Give Earth a break

Turn off your lights for an hour this Saturday and let's start saving our planet

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Pittsburgh, New York, Paris, Rome, London, Singapore and Dubai are just a few of the places that will participate this Saturday in a massive world demonstration called Earth Hour.

From 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time, the Eiffel Tower will go dark. So will the Sydney Opera House, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and the CNN tower in Toronto. People and institutions in hundreds of other cities will turn off as much unnecessary lighting as possible for one hour to support a world movement to reduce global energy usage, stop global warming and slow the deforestation of our planet.

The event is sponsored by the World Wildlife fund (www.worldwildlife.org), an organization that is working hard to save our last wild animals. WWF connected the dots a long time ago and realized that for wild animals to survive, humans must stop cutting down forests.

A few years ago, I volunteered for an online United Nations project to "relieve stress" on women in Ugandan refugee camps. I joined with the vague idea of perhaps starting a counseling center. I don't remember what I thought their stresses might be. Crowding? Pining for home?

I soon found out that the women were stressed by the fact that they had to forage for miles each day in the hot African sun over the barren, devastated lands outside the camps where they faced physical hardship, robberies and personal assaults. What were they foraging for? Firewood. After years of occupation by hundreds of thousands of refugees, the trees outside the camps had been cut down for miles around. Yet each woman had to have a cook fire each day to feed her family.

We decided that the solution was alternative energy. We researched solar cooking stoves and water purifiers (another source of stress was children who were sick and dying from polluted water). Solar stove kits are available from an American supplier who can manufacture and transport them at low cost. Unfortunately, Ugandan government corruption stood in the way. I found out that WWF was working hard on the problem.

WWF?

I was surprised. I was working on alleviating human suffering, not saving animals. But forests give life to both humans and animals. Forest destruction means the end of nature as we know and love it. In this, and so many other ways, human destiny is tied to the destiny of the natural world. In 2007, WWF decided that people needed a wake up call about reducing energy use. And Earth Hour was born.

The U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Bali developed a "road map" for the world to halt deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 percent by 2020. Most Americans are unaware of this, even though there need to be major changes -- now -- in the way Americans use energy.

One of the most difficult, yet paradoxically most painless, changes we need to make is to stop wasting electricity. Yes, this means turning off lights when no one is using them.

We cannot wait for market forces to make us reduce our energy use. America has only 4.5 percent of the world's population yet we use 25 percent of the world's energy. We are a wealthy country and, so far, we have refused to take simple conservation steps because energy is government subsidized and we can afford to waste it. Many other developed nations with higher energy costs have been gradually implementing changes over the past few decades.

Americans have chosen to believe that gas-guzzling cars and enormous houses are desirable, even though there are many advantages to more efficient cars and smaller houses, not the least of which is that we would be better able to afford our credit card bills and our mortgages. Earth Hour is part of a movement that says doing what's right for the planet is also doing what's right for ourselves.

The idea of Earth Hour seems strange to some people. A few have expressed fear. Earth Hour does not involve turning out street lights or other lights necessary for public safety. It has been carried out safely and without incident in cities around the world for two years now. Folks, no one is going to commit a crime because the lights are off for an hour in your living room and some office buildings Downtown.

Others say that this is a meaningless event because it doesn't "do" anything about global warming and it's all for show. But do you "do" anything for the Steelers when you cheer for them? No, but when we watch a game, it means a lot to see fellow Steelers fans and say, "We're all in this together and we support them all the way!" The team feeds off of our support, too.

So let's get together on this. Call your friends, co-workers and relatives all over the world and ask them to turn out the lights on March 28 and to say, "Today -- Earth Hour; tomorrow -- a greener world!"


Dr. Sarah E. Flanders is a psychiatrist with Mercy Behavioral Health and UPMC Mercy hospital. She lives in Squirrel Hill ( flanders2006@gmail.com ).


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