The following is a guest post by Chelsea German, Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.
When Homo erectus first learned to control fire a million years ago, humanity gained the ability to light up the night. From fire to electricity to LEDs, lighting technology has advanced unceasingly ever since. Yet every year, the Earth Hour campaign calls on millions of people to forgo this remarkable achievement by turning off their electricity. Earth Hour even discourages the use of smoke-emitting candles, plunging many participants into the same impenetrable darkness that surrounded our ancestors before fire was first harnessed. (Only soy and beeswax candles are deemed acceptable, because they do not emit smoke. It is unclear how many Earth Day participants use such candles and how many go without light altogether.)
Earth Hour justifies itself as a symbolic act to raise humanity’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint. Instead of engaging in symbolic action, participants might better spend their time by joining the many innovators who are continuously making technology more efficient. To quote bestselling author Matt Ridley, “A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.” Unsurprisingly, given such rapid advances, worldwide CO2 emissions are decreasing per person.
Lighting is no exception to the trend of technology becoming increasingly energy-efficient. The light-emitting diode (LED), one of today's most rapidly-evolving lighting technologies, uses 75 percent less energy and lasts 25 times longer than incandescent lighting.
Earth Day participants might also better spend their time trying to spread light to those who most need it. Despite all the progress we have made, today about a fifth of the world’s population still lives without electricity or reliable lighting. Entrepreneurs are hard at work trying to fulfill this need. A Brazilian mechanic brought light to thousands of homes in the Philippines with a cheap solar lamp created from bleach and a plastic bottle. Two architecture students created a packable, inflatable lighting device that shows further promise to brighten the developing world.
The image of North Korea viewed from space at night is now famous—a pool of darkness contrasted with the light of prosperous towns and cities to the south. The disparity between this communist dictatorship and its capitalist southern neighbor shows that progress is not automatic. Humanity needs the freedom to create and exchange in order to flourish.
Technical advances enabled by capitalism aren’t just making lighting more efficient and widely-available, but better in myriad other ways. Just this year, researchers designed a lamp to treat seasonal affective disorder and Japanese scientists created lighting that can be used outdoors at night without disturbing plant growth. We can only guess what the future holds.
The freedom to innovate is enriching and brightening lives everywhere. This year, celebrate Human Achievement Hour instead of Earth Hour, and revel in the light of progress. To learn more about the extraordinary strides humanity has made, explore HumanProgress.org.
When freedom is present it visibly lights up the night and makes rising living standards and technological breakthroughs commonplace.