Earth Hour 2009: A Cape Town perspective

Last night, from 20h30 to 21h30 local time, a band of darkness was supposedly working its way across the planet one hour at a time. It was Earth Hour 2009!


Last night’s event was part of the annual Earth Hour campaign of the Worldwide Fund for Nature/World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which began in Australia a mere two years ago. Last year, the campaign had spread across the globe, with more than 50 million people participating (or so they say).

As I’d explained in a previous post, the aim for 2009 was to reach 1 billion people, businesses and governments in more than 1000 cities around the globe. According to the Earth Hour website, 88 countries and 3299 cities and towns committed themselves to participating. I’ve been to the website, but haven’t been able to see any figures of how many people and cities actually did participate.

In Cape Town, the lights that sometimes light up Table Mountain at night were apparently switched on for an hour before the designated Earth Hour. The mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, then pressed the switch to turn them off at 20h30. A symbolic gesture, more than a practical one, as these lights have not been turned on for a number of years – perhaps having to do with the Eskom electricity crisis?

Richard and I did our bit by having supper by candlelight while watching a previously downloaded video clip from on the laptop. At 21h00, halfway through Earth Hour, we decided to drive around the neighbourhood to see whether other households were also participating. It was difficult to judge, though, as (and this may comfort you to know) we aren’t normally in the habit of nocturnally cruising around our neighbourhood!

The only street in darkness was Forest Drive, our main thoroughfare. Either the lights had been switched off deliberately, for that hour only, or there was a technical problem, which strikes me as more likely.

Unconvinced that the “Switch off your lights” message had been spread far and wide, because I really didn’t think it had been advertised all that well, we drove up to the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, which – because of its location on the slopes of Devil’s Peak – was more likely to give us a better vantage point.

We found a good spot from where we had a fabulous view across the Cape Flats to the Hottentots Holland mountains in the east, all the way to the northern suburbs of Milnerton and Melkbosstrand, and even right down to the southern mountains around Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town.

View across the Cape Peninsula

View across the Cape Peninsula

But, although we huddled there, in the cold wind, for a good 20 mins, it was impossible to judge whether a noticeable number of buildings had turned off their lights. The dark patches that we did identify appeared to coincide with suburbs that had a particularly high proportion of trees, so they naturally looked darker.

Zoomed in a little

Zoomed in a little

While we were looking southwards, we suddenly spotted a strange orange light roughly in the vicinity of where Ou Kaapse Weg should be, if it hadn’t been too dark to see it. The light disappeared – had it been a car or big truck descending the mountain there? It was followed by a sequence of orange flashes, that looked a bit like a crowd of people were taking flash photos of the landscape.

Both of us were baffled by this phenomenon, until I realised what it was: The night shoot at the lower north battery of the South African Navy, an event that was part of the SA Navy Festival! And I’d missed it! Again! Now I’ll have to wait another whole year to see it again, but next year I’m definitely going!

Other than that little bit of excitement, there was no sudden switch-on of lights across the metropolis after 21h30. The bright lights of the city still burned as brightly as always.

So, was Earth Hour just another hyped-up non-event, or did it really happen? And, even more importantly, did it really make a difference in electricity consumption?

Now, if I could find a video clip, perhaps on the NASA website, of footage taken from the orbiting International Space Station, that clearly shows how the lights did go off around the world according to the different time zones, I would be far more convinced of the impact of this campaign.

As it stands, though, I’m dubious.

What do you think?

I'd love to hear your views

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