“Synergy” is a word used for fitness products and computer programs, because it means something seemingly magical and sounds like the name of a superhero. So when Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Ali Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, otherwise known as the Green Sheikh, states that universities of the United Arab Emirates, environmental organizations, and the Emirati government must “synergize,” skeptical people like me begin to quietly roll their eyes.

That is, until they realize that what he proposes might actually create this sort of magical combination, producing more than the sum of its parts. The Sheikh, working in conjunction with the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, has issued a challenge to the university students of the UAE. If six thousand people, in six months, are able to donate unused medicine to the Al Ihsan Charity Center in Ajman—which has operated under his patronage since 1998—he will fast for six days. This promise is a part of this year’s Earth Hour campaign, coordinated globally by the World Wildlife Fund.

Earth Hour, a sixty-minute event in which participants agree to shut off the electric lights in their homes and businesses, started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, and has now expanded to include cities in 135 countries, speaking 51 languages (of which Arabic is in the top three). This year’s campaign, entitled “I Will if You Will,” is a grassroots attempt to “go beyond the hour” in order to implement long lasting change. Through the Earth Hour YouTube channel—referred to by UAE project coordinator Oliver Kerr as a “global portal”—users can upload video challenges, to dare themselves and someone else to make an environmental commitment. The format is flexible, the deadlines and challenges self-imposed. The WWF hopes for this campaign to raise awareness both globally and locally, as challenges are made between friends, celebrities, schools, companies, and larger organizations in the global community. One man, for example, has pledged to let his three-year-old daughter dress him for a week if 5000 people commit to recycling in 2012. Two firefighters have challenged themselves to scale a ninety-six-story building if 5000 people agree to take public transportation for a week. Rock singer Vanessa Bley will play in a pedal-powered rock show if 1000 people live without using oil or natural gas for a day, while Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo will dye his beard green if 10,000 people commit to Earth Hour.

Kerr believes that this initiative will be more effective in creating enthusiasm among people all over the world, especially students. This project leaves environmentalism in the hands of those who have the self-motivation and inspiration to work towards sustainable improvements on a local, everyday scale. Sheikh Abdul Aziz is eager to look to young people to implement this on-the-ground change, dubbing the March 31 event “Youth Hour.” He loves working with youth, he says, because, “when you are young, you have a lot of time, and a lot of energy, but no money. When you get older, you have more money, but a lot less time, and a lot less energy. That’s why we need to work together with the young people, to make sure that their time and energy can have a great effect on the world.”

The UAE, a country full of biggest, tallest, most-expensive world records, also holds the title of highest per capita “ecological footprint”  of any country in the world, according to the WWF’s 2010 Living Planet Report. With the high rates of carbon emission, deterioration of indigenous mangroves and coral reef systems, low water supply, and overfishing occurring in gulf coast countries, the nation needs a miracle to turn its habits around—perhaps the magic “synergy” that the Sheikh suggests. Events like Earth Hour draw on the mundane, small changes made by individuals to make small-scale environmental improvements, but these changes are only effective if performed on a massive scale. The promotion of these efforts by a public figure like Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi goes a long way towards helping time and energy rich environmentalists, though it is hoped that along with this publicity and support will come large-scale governmental action for a more sustainable future. The Emirates have professed a commitment to move towards renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, as well as placing an emphasis on conservation of the natural landscape, implementing new building codes under the Estidama pearl system, and launching campaigns to promote recycling and reduce energy and water consumption. These are certainly significant steps towards reducing this “ecological footprint,” though the effects will only be felt if they are fully implemented on both a large and small scale—here’s hoping that the Green Sheikh’s synergetic magic casts a powerful spell.

Earth Hour celebrations in Abu Dhabi were marked on the Corniche by a drumming spectacle. This year’s participants included the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Main Building of the Municipality of Abu Dhabi City, the premises of the Municipal External Centers, Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Maqta and Musaffah Bridges, among other public and private buildings.

NYU Abu Dhabi held a gathering at the Downtown Campus, with a dinner buffet, acoustic performance stage, canvas on which to place pledges to go beyond the hour, and a candlelit walk to the Corniche to join in the rest of the city as the lights turned off on its most iconic buildings. Oliver Kerr stopped by to mingle with students, giving a short speech about the responsibility we have for the planet and congratulating participants of Earth Hour for this simple show of support. The EWS-WWF and NYU Abu Dhabi’s environmental group, Ecoherence, would like to thank those who participated in the hour, while also encouraging further action. Here is a sample of some of the pledges made at the event:

I will remember to turn off the faucet when not in use.
I will donate 1dhs for each extra plastic water bottle I use.
I will refuse plastic bags.
I will use a reusable water bottle.
I will remember to turn off the lights.
I will use more natural lighting to light my room.
I will encourage more people to get outside. When they see how beautiful our world is, they want to protect it!

[Photos: Top: Candles lit at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus during Earth Hour on March 31. Middle: Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Ali Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi speaking in Ajman. Bottom: NYUAD students celebrating Earth Hour. Photos by Sachi Leith.]