Earth Hour: Nonverbal and Symbolic Communication

The lights went dim. The darkness fell. It was Earth Hour. Yesterday, all across the world, in 84 countries. At the Sydney Opera House in Australia. At the Eiffel Tower in France. At the Bird’s Nest Stadium in China. At the Great Pyramids in Egypt. At the Acropolis in Greece. At the Sears Tower in America. At the home of “Mr. & Mrs. Concerned-citizen-of-the-world”. The goal: 1 billion people switching off their lights as part of a global vote to be presented to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Change Conference December 7-18, 2009.

Regardless of your own perspective about global warming, Earth Hour is a major example of nonverbal and symbolic communication.

Nonverbal communication involves the transmitting of a thought or idea without the use of spoken language per se. Symbolic communication is a sub-set in which symbols and symbolic action are used.

Many will consider, and have flatly stated that they think Earth Hour is nonsense. A billion people switched off their lights as their answer

Historical footnote. Mind, Self, and Society was posthumously published in 1934. Based on the lecture notes of George Herbert Mead, really the father of social psychology, the book puts forward in his theories the ideas we today  generally refer to as “symbolic communication”.  As an interesting aside, while Mead published scholarly articles widely during his lifetime, he died in 1931 and never finished correcting the galleys to what would have been his first book. Essays in Social Pyschology was first published in 2001. So Mead’s work in essence spans much of the modern day social and communications theory time-line. The other figure I want to mention as making a contribution to all of this is the philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) who conceived “symbol theory”; while she is most often associated with aesthetics,thinking about the arts, she significantly called attention to the importance of symbols.

I’m not asking here whether Earth Hour will have an effect on policy, only time will tell that. The question is simply whether Earth Hour effectively utilized symbolic communication to try to make its point “without saying a word”. If you would like to take part in this survey go to: to find out exactly what happened during Earth Hour, and then return and complete the survey. I’ll post results after sufficient response.

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