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