Questioning Earth Hour and a reminder to beware the candles


It’s that time of year again. Earth Hour 2009 will be celebrated from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. (your local time zone) this Saturday, March 28.

Last year I wrote about Earth Hour and asked everyone to participate and turn off his/her lights for just one hour. I also gave tips for making it a fun family event, and, without giving it too much thought, suggested lighting candles as an alternate lighting source. The problem with this idea has come to my attention since then on more than one occasion, but most recently Crunchy Chicken wrote about the negative impact of paraffin candles in her Earth Hour bashing post.

For those of you not intimately knowledgeable about standard paraffin candles, paraffin is essentially hydrocarbon, or a heavy alkane fraction distilled straight from crude oil. Even if 80% of your electricity comes from coal and fossil fuel fired power stations, burning candles is very polluting and certainly very greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions intensive, even more so than electric lighting. In other words, for every paraffin candle that is burned to replace electric lighting during Earth Hour, greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the one hour are increased by 9.8 g of carbon dioxide.

That’s a rather disturbing thought, no?

She continues,

Beeswax candles, on the other hand, can be considered “carbon neutral” in the sense that, even though it produces carbon dioxide when burned, it’s carbon that is naturally cycled through the ecospheric carbon cycle – not from fossil fuel.

So if you do plan on burning candles this year while participating in Earth Hour (or really if you plan to burn candles at all anytime), please make sure they are beeswax candles. An even better option though is to just hang out in the dark for an hour. :)

Aside from the candle issue, I have to admit I’m torn on the efficacy of Earth Hour. While I believe it has the power to affect change, I think if people, businesses, corporations and governments just do this one thing – turn out their lights for one hour – without changing any other of their habits, it’s really moot. And I question how many people are doing it just to be a part of something trendy and make themselves feel good. Turning out our lights for an hour isn’t going to solve global warming. However, if everyone uses Earth Hour as a springboard to take another step and another step and find little changes they can make to live greener and more sustainably, then it’s a great thing.

I’m trying to lean towards optimism rather than pessimism and keep the hope that each and every person who participates in Earth Hour is not doing it just to pat them self on the back for one evening, but that he/she realizes this is only the first step of many (MANY!!) to make a real difference in the future of our Earth.

Like I said in my post last year,

Earth Hour doesn’t have to end at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, you can incorporate it into your everyday life by doing little things like:

  • turn off lights when you leave a room;
  • switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs;
  • turn off appliances when not in use;
  • unplug things like cell phone chargers, the toaster, microwave and TV when they aren’t in use;
  • use less hot water;
  • switch to green power.

So what say you? Are you in? And what steps do you/will you take beyond turning off your lights on Saturday night?

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27 thoughts on “Questioning Earth Hour and a reminder to beware the candles

  1. I feel the same concerns…we need for people to observe Earth Years, not only Earth Hours… But, we do have to start somewhere and for many folks this may (hopefully!) be the beginning.

    We’re having a dinner party this Saturday and we will be using handmade soy candles. We already strive to live a very eco-friendly life…I mention only a few things in my blog, but we consider the environmental impact of every action we take. I’d like to find a way to inspire other people to “green” their families too.

    Great post!

  2. I agree with you about the trendy aspect however, if we make it trendy to be kind to our earth maybe just maybe we can change the way people think.

    One person at a time. And hopefully we do not run out of time!

  3. My first problem is that Earth Hour comes after Bedtime Hour and Reid needs her sleep this week, especially. How I wish it happened before daily savings time comes into effect. When Reid is older, I think we’ll try to go out and appreciate a reduction in ambient light (if that happens). A walk or time with the telescope would avert the candles dilemna, though we have beeswax candles. I agree with the everyday changes that you mention and would like to see Earth Hour talk include ambient light issues. This year, my husband and I will read by candle light, sitting together on the couch to share a single candle. We usually sit separately, each with our own lamp. Perhaps that is a long term change we should tackle.

  4. oops, Glenn hit post hehe

    because you are down to earth, while you’re caring for it.

    I don’t think there’s any harm in Earth hour. By all means, beeswax candles is a perfect idea, to be more earth friendly. And I think the whole Earth hour is a fantastic way to raise awareness and get more people on board.

  5. Uh-huh, Earth Hour is considered a SLACKTIVIST event (I learned about this term when looking up Earth Hour in Wikipedia). Agreed that there is certainly no harm in participating in Earth Hour, but it likely won’t make a difference in people’s habits.

  6. I fear I’m going to have to go with trendy. I like the idea of it, but I think it is something that people who already do things like this (keep lights off, get out in nature, etc) are going to embrace while others will ignore. I don’t think anyone else in my family is planning to do anything.

    As for candles, I use the LED candles. My mom got them for me and i enjoy them plus I don’t have to worry about toddlers getting to them.

