Earth Hour – On the bright side

Those following me on Twitter may have noticed that I am a little bit skeptic about Earth Hour – an initiative that asks everyone to turn off their lights for one hour to raise awareness about global warming.
It is a great thing when the whole world joins together for one hour to think about something important. I love that about Earth Hour. But why just climate change? There are so many other problems in the world.
Imagine having the worlds attention for one hour – something nobody has ever achieved – what would you say? What would you want 6.7 billion people to think about?
So here is my challenge for anyone who cares about the world, has a camera and some free time:
Send me a one hour video with your top 10 best ways to help the world!


There are just a few simple rules:

  1. A top 10 of of best ways to help the world
  2. 60 minutes
  3. Explain the problem
  4. Explain how it can be solved on a global scale
  5. Provide a simple first step for individuals to contribute or learn more
  6. No lies: be prepared for some serious fact-checking by the community
  7. No divine intervention: it’s just us this time

I will pick a personal favorite, but at the end of the day there will be more than one winner. On Saturday the 28th or March 2009, at 20:30, everyone will show their favorite video to their friends, family and community.


At this point, I will buy the winner a drink, but I’m trying to obtain more interesting prizes.

A bit of background

About a year ago I watched a talk by Bjorn Lomborg about setting global priorities. The question he asked himself is how to save the world with 50 billion dollars. If you have been watching the news lately, you will be painfully aware of how little money that really is.
Most people, including me back then, would assume that fixing climate change should at least be somewhere on that list. The eye opener is this: it’s all the way down the bottom! It turns out that if you have a limited budget to do good in the world, climate change is the last thing you should worry about.
I didn’t really know what to do with that information, until recently when two things happened more or less at the same time: I heard about Earth Hour and I read Bjorn’s recent book on climate change: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming
Now I’ve always been a bit skeptical about Kyoto and about symbolic actions from the green movement in general. As a physicist and environmental scientist I already knew that Kyoto is too small to make a difference. Read the book if you want to know why, but to put it very simply: it is like walking to the moon.
There is a very important difference between a first small step towards a bigger goal and a first small step to nowhere (same goes for bridges…). Kyoto will not stop what we have set in motion, it will barely even slow it down. With or without Kyoto, humanity will have to deal with the same effects of climate change.
But until I read the book, my attitude was that if people enjoy walking to the moon, I should let them. It’s probably a Dutch thing: live and let live… Not much harm in people saving the planet in vain, right? Turns out I was wrong.
Bjorn presents an eye opening analysis of climate change. During my time as a masters student in Sustainable Development, I always looked at climate change as an umbrella phenomenon with all sorts of effects in other areas. For example, it causes temperature and sea level rise, habitat change, hurricanes, tropical diseases, etc. But we only looked at these issues from the point of view of climate change.
The remarkable thing about Cool It, is that it looks at all these issues from the perspective of the issues themselves. So in stead of just asking “What is the effect of climate change on tropical diseases?”, he would ask “What factors influence tropical diseases, and what is the relative role of climate change?”.
This is a massive eye opener! In stead of looking at the big, unfamiliar and scary monster of climate change, you are all of sudden looking at a large group of smaller monsters, that we are familiar with. It turns out we know quite a bit about tropical diseases, river flooding, etc.  Even more, for each of these monsters, reducing CO2 is by far the least effective way of defeating them. Just to make the book more controversial, some monsters are even easier to defeat with more CO2!
So where does Earth Hour come in? Well, because it turns out we can’t defeat all the little monsters if we all focus on the wrong attack strategy. Bjorn makes an excellent case that our global obsession with climate change is distracting us from solving the real problems. In fact, the obsession is making us ignore or even aggravate these real problems.
Focusing all the worlds attention for one hour on just climate change is therefore not only unproductive, it is counter productive!
Now I’m not saying that Bjorns own list of priorities is the best solution (although it looks pretty good actually), but I would like to see more people think very critically about priorities. People need to ask themselves tough questions, like:

  • Should we spend $180 billion per year to delay the inevitable climate change by a few years or $50 billion to save polar bears, dramatically reduce flooding and hurricane damage, malaria, HIV, poverty, starvation, malnourishment, etc, etc, etc, etc?
  • Should I spend my money on buying green bags and carbon credits, or donate to an anti malaria charity that can save far more lives per dollar?

