By Kwek Kon Yao

On the 27th of March this year, people around the world will celebrate Earth Hour, a global event organised by WWF. At the appointed hour on this day, cities worldwide will turn off all non-essential lights to express their concern for the environmental challenges our planet faces.

Malaysia is expected to play its part in this event by switching off the lights on such iconic buildings as the Petronas Twin Towers and Menara KL. Supporters of the event stress that its significance lies in the way it symbolises people’s willingness to combat climate change.

But is that really what Earth Hour will symbolise?

In conjunction with Earth Hour, many businesses and organisations have planned a wide range of events and activities. The National Space Agency (ANGKASA), for instance, is encouraging people to make “Earth Hour Lanterns” and create designs by lining up candles. The whole atmosphere surrounding Earth Hour is one of festive fun—and it certainly cannot be denied that holding candles in the dark makes for some enchanting photographs.

Unfortunately, however, participants will overlook the deeper meaning of Earth Hour. They will take it for granted that turning the lights out for an hour is an easy and enjoyable way of taking part in a noble cause—yet once Earth Hour is over, the lights will come back on, cars will start up for the journey home—and at home, people will more than likely take for granted the value of their many modern gadgets: from refrigerators to TVs; fans and air-conditioners to desktop computers. What they will have failed to realise, most crucially, is the true nature of the environmentalist cause that they are supporting.

The environmentalist movement claims to be working for the benefit of mankind, since, as we have all been told, the human race as a whole must ultimately suffer if we fail to look after our planet. What most people do not appreciate, however, is that the environmentalists’ disdain for technological progress—and more generally, just about any carbon-emitting process—is itself a position incompatible with the wellbeing of human life.

While virtually everyone today is familiar with the message to save the planet, far too few of us are aware of what history has to teach us about the value of industrial civilisation. Even a fairly casual survey of human history shows us that life before the industrial revolution consisted of endless, backbreaking physical toil, constant famine and widespread disease. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the lives of millions of human beings—at least within the civilized world—became longer, more plentiful, and much more enjoyable.

Today, we have the great innovators of that period to thank for the many conveniences we enjoy in our daily lives. It is only because the thinkers and producers—the scientists, inventors, engineers, and businessmen—who came before us sought to improve their lives by moulding and reshaping their environment that we are able today to enjoy the comfort of automobiles and the ease of lighting our homes with the simple flick of a switch.

This is the broader context that is all but ignored in today’s discussion of our environmental impact. Maybe our high levels of energy consumption are contributing to a warmer climate; maybe they aren’t—but the point that we must bear in mind is that without the trappings of modern industrial society, death and suffering are guaranteed.

The message that Earth Hour sends out is simple and seductive. But before rushing to join in the party, how many people will pause to ask themselves what life would look like without lights, electricity, and technology—not for one hour—but for an entire month, week, or even day? How many will consider the harsh consequences of a life without safe, efficient lighting; without microwaves and gas and heated water; without any of the time-saving, labour-saving products that characterise modern industrial civilisation?

The symbolism associated with Earth Hour is indeed very powerful. The effective imagery of the beautiful KL skyline being literally plunged into darkness—not to mention satellite pictures of a darkened, seemingly-uninhabited Earth—should leave us with no doubts as to the actual meaning of Earth Hour. Yet, far from eliciting a sense of angry defiance, or even concern, Earth Hour gives us the disturbing spectacle of people celebrating the extinguishing of our lights.

The age-old symbolism attached to the imagery of light has always been that of the good; that of progress and enlightenment. Earth Hour’s symbolic extinguishing of light is therefore an all-too blatant assault on human achievement and the glory of industrial civilisation. Anyone truly concerned with the welfare of mankind should refuse to endorse such an event—and reject completely the environmentalist ideology upon which it is premised.

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Kwek Kon Yao is a Fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

An edited version of this article was published in The Malaysian Insider on 26 March 2010.

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