Activism, Behaviour, Communication
The man behind Earth Hour's success
by Stephen Lacey
This is the seventh year that Earth Hour co-founder Andy Ridley has persuaded the world to turn off its lights.
Since hitting on a campaign for action on climate change that "started on the back of a beer mat in a Sydney hotel in 2006", Earth Hour has swept the globe, drawing together hundreds of millions of people in 152 countries and territories spanning every continent.
Born in Norwich, England, Ridley moved to Sydney in 2002 and landed the role as communications director with WWF Australia, where he worked on major conservation campaigns to protect the Great Barrier Reef, Southern Ocean and Coral Sea.
Inspired by the idea of a campaign to engage everyday people and businesses in the climate change debate through a simple action, he initiated a think tank between Leo Burnett and Fairfax Media, forming a partnership to deliver a 'lights out' campaign.
“It was born out of frustration. In my role with WWF, the thing that kept coming back to my team and me was that we were missing the opportunity to engage with the mainstream; that big bulk of people who were neither confirmed greenies, nor confirmed anti-greenies," he says.
"We wanted to reach out to people on a really broad basis, and show them what is possible if we all pull together. That's how Earth Hour was born. It would be a campaign of hope, of positive action.”
Ridley says he had no idea whether Earth Hour would work in Sydney, let alone the rest of the world.
“Everybody told us it wouldn't,” he says. “The NSW State Government told us very clearly it would fail. But a unique group of people came together, from Sydney's mayor, to Fairfax Media, to radio stations, to building facility managers. There was no single hero, it was all about people working together, coming together in communities.”
His vision came to fruition on March 31, 2007, when over two million people and 2000 businesses in Sydney switched off their lights for the inaugural Earth Hour. In the space of three short years, it went from a one-city initiative to a global phenomenon.
Ridley says he has never let the detractors get the better of him:
“Whatever you do there are always detractors...I don't really see any value in focusing on it, or you'll never get anything done. I just look at the positives, such as the former president of Botswana planting a million trees, or the Girl Guides changing 130,000 lightbulbs across the USA to LEDs.”
Ridley puts his success down to the three P's: perseverance, patience and persistence. And to the growing acceptance of the reality of climate change across the world.
“When we started in 2007, climate change was pretty far away from most people's lives. But if you look around the planet today, climate change is far more mainstream, because it is having a real impact; it's a matter of survival. We're seeing smog in China affecting thousands of people, we've seen a $55 billion price tag for hurricane Sandy.”
He says that hurdles along the way include finding the money to run such an enormous campaign, and having the patience to follow the plan and put faith in people:
“The bulk of the population completely get the level of problems we have, and want to be part of the solution.”
According to Ridley, the success of Earth Hour has been a three-stage process. First was building a symbol for the campaign (switching the lights out for an hour every year), secondly asking people "can you go beyond the hour?" and third - the holy grail, as Ridley refers to it – is getting together all the disparate parties, from government agencies to corporations, to the general public, to create a sense of connectivity that lasts beyond the hour. He concludes:
“For the first time in history we have the power to connect behind a common purpose. The growth in social media, the world's news media outlets and the digital revolution has allowed that to happen. We're at the beginning of the journey.
People are mistaken if they believe that Earth Hour is basically a lights-out campaign. In fact, 40 per cent of the countries that take part in Earth Hour have blackouts, so turning off the lights is meaningless to them.”
Earth Hour has always been about a sense of unity and a sense of community, something that western society in particular has lost. So a child in Beijing can be doing Earth Hour, at the same time as a child in Rio and another in London. There is a sense of sharing this planet together.
We need to get to a place where the idea of treating the planet like we do, exploiting it in a way that's unsustainable, should be an extraordinarily stupid idea. The norm should be that everything we do is done in a sustainable way, because essentially we're in big trouble if we do it any other way.”