We are living in a unique moment in time. Never before could a message be passed to the majority of humans in the world, including the ones that don’t have any electric lights to turn off. A date and time has already been conveniently picked. People will be together in the living room with their lights off. They will be thinking “Now what?”. So let’s give them something to watch, something to think about.
Let’s give everyone something to match their own taste: some people like drama with nice special effects, others like boring economic stuff, still others like personal stories. Not to mention the fact that there are quite a few languages and cultures out there. That’s why we need more than one winning video.

About the rules

A top 10 of best ways to help the world
I want the videos to focus on solutions, because I want the videos to result in quick and decisive action. Think years, not centuries. Sure, there are many problems out there to which there is no known solution yet, but there are also plenty of problems to which there are good solutions that just need to be executed. Focus on those.
It really has to be a top 10, not just ten examples. You really have to be convinced that your number one is the best thing you can think of. Similarly you agree that the number two is really good, but a little less so.
Just imagine getting a phone call from Google offering you a billion dollars, but you have to chose only one, right now! You’d better have your answer ready!
60 minutes
Because there are 60 minutes in an hour. That means you have about 5 minutes per problem, which is plenty of time. Have a look at some TED talks to learn how to present an incredible amount of information in a very short time.
Explain the problem
Because the focus is on solutions, this part should be done quickly. For example: “Malaria is killing millions of people per year, which is bad.”.
Explain how it can be solved on a global scale
These are kind of things the big players can work on, like your government:
“50 oil tankers filled with DEET should do the trick for about X tax payer dollars.”
Remember: you can’t just create money out thin air (actually you can, but it’s not recommendable), so really think about where that money comes from. What would your country or big corporate be willing to sacrifice? Or even better: how is it going to make money out of it?
Provide a simple first step for individuals to contribute or learn more
Sometimes only the big players can make a difference and they just need a bit of convincing. In that case you could say something like:
“There will be a rally to demand that our goverment spends $100 million on fixing malaria. Join us on [date, location] or find out what’s happening in your town at [website] ”
Perhaps there is a fund that people can donate money too: mention it.
But remember to think about how these first small steps will lead to the bigger solution. Don’t just start a walk to the moon!
No lies: be prepared for some serious fact-checking by the community
Please accompany the video with some documentation with references to your sources. I encourage you to release a first version of your video early on. That way, people can fact-check and discuss the content, while you can still make changes.
I am personally not amused by documentaries that present blatant lies, very dubious “facts” or mislead the audience in some other way. For example, I get very upset when a narrator mentions a huge number without putting it into perspective (e.g. “How would you feel if a coal company put a ton of CO2 on your house?”). Or when an extremely unlikely event is presented as inevitable (like a 30 meter sea level rise).
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries do this, so don’t let examples from Michael Moore or Al Gore guide you too much. There should always be room for some artistic freedom, but please do not mislead people: the world is complicated enough already.
Helping the world is very serious buisness and justify very strong debate. It requires documentary makers to swallow strong criticism and to learn from it. It also requires critics not just to be very civilized, but to really contribute. A comment like “You are stupid, this won’t work because of gravity.”, should be replaced by something like “Unfortunately your solution won’t work due to gravity, because [physics for dummies]. Perhaps you could consider [way to deal with gravity]. Good luck.”
No divine intervention: it’s just us this time
Some people believe mankind is doomed and that some sort of higher being wants to punish us for our sins. Others think that prayers might help. Still others think the earth belongs to Mother Nature and is better off without humans anyway. I think that is all complete rubbish. Tell that to the next person you meet who is dying from HIV.
The world is complicated enough without accounting for divine plans. Taking them into account will distract us from finding real solutions and from making progress towards a better world.

