x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

This was Earth Hour?

Safi Roshdy considers the dichotomy between conservation and conspicuous consumption in the Emirates.

The big lights shine bright at Meydan Racecourse during the Dubai World Cup eight days ago.
The big lights shine bright at Meydan Racecourse during the Dubai World Cup eight days ago.

"They lied!" exclaimed my mother, drenched in perspiration from her morning treadmill routine, while waving the day's newspaper. "They said they participated in Earth Hour even though the Dubai World Cup was going on at the time!" The contradiction my mom pointed out did not fail to cross my mind as I was in front of my computer screen in darkness on March 27, keeping up with tweets from the Meydan Racecourse. My younger brother had come into my room at exactly 8.30pm and helped himself to the light switch, announcing "Earth Hour!" with authority. He then went back to his extraordinarily bright neon-lit room to do his homework. I had not put "Participation in Earth Hour" on my agenda that day, but did not see an inconvenience in leaving the lights out for an hour, so out they remained.

I remember a little more than two years ago when I flew back to the UAE to settle here after more than six years in America. The plane made it over the UAE during night-time, and I could not help but be dazzled by the glimmering canvas beneath. Bright lights generously dotted the country's cosmopolitan cities. It was a view that was welcoming, yet overwhelming. The UAE never felt alien to me. I was born here and spent most of my childhood and early adolescence here. I had painted a pristine image of the country to people I encountered while in America. The UAE to me represented a country firmly rooted in tradition yet conveniently urbane, a model to be emulated. But, having been away for so long, living in the UAE again took some getting used to.

From an environmental perspective, the country's traditional hospitality when combined with cosmopolitanism could prove brutal. Generally speaking, more is more in the UAE or else you are a miser. Being willing to spend more in order to obtain the finer things in life is seen as a decent attribute, while being frugal is akin to being a cheapskate. I was conditioned to be frugal in America. Over there, in general, everyone competed for your dollar and it was up to you to choose the best value for your money. The focus was not on how much you were willing to spend, but on how much value you would get from your expenditure.

With frugality comes the need to spend less on energy. Of course there is always the "environmentally friendly" argument, but taking into account people's tendency to place immediate gratification ahead of long-term benefits or abstract theories, environmental activism has thus far endeavoured to promote itself as money-saving: neon lights provide more energy for less money, while solar panels provide free energy once the installation costs are eliminated.

To the UAE's critics, the conflict between the culture of excess and the country's environmental activism culminated during that head-on confrontation between the world's richest horse race and Earth Hour - but that argument would be more valid if Earth Hour represented the pinnacle of environmental activism. While it certainly does not hurt to join the world in turning off the lights during the one prescribed hour of the year, failing to do so does not necessarily entail hopelessness for environmentalism in the Emirates.

In fact, environmentalism would be poorly served if the UAE participated wholeheartedly in Earth Hour yet neglected to address its year-round tendency to overspend on energy. Along this line of thought, it is inspiring to note the numerous environmentally friendly initiatives underway in the Emirates, like the green building standards in Dubai and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. What should be more inspiring and promising to the environmental movement in the country would be how these initiatives could be successfully marketed in the UAE as best in class rather than simple money-saving alternatives.

It is true that the expensive, energy-sapping urban lifestyle of the UAE cannot be eliminated without compromising the character of the country. But change can come by emphasising its worth to a culture which prides itself on its generosity. * The National