Why Earth Hour might not actually create change

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Why Earth Hour might not actually create change

Last week was Earth Hour. It would have come and gone without my notice but for a fortuitously timed switch of the television channel. The only reason I paused to watch the news story was to find out what disaster had occurred that caused Sydney to lose power. Instead, I was informed that this was a symbolic gesture created for Earth Hour.

Affiliated with the World Wildlife Foundation, Earth Hour was started to draw attention to the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. Over the years, it appears Earth Hour has evolved to also bring awareness to our overuse of electricity, as many cities put out press releases noting the amount of kilowatts saved during Earth Hour.

According to the website, this year’s Earth Hour (the eighth annual event) was the most successful, “mobilising (sic) hundreds of millions of people to become Super Heroes for the planet.” OK … super heroes feels a bit strong. Does stumbling around in the dark for an hour make us Supermen and Superwomen? It seems like we’d all need to make longer-term commitments and behavior changes related to our energy use to truly qualify as heroes, let alone super heroes.

My guess is that the founders of this movement believe that this very simple, short-lived task is meant to spur us into other conservation behaviors to bring about more significant or permanent change. But that might not be true. For many years programmable thermostats were hailed by the energy efficiency industry as “the gateway drug of energy efficiency.” In other words, if you could get somebody to install one, you’d get them “addicted” to energy efficiency and increase implementation of other measures. To our knowledge at Shelton Group – and based on the tracking we do of propensity to install energy-efficient measures and reported installations – this theory hasn’t panned out. Creating lasting behavior change and motivating someone to install the next efficient measure requires ongoing encouragement and positive feedback (people need to see the results of their efforts). So we’d need an Earth Hour one month, followed by another, similar event the next month, followed by emails or texts to participants demonstrating how their efforts are making a difference on their utility bills.

We’re a bit worried events like this give us all permission to continue our existing behaviors, as in: “Yay! I lived without power for an hour! I’m an awesome person, I’ve done my part, and now I can feel good about consuming energy without a second thought the remaining 364 days of the year!”

If you read our blog much, you know we’re big believers in ongoing engagement of Americans to continually nudge them to make behavior changes and upgrade their homes to be more efficient. Beyond programs like that, perhaps a bigger opportunity to create an ongoing reminder of energy efficiency lies in lighting technology.

For example, the Dutch city of Eindhoven recently installed motion sensor LED lights throughout the city. So, there’s literally an ongoing social cue that this community turns its lights off when not in use. If I’m a resident, I might gradually adopt the behavior myself to be aligned with the “tribe.” (Behavioral economists call it the bandwagon effect – we look for social cues of how those around us behave and begin to modify our behaviors to blend in.) And residents can actually interact with the lights, changing their color as they see fit. Another great way to engage/delight people in energy efficiency. (Read more about Eindhoven here.)

So, if we’re going to continue efforts like Earth Hour, let’s make it part of an overarching, ongoing consumer engagement program. And lets look to technology and behavioral science to create the nudges that can help us all create a culture of energy efficiency in this country and the world at large.

About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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