The symbolism of Earth Hour

Light a candle to reduce fossil fuel consumption! Wait a minute, what are those candles made from…?
Light a candle to reduce fuel consumption...?

In late 2011, Todd Sampson, CEO of the advertising agency behind Earth Hour, presented at a conference I attended, and he was engaging and inspiring. I’d always been skeptical of Earth Hour (wouldn’t a better action be to sign up for green energy with your power company?) But his presentation helped me be much more sympathetic: lights being turned off around the world is a grand symbolic action, and the sense that we connect with others around the world by taking part in this action is an inspiring, goose bump inducing feeling – at least while a gifted orator shared his described it from the stage accompanied by a beautiful slideshow.

It was a challenging audience, though, not your average sustainability conference, nor a marketing or managing conference – this was an audience of engineers. While younger engineers I spoke with were mostly positive about the presentation, and Earth Hour, but I found that older engineers in attendance were skeptical or ambivalent. One head of an engineering relief agency, not out of his 20’s but already skeptical enough, confessed privately: “I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation, and I resented him for it, because I knew it was marketing.”

For all our skepticism, though, I felt the emotional power of the symbolism, and I was struck that an advertising agency had done what it knew how to do, done it well, and inspired a grand gesture.

So I’m inspired… not to be less skeptical, as skepticism keeps us from folly. Not to be less practical, as symbolism is nothing without action. Rather, I’m inspired to be appreciative of the roles of others in our “ecosystem” of sustainable action.

And when I see someone doing X rather than Y (when Y is something far more important in my view), it’s a reminder for me to ask if Y is my role. I can’t do what an advertising agency can do, and I can’t expect an ad agency to do what I can do as an engineer (or a teacher, or business manager, or community member, or communicator, or gardener, or scientist… insert your role here). But we can look for ways to work together, to do what we must in facing our challenges.

Earth Hour’s challenge is no longer to connect people; the challenge is to offer a reason to connect. Any movement of change begins with symbolism – it’s a needed step to prove enough people care about an issue. – Earth Hour co-founder Andy Ridley

Public Domain Information on Science, Engineering and the Environment

Public domain (or PD for us open content geeks) is the absence of any copyright restrictions and licensing requirements – public domain content gives you absolute freedom in how you use it. This is important in, say, a wiki, where public domain content can be used as the basis of an article – as was done for many articles in Wikipedia, using old, out-of-copyright encyclopedia articles.

The Public Domain Review has published a Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online, a great guide to finding public domain cultural works, in particular. But they’ve missed my favorites – the scattered works of the US federal government.

Appropedia is about science and technology – not necessarily the newest technology, but the most appropriate technologies and methods in construction, energy, water, sanitation, agriculture and other areas related to sustainable living. Guides and manuals, best practice, reports, impact studies, analysis – this kind of content is often found in governmental and intergovernmental publications, and while most governments’ works are copyrighted, in a few cases it is open content.

In particular, work created by officers of the U.S. federal government is generally public domain, by law. However, it’s not enough to searching in the*.gov domain, as that includes vast amounts of state and local government material which is not public domain, or even open-licensed. These pages also don’t use anything like the Creative Commons “mark” which helps search engines identify pages by license.

For that reason I’ve put together a custom search engine for the public domain – mainly searching the .gov domain while excluding a long list of non-PD .gov sites (more than 400 so far, most of them identified manually). It needs more work, possibly by an IP intern, identifying and excluding non-PD sites, and the onus is on the user to check the status of the material, but if you’re after public domain material of a serious nature, try it out.

Appropedia’s Public Domain Search:

Socializing innovation

An experimental site called cross-innovation is exploring innovation in appropriate technology. Founder Jon Minchin asks “How can we improve / augment collaborative innovation online?” I like the question, and these are my thoughts:

To socialize hardware, think about social structure. Communities doing things on the ground are key to the physical activities that people participate in. That’s partly helped by networking – finding out (A) who else is near you who likes the same things as you, and (B) what building and tinkering is going on near you (in case it catches your interest). Uniiverse sounds interesting for that.
It’s also helped by information flow. This is my own focus – the socialized information. I’m hoping we’ll make the most of th possibilities of socialized information, by building a comprehensive library of how-tos, guides, designs and topical info (which is what Appropedia, a wiki for appropriate technology, is about).

I might be that person who only has a hammer and find that everything looks like a nail – but my feeling is that access to quality information, inspiring stories and great designs is actually central to making things happen.