In the dark about energy policy

 Alastair Donald | 14 January 2007

The Times recently carried news of an ‘innovative’ plan to save energy and beat global warming. Apparently trials in Exeter suggest that removing lights and illuminated signage, and dimming thousands of streetlamps throughout Devon will be a useful way to cut carbon emissions and beat global warming. 

The manner in which city lights are viewed has changed over time, and offers some interesting insights into contemporary concerns. For example, Brixton’s Electric Avenue in south London was so named to commemorate the first shopping street to benefit from permanent electric lighting. Dating from the latter half of the 19th century, city lights at the time were widely held to be synonymous with modernity and progress – symbolising hope that even the urban poor could take their place under the bright lights.

Later, city lights started to become associated with the emotions of the individual. When Walter Benjamin wrote of gaslights that helped to energise and dramatise Parisian arcades, he saw an intensified emotional life for the flaneur. In the post- War era the emotional side was strengthened, but increasingly associated with the darker side of city life. In the blues of Bright Lights, Big City by Jimmy Reed, the lights have gone to his baby’s head. By the time of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel of the same name, the bright lights had become tainted with the disaffection felt for much city life in the period before the ‘urban renaissance’ cleansed and contained it to help make it culturally acceptable once more.

Now that containing the city and the associated environmental issues have gained prominence discussion of city lights is often related to the previously unheard of problem of ‘light pollution’. To some extent scientists concerns about the negative effects of urbanisation and light pollution have driven NASA’s development of the now prominent city illumination maps. These maps use light data captured from satellites to create global maps that track the negative impacts of urban development – ‘on the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the ecosystem within which we live’ – helpfully providing a constant reminder of how bad we all are.

Has darkness become attractive? It seems so, as the fear of climate change collides with a risk aversion, instead of innovating to create better and more efficient ways of producing energy, the solution is to quite literally turn out the lights. No doubt there are efficiencies to be had in the way that local authorities deliver their streetlight services. Yet even with efficiencies, it’s more energy not less that will be necessary for powering tomorrow’s world. Greater efficiencies in use (which for Devon seems to mean cuts in service) and more regulation will not deliver what we require. And despite some positive moves towards greater integration of energy supply across Europe, the more pronounced fashion for small scale renewables will further undermine improvements.

We could do with replacing such small-minded attitudes with something of the Buckminster Fuller spirit. In the late 60’s, at which time the notion that economic and social advances might derive from experimentation and technological advance had not quite disappeared, the designer/inventor realised the value that could be derived from an ambitious scaling up of energy production. He outlined a global high-voltage transmission grid that took in all the continents and all the time zones. By applying the Design Science Revolution at the right scale (i.e. the largest possible), he would realise more from less – to the extent that a world electricity transmission network would at a stroke would double effective generating capacity. If only we could generate such ambition and spirit today, we might emerge from the gloom.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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