Blind Man with a Pistol

Selling Environmentalism: Earth Hour

“Turn off the light,”sings Nelly Furtado. It’s Earth Hour. Promoted heavily by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is an action in which the world can “take a stand against climate change” by refusing to use electricity from 8:00 pm to 9:00 today, March 29, 2008. Well, that’s nice.

What’s better are the hundreds of Canadian businesses supporting Earth Hour. From Bell Canada to Cadillac Fairview, Imperial Oil to Starbucks, they’re all getting in on the action. At the end of Earth Hour, do you think Imperial Oil will shut down Syncrude, the consortium that governs its site in the Athabasca tar sands? Will Starbucks stop selling disposable paper cups and start selling fair-trade coffee? Even Google is getting in on the act. Crafty. They can tune in to Earth Hour without actually turning out the lights. Turning off virtually seems to suffice. The message is clear: buy into Earth Hour and you won’t have to do any heavy lifting. Ecology is a commodity and everything is on sale.

When Dubai announced that it would be the first Arab city to participate in Earth Hour, you had to know something was up. The transnational capitalist city par excellence, Dubai, earlier this year, announced it would turn its massive oil wealth into the world’s first zero-carbon, environmentally sustainable city. It’s difficult, however, to view the effort as anything more than a showpiece. Masdar, Arabic for “the source” will house 50 000 people and 1500 businesses in a car-free colony while Dubai, population 2 000 000 and headquarters of countless crude companies around the Middle East, sees its economic growth and massive expansion proceed apace.

Dubai is the emblem of twenty-first-century capitalism, a microcosm of globalization. Deborah Campbell wrote a wonderful article on the phenomenon that is Dubai in the September 2007 issue of The Walrus.

“The Earth Has A New Centre,” announces a massive billboard for a new mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight-lane expressway in Dubai — a city that was, not so long ago, a patch of sand. As a yellow Ferrari driven by a local in a white dishdasha and baseball cap roars up behind my rental car, and Hummers with black-tinted windows pass busloads of labourers who stare out, saucer-eyed, at this strange new planet, I find myself thinking that the billboard refers not only to the Dubai Mall, soon to be the largest in the world, but to Dubai itself.

The world’s largest mall. The world’s tallest hotel. The world’s tallest building. The first underwater hotel. The largest waterfront development. The fastest-growing tourist market. The Earth has a new centre and it is a tiny desert kingdom gone mad.

Behind the spectacular gratuitousness of this capitalist Disneyland, lies the criminally exploited working class the powers this expansion, its savage environmental cost.

There, a familiar sight: a swarm of workers in overalls gather at a new construction project. They earn as little as $4 a day. It’s more than they would get in the factories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, making jeans and shower curtains for Western consumption, but in the lavish light of Dubai it isn’t even a decent tip. I have visited the camps where they live, smelled the open sewage outside their dormitories, know that many of them can’t read the contracts they have signed. They send money home and visit their families once every few years. Past the billboards, past the cranes, if one squints, one can see on the surface of every construction site tiny human forms. Nothing in Dubai could exist without this labour.

This obfuscation, the sleight-of-hand that Dubai enacts when it displays its “commitment” to sustainability while brutally abusing its workforce and the environment is the crime of Earth Hour. For an hour, urban electricity use will decrease by 10%, maybe 15% (if you can bear turning off the Habs-Leafs game during Hockey Night in Canada) while the cities and corporations that pledge “support” for Earth Hour change their corroding practices not one whit.

We’ve turned environmentalism into a brand. Buy it, and you can sport it, and still have a good time at a Nelly Furtado concert. Turn off the light. Save the world.

Hat-tip to Bread and Roses

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