Hour of darkness

Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Nate Tyler was finishing off his salmon dinner at a restaurant in Sydney, Australia, last spring when suddenly the lights went out. The eatery went dark, along with much of downtown, including the city’s famous opera house.

“I thought ‘Holy moly, this is gorgeous!’ You could see stars in the sky,” he said. “The restaurant used candles. It was atmospheric. The food tasted better.”

Tyler happened to be Down Under during Earth Hour, an annual event in which Sydney residents switch off lights for 60 minutes as a symbolic gesture to cut energy use and help reverse global warming.


That’s when a bulb -- the energy-efficient kind -- flashed on inside his brain: “I told myself, ‘Why can’t we try this in San Francisco?’ ”

The former Google spokesman returned home to launch Lights Out San Francisco, an ambitious grass-roots campaign. For one full hour -- between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Oct. 20 -- he wants the people of this city to turn off all unnecessary lights as a way to reduce carbon emissions and preserve natural resources.

Tyler isn’t talking about creating a public safety hazard by shutting off street lamps or traffic lights. He’s targeting nonessential lighting: floodlights at used-car lots, atmospheric illumination of the Golden Gate Bridge, the neon movie marquee and all the bulbs left burning at night in empty high rises.

He’s also not advocating major personal lifestyle changes -- at least not yet. For now, he wants family members, neighbors and colleagues to join together in taking one simple, hourlong stand against mindless energy use. Turn off a hallway light, a computer, a TV. See how good it feels, he says, and you might begin to reconsider the extent of your personal energy use.

“People are burning needless energy and not even knowing it. They’re walking out of the office at night without turning off the light or shutting down the computer. We need to hit restart and start a conversation about how important this is,” he said.

“If we don’t do something, by 2050, all the polar bears will be gone. That’s where Santa Claus lives, man. That’s a bummer.”


With the slogan “Good Things Happen in the Dark” emblazoned on campaign T-shirts and posters, Tyler plans to give away 110,000 energy-efficient bulbs on his Lights Out day.

Tyler, 38, has long walked the environmental walk. Growing up in New Haven, Conn., he helped refurbish hiking trails and apprenticed in one of the nation’s last remaining wooden-boat shops in Maine. His car runs on reprocessed vegetable oil.

He’s an avid surfer with a Zen-like mind-set. He sprinkles conversations with longboard lexicon: “So the dude says. . .,” “Sweet!” and “That rocks.”

Tyler is basing his strategy on Sydney’s March 31 event, which this year conserved 25 tons of carbon dioxide that would have been released in the production of the energy -- the equivalent of removing nearly 50,000 cars from the road for one hour, Tyler said.

In the call to action, he’s combining his environmental passions with lessons learned as a Google communications manager. Like many Internet start-ups, Tyler’s effort is low-budget and high-energy.

He relies on an eclectic word-of-mouth campaign, channeled through his easygoing, hanging-out-on-the-couch personality.

Back from Australia, Tyler, now a freelance media consultant, devoted himself to developing a website. Then, he called his stepbrother.

Nick Rubenstein, a former graphics artist for a punk-rock record label, who designed album covers for the bands Offspring and Bad Religion, got married this summer. Tyler made his pitch the night before the wedding, as he sat strumming a guitar on Rubenstein’s porch. He asked for help with website graphics -- free of charge, of course. He got it.

“He’s not doing this for money,” Rubenstein said. “If he was making some huge amount of cash, I’d say ‘Look buddy, share the wealth.’ But he’s doing this because it’s close to his heart.”

Tyler also e-mailed friends with his Web page prototype asking, “Are you with me on this?” One introduced him to Mabel Liang, a freelance Web designer who was new to town. She cut her rate in half for him. And when it came time for him to pay the first installment, the pair agreed to barter: Tyler gave her an old couch and a coffee table for her effort.

When Tyler approached Exposure, a New York City company that specializes in nontraditional advertising, he hooked up with creative director Tom Phillips, who was floored by his enthusiasm and agreed to donate time. “I saw the sparks going off inside his head,” he said of Tyler.

Phillips’ team used copper wire and a pair of pliers to fashion the campaign’s signature image: the website’s name,, in fluid cursive writing like the filament in a light bulb. Another artist created an image of a starry sky over San Francisco.

He brought on Brian Scott, a former Greenpeace activist who once chained himself to the Washington Monument to protest government inaction on global warming and who dreamed up the event’s catchy slogan.

Tyler also called his parents in Connecticut. Cheever Tyler, a corporate lawyer and former board chairman of the New Haven Chamber of Commerce, gave his son some old-school advice.

“Nathan has enormous principle and unlimited energy, but he needed a way to distribute his product,” he said. “I told him he had to get the mayor and the chamber onboard. They were good partners to have.”

By August, Rob Black, the director of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, joined the team, and introduced Tyler to a restaurant owner who temporarily lent the group a vacant space in the Mission District.

Black also introduced Tyler to Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who passed a resolution sponsoring the event and naming Oct. 20 Lights Out San Francisco Day.

On that night, the Golden Gate Bridge will turn off its decorative tower lights. The lights of Alcatraz Island will also be shut off, as will those of various city and county office buildings. The San Francisco Restaurant Assn. is promoting romantic candlelight dinners.

Gus Murad, owner of the restaurant Medjool, doesn’t think one hour of darkness is enough. “I’m going to go for eight hours,” he said. “Mother Nature has given us so much, it amazes me we can’t give just a little bit back.”

Businesses such as Gap and Yahoo, as well as nonprofits including the International Dark Sky Assn., have signed on to publicize the event. Tyler is working with Safeway stores in the Bay Area to advertise it on the back of store receipts and on a public address system broadcast inside stores.

Pacific Gas and Electric and Yahoo donated the 110,000 compact-fluorescent light bulbs. “I ask my team: How can we make energy efficiency sexy?” said the utility’s spokesman Keely Wachs. “Nate has done exactly that.”

Tyler mostly has focused on recruiting the younger generation. He attended Green Drinks -- a social gathering for environment-minded professionals, spending $250 on cocktails while urging people to spread his message.

To reach children, he plans to tour local schools in a biofuel-run bus.

He also wants to post on his website pictures of the worst offenders among office buildings that leave lights on at night.

Not everyone is receptive. Some gas stations, for instance, refuse to take part, saying they need lights on for safety.

Tyler hopes to cut energy use that night by 15%, monitoring the savings with the help of the utility company.

And he’s already planning a Lights Out America event for March.

The other day at his donated storefront space, he opened an overnight envelope bearing a $10,000 donation from Esurance. He beamed.

“Sweet,” he said.