife Found (WWF) – it’s a great announcement in favour of the occasion.

Each year around this time, media is bombarded by positive and negative voices regarding the phenomenon of Earth Hour. Some people claim that turning the light off one hour in the evening actually makes some difference. Others suggest that the impact is minuscule and therefore that the whole event is pointless. Others still, point out some concrete adverse effects: for example, what people actually tend to do when they turn the lights off is to light candles instead and having a cosy evening – candles that are generally made from petroleum products and thus emitting a lot more carbon dioxide for the amount of light they provide in relation to what electrical lights would had provided…

On the other hand, others claim, Earth Hour is not about saving emissions that specific evening but about increasing awareness about climate change and the exhausting of precious limited resources. The first group may then claim that electricity is the motor of prosperity and turning the lights off is the opposite of what we should do; rather we should turn the lights on to show sympathy with all those that still lack the benefit of abundant domestic electricity.

In the university classroom, current events and recent news are powerful in drawing the students’ interest. I have used Earth Hour for several years as a great news event to start a discussion on different views and perspectives. In the discussion, the opening question could be something like:

“Is Earth Hour a really great idea, or just a meaningless media stunt?”

Stated this way, the opening question is extremely polarised. This makes it easy for people to engage and put forward rather simple arguments. However, as the discussion continuous – and admittedly with some teacher moderation – we eventually land in the conclusion that this event may be regarded a quite good media stunt. Somewhere in between the original positions, it seems.

This question is great for demonstrating that diametrically opposing views often exist that may both very well be rational and correct – even though they are mutually exclusive. This is because sustainable development is a subject that to a large degree is based on values. Depending on your values you probably end up in different opinions. Which is not to say that other opinions than your own are wrong – they may be very right as well, in their own way.

Realising this, is a great leap in itself for many students.

The next step may then be to realise that consensus may actually not be a desirable goal. Rather, it is the differences that are brought in open light through a constructive and open debate that are the most valuable output of the discussion. Realising you opponent’s true intentions and values put you in a position to formulate a compromise that could have the potential of being accepted by all parties.

In classrooms activities, sometimes my students realise that it may be possible to find a solution to real life sustainability issues – complex and unpredictable as they often are – in a compromise that may not be considered perfect by any part but acceptable by most.

When that happens, I feel like I have succeeded in this student group!