I Will, If You Will

I Will, If You Will

On March 31, from 8:30-9:30 p.m., the skylines in more than 5,000 cities around the world will go dark. As Earth Hour enters its seventh year and endeavors to expand “beyond the hour,” we thought it useful to examine the success of this annual global event.

Keya Chatterjee, international climate policy director for WWF, recalls being skeptical that Earth Hour would ever be a worldwide phenomenon. When two years after the first Earth Hour in 2006—held in just one city, Sydney, Australia—the organization decided to make it a global event, she doubted that Americans in particular would embrace it.

“I didn’t think the lights-out messaging would work in the U.S. context, where the opposition accuses us of trying to get people to go back to the stone age and live without things. And I didn’t think people would get excited about something that is inherently symbolic.”

Was she ever wrong, Chatterjee readily admits. As soon as she heard that Rush Limabaugh and others were lambasting the event in advance of its 2008 global debut, she realized that Earth Hour was going to be a success. “Once all that rhetoric came out, we started getting really massive support and it spread like wildfire through social media,” she says, noting that it is estimated that the number of people who participated in the event last year were, at the very least, in the hundreds of millions.

To Chatterjee, a big part of Earth Hour’s appeal is that it’s easy. “It’s something simple that people can do that makes a visual impact. We ask very little of people at first; we get them in the door by asking for a very low-barrier-to-entry activity.”

Once in the door, participants experience a feeling of unity and belonging, Chatterjee says, because they know how many other people in the world are doing the same thing as the hour rolls forward around the planet. “Just by flicking off their lights, they become part of a community. We’ve turned it into a social norm globally, that this is something normal to do no matter where you live,” she says. “People often think of the U.S. public as xenophobic, but Americans have loved being part of something bigger than themselves; it makes them feel like the impossible is possible.”

It’s also key, according to Chatterjee, that people have a lot of fun with Earth Hour. She cites examples of candlelight parties and hilarious lists of things you can do in the dark. “Very rarely in the climate community do we even try to speak to people to reach them below the head; with Earth Hour we are trying to make the messaging be not cerebral at all and be about everything from the neck down.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the event is that it’s open-sourced. Chatterjee thinks that allowing people to make it their own is why Earth Hour really took off. “The most important thing is not to worry about whether it’s your organization getting credit or whether your brand is there, and really be able to let go and set it free. Most people don’t even know it’s WWF behind Earth Hour and that is part of what has make it so powerful,” she says. “It’s its own brand; we don’t try to hold it tight as a WWF brand. It means that we don’t always know the impact we have and that we don’t have control what everybody is going to make in their YouTube video, but it makes it so much more powerful.”

Something new this year that embodies the four key elements of Earth Hour’s success—simplicity, unity, fun and open-sourced—is I Will, If You Will which challenges people to make their own challenges. For example, a person will offer to do a polar bear swim or live without electricity if a certain amount of people commit to taking a particular action for the environment.

Similarly, there will be an Earth Hour City Challenge competition. WWF will recognize U.S. cities that do the most on engaging the public in preparing for impacts of climate change and implementing carbon footprint measures. Chatterjee says the competition will tap into people’s civic pride in having a sustainable place to live and hopefully spark conversations led by city officials with their citizens.

“We are focusing on preparedness and prevention in this case because we think that there is no such thing as sustainability any more unless it prepares for the impacts of climate change.  Cities talking to their citizens about climate change is a really important way to engage them….Our broader version is building a movement of people who are not scared to talk about climate change and in fact are eager to talk about climate change. And building that base big enough so it gets to the point where their politicians are not scared to talk about climate change and in fact are eager to come to their communities and talk about climate change. Whether the support manifests itself by turning off the lights for an hour or challenging others to act or challenging their own city government to participate in the city challenge, any of those things, we want people to make it their own and participate in the parts that are fun and make sense to them.”

She also says that part of the goal of the Earth Hour City Challenge is to stand up to the opposition of groups such as Agenda 21 who are vocal in opposition to city planning. WWF will be providing tool kits on how to engage citizens at an Earth Hour launch event in Tucson, Arizona in conjunction with America Speaks. “We want people who’ve largely never had a conversation about climate change in their lives to be able to have their voices heard; we want to effectively engage them in such a way that a small minority can’t shut things down.”

Photo by WWF Jody Spectrum via (cc) Flickr user Earth Hour Global