  7. I’m a new reader to this blog – nice to have found you!

    I think if we look at Earth Hour as something meant to be a catalyst for people making radical changes in their earth-care behaviors, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment (which then causes us to dismiss the idea). But if it increases our awareness by even just a bit, then that’s still a good thing. And bound to increase with time.

    I remember when recycling was new and we all thought only those hippies who lived in hay bale houses did it. Now its mandatory in some places! I used to live in one neighborhood where the trash company would not pick up your bag if it had a ton of glass in it – they wanted you to recycle it.

    And those LED candles rock! (great if you have pets).

    Holy

  8. “Slactivist”? That’s a new term for me, but I sorta like it!

    I originally banned the purchase of regular old wax candles because the fragrances (also typically petroleum-based) gave me a headache–I only found out that the whole darned candle, not just the fragrance–came from oil!

    Now my dilemma is that I have quite a few of these candles left and the oil’s already been “spent” so to speak, so do I pitch them or use them?

    We are trying to phase them out and phase the beeswax in now and I’m excited that some of the local bee keepers are selling wax at the market now because the ones at VC/WF are really expensive!

  9. Pingback: Topics about Candles » Questioning Earth Hour and a reminder to beware the candles …

  10. you know…last year we went to a restaurant during earth hour and the lights were down. it was kinda fun. the problem is…my kids are in bed by then so we can either do earth hour early or just sit in the dark by ourselves. and while it’s a nice idea, i’m with you that this one hour doesn’t seem to be the way to jumpstart a whole world-wide earthy movement. i think we have to make much bigger personal on-going changes. i’m going to commit to working remembering my reusable mug and convincing my officemates to recycle more. i think that will go farther than just turning off the lights for one hour.

    great post, amy!

  11. I say good on your for blogging about this!
    And also – swtiching to compact fluro light bulbs is a great idea in theory, but they contain mercury and as yet there is not a lot in the way of safe disposal methods available. So, if you are going to use them, make sure you don’t just throw them in the bin when they need replacing. Find a recycling facility that will deal with them properly.

  12. @Julie:
    Just what I was thinking – I still have a big bulk bag of tea lights at home. Of course they turned out to be made of paraffin… It is probably wiser to use them up carefully, then replace, if at all by beeswax candles. Same with plastic that is already in the house: better use it up till it breaks and replace by a more eco-friendly version while making sure no more new plastic comes in. I have only recently begun to unplug everything that is not in use and to use water a lot more prudently, too. It does take some extra awareness, and that is what Earth Hour may be good for, raising this awareness, trendy or not!

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with your point here. Unfortunately most who would participate in earth hour are not making long term changes that will help the environement. Conversely, there are folks like me, who won’t necessarily participate in earth hour but do their part to be green by turning off the lights when not in use, using homemade natural cleaning products, cloth diapering, and eating locally grown food (mostly my own). There are so many small steps that the average american could make that would go a lot further towards a greener culture than “earth hour”. I wish this marketing energy could be put towards educating the public on those small steps instead.

  14. I feel like everyone is missing the point of Earth Hour. It’s a symbolic gesture. Nobody thinks the the physical act of turning off your lights for one hour will impact global warming. But it’s the symbol of many millions of people turning off their lights for an hour that will bring about change. It’s about showing the world’s leaders that we do care about the issue of climate change and we would like them to do something about it. It’s about the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009 (the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012). This meeting will determine official government policies to take action against global warming. It is the chance for the people of the world to make their voice heard.

    Thanks for sparking a conversation!

  15. I agree with Wendy that Earth Hour is entirely symbolic, and not at all about the energy that will be saved during the hour when lights are out. It’s about the message: climate change is an important issue to a lot of people, and everyone turning the lights off at the same time draws attention to the issue in a more dramatic way than many more meaningful changes. If most participants are just being trendy or are already living green, that’s fine. If a few people actually learn something and move down the path towards a greener life, all the better.

  16. Just because the carbon in beeswax is naturally occouring, does not mean it would naturally be burned to produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. There is virtually no difference in the amount of this carbon dioxide given off by a beeswax candle compared to a candle made from fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels in combustion is considered dirty due to its tendency to produce nitrides of oxygen less prevalent in the combustion of heavier oils such as diesel or “bio-diesel”, this results in more smog. To burn any hydrocarbon in replacement of lighting from hydroelectricity is seriously misguided. Everyone has the right idea with respect to wanting to help the environment. But people need to conserve rather than just hop on a “feel good” bandwagon.

  17. I appreciate your post about this as my husband and I had pretty much the same conversation last night pre-8:30pm. After all is said and done, I think it comes down to this: I think it’s meant to be primarily symbolic, to raise awareness of what we are or are not yet doing to be more mindful of our footprints.

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