Giles Fraser: Let there be dark

02 April 2008

by Giles Fraser

Congratulations, Sydney (no, of course not the diocese, silly). Last year, the city responded to a request from WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) to turn off all its lights for an hour. Perhaps it is a bit of a stunt, but Earth Hour has captured the imaginations of many, and the idea is spreading fast.

I am visiting Canada this week, and it has taken up the idea with the greatest enthusiasm. Last Saturday night, most of the lights went out in Toronto, along with 150 other Canadian cities. I sat eating — by candlelight — with a bunch of seminarians. Others may have had a more exciting evening, as there are already predictions that Canadian midwives will be particularly busy around Christmas.

Inevitably, some have been ridiculing the whole exercise. Writing in the Globe and Mail in Toronto, the feisty columnist Rex Murphy called it “a pretentious, hollow, vain and exhibitionistic bout of hyper-moralised preening”. Some have observed that the demand for electricity supply dropped by only eight per cent, which does not seem much. So, was the whole thing worth it?

Yes, of course it was. What is so wrong with what some pompously dismiss as gesture politics? Earth Hour raises consciousness. As a piece of symbolism, it acts to prompt many of us, who are lazy but well-intentioned, to reconnect with the moral obligation to practise responsible stewardship.

There is a small element of stick in here, too. After eight o’clock, some people were coming out of their houses to see how dark it was. It was obvious if neighbours were not participating. Shame can be a fine motivator. It did not go unnoticed that the lights in the home of the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, burned defiantly bright throughout the hour.

Those who are dismissive about gesture politics often do not appreciate what it takes to communicate something worth while about right and wrong to a mass audience in the few moments that the contemporary media allows. Those who insist on more fulsome explanations for everything will be cut off in mid-sentence — so much for being high-minded.

No, Earth Hour is symbolically important. It is a bright idea that we ought to be getting into more. In the UK, Canterbury Cathedral went dark, as did Prince Charles’s house at Highgrove, and Brighton pier. But it was not as big for the UK as it was elsewhere. From the Google homepage, to the Coliseum in Rome, to the Sydney Opera House — all went black.

The Church needs to play its part in this. During Easter, our symbolism is all about the coming of the light. Now we need to prepare for the coming of the dark.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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