How to help

I am very busy, so any help – including taking over the entire project – will be greatly appreciated!
Other things you could do:
Tell your friends about this project. Especially your video-savvy friends. Of course, you can make a documentary with your cell phone camera, but if you happen to have a friend with a better camera: why not?
Read about the worlds challenges and possible solutions. The Copenhagen Consensus Center could be a good place to start, since their goal is “to improve the prioritizing between various efforts to mitigate the consequences of the world’s biggest challenges”.
Invite all your friends – although it might a bit early – to your home to watch the best video on Saturday the 28th or March 2009, at 20:30.


  1. Waar kan ik je opgeven als TED spreker?
    /Ontopic: Ik ga er even over nadenken, maar je punt over klimaatverandering heb ik wel eerder gehoord: het is vaak beter (definieer beter, maar goed) om mensen schoon drinkwater te geven dan broeikasgassen te verminderen. Ook nog interessant over awareness: die TED campagne over MDR (Multidrug resistant) TB (Tuberculosis). Gaan we misschien over 10 jaar hier nog ook een hoop lol mee hebben…
    Maar wat wilde je met al die tijd / aandacht doen? Dat is namelijk vet veel brainpower!

  2. 6.7 miljard man-uur, ofwel 764 man-millennia is inderdaad best veel. Je zou het kunnen zien als een wereldwijde 50.000 feet weekly review? Hopelijk rollen er genoeg next actions uit om al die problemen binnen no time uit de wereld te helpen.

  3. Beste Sjors,
    Voor iemand die een studie heeft gevolgd waar het modebegrip “sustainable” de basis vormt, vertoon jij een bewonderenswaardige dosis realisme. Verfrissend in een wereld van politieke correctheid.

  4. @chris
    Toen ik die studie koos anno 2005 presenteerde het zich als een kritische studie. In de praktijk viel dat ietwat tegen, wat volgens mij vooral komt door de scheve verhouding harde beta’s – beleidsmensen (1:10) en de taalbarrière voor 80% van de studenten.
    Dit is uiteraard een over simplistische weergave.
    Bij mijn natuurkunde bachelor was ik gewend dat je geen enkele presentatie kon geven zonder echt genadeloos moeilijke vragen van het publiek te beantwoorden. Het commentaar bij sustainable development presentaties was daarentegen vrij soft.
    Het is niet zozeer dat het not done was om kritische vragen te stellen, maar meer dat ik de indruk had dat de presentatoren huilend de zaal zouden uitrennen en dat 80% van het publiek de vraag niet zou begrijpen.
    Het zijn allemaal studenten die het heel goed bedoelen, ze doen ook goed onderzoek en er wordt ook kritisch gedacht. Maar kritisch is niet genoeg: er ontbreekt (of ontbrak) een sfeer van *genadeloos* kritisch denken. Het en plain public afkraken van andermans onderzoek, liefst in een vroeg stadium, mist. Sociale vaardigheden zijn niet altijd een winst.
    Dat gezegd hebbende, vind ik het idee achter de opleiding Sustainable Development goed. Het idee is dat je mensen met verschillende achtergronden bij elkaar gooit en vraagt of ze alle wereld problemen kunnen oplossen. De inhoud van de opleiding was en is zeker een stuk breder dan het klimaat debat. Het heeft mij op het juiste denkspoor gezet.

  5. Great idea. I’ll put the word out on the networks I’m a member of 🙂
    I think I’ll definitely have to put ‘Cool It’ on my too read list.
    I have to confess that I’d always thought that climate change was a much higher priority because of its ability to seriously aggravate a number of the problems you mentioned.

  6. Brilliant idea mate – I’ll have a think about what I may or may not be able to do. An hour long video is pretty epic but i’ll let it stew and see how I go. ‘Cool it’ sounds like a must read, and I’m watching the TED now.
    Awesome post!

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