Saturday, March 21, 2015

Light and Dark

Darkness. It happens in our lives on many occasions and is, in itself, nothing to fear. However the sort of sudden darkness that happens when there is a blackout caused by a storm puts a person in a much different situation than simply turning out the lights and going to sleep.
   For some people darkness is a mystery that brings emotions of fear, disorientation, a sense of abandonment and helplessness. Some people fear dark places, the basement, the attic and the part of the garage where there is no window. Darkness hides dirt, grime and creepy crawlers, but also increases the fear of running across these creatures unwittingly.
   Sometimes our emotions about darkness are based on distrust and general curiosity about people. In some neighbourhoods, there are one or two houses that seem to leave their lights off nearly perpetually. They don't seem to worry about thieves or prowlers hiding in the bushes, neither are they concerned about who might trip in their walkway at night. Sometimes there are houses that are so dark that when a light turns on it seems to draw attention of the whole neighbourhood of passersby who are all wondering if someone is moving around in that creepy house on the corner.
    For those living in northern and southern wintry lands, the darkness has to do with the season, and a cold winter season also means a very dark time in the year where a human being begins to feel a certain sadness and paranoia creep into their thoughts without any actual cause or intention. This sort of feeling can lead to a real depression and can leave a person in a real state of inaction and inactivity. This paranoia and sadness is not authentic depression, of course, and is scientifically known to be caused by lack of sunlight, inhibiting a person's natural ability to produce vitamin D. This sort of paranoia is cured when the weather warms and the days grow longer, replenishing the body and relieving thoughts of depression.... at least until next winter.

   Turning out the lights for some people means taking away their sense of sight and most of their ability to escape immininent danger. As a result some people sleep with a night-light even when they are grown-up adults and even when they can easily find their way to the bathroom.
    But for some, the anxiety brought on by the dark is not out of a gradual depletion of vitamin D in the body, or a fear of what lurks in dark spaces, a sense of loss of a human beings' most vital senses, it's more of a fear of losing that one comfort of modern society which is electrical light and power.

Candles, Gas Lamps and Limelight

      And this is a process that happened very quickly. It was only about 100 years ago that most of the population of North America generated light at home by burning candles or oil in lamps. If you had money and a nice house, a successful business, or you wanted to light up a section of a downtown street, then you might find a connection to a gas line and numerous gas lamps. These old technologies, namely lamps, oils and lighting generated by chemical reaction, were problematic, inconsistent, expensive if wasted, and sometimes a dangerous fire-hazard.
    The thought of these types of light are not heart-warming. Internal gas-fired lighting makes people think of carbon-monoxide poisoning and the idea of gas lamps and poorly lit streets, bars and pubs lit by candlelight and oil make people imagine who might be lurking around the next corner. In your nightmares, it's always Jack the Ripper.
    Lighting large indoor spaces such as a theatre or ballroom was incredibly difficult before electric light, the original Limelight was a true breakthrough in technology! The first real theatre spotlight made by Limelight seemed magically bright, casting the actors and performers onstage in a heavenly glow. These methods of generating light are now antiquated. Even the term 'Limelight' is just a euphemism now, referring to either the theatre stage or the centre of some kind of media attention. And yet all that seperates us from these old technologies is a light switch. All we need is for the power to go out for a while, longer than our biggest batteries will last, and we are immediately transported a hundred years backwards in lighting technology, relying on candles and oil lamps again. Many people already save a few candles in the basement just in case such a need should arise. And stay indoors if the power goes out, because Jack the Ripper might be wandering through your neighbourhood.

Artificial Light and Modern civilization
    Human beings have become accustomed to having light available at all times and within instant reach. It's the ingenuity of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and electric light that makes the real difference to our lives now, and is the main technology behind what is viewed to be the foundation of modern society. Without electric light, we as a species are suddenly at the mercy of nature, susceptible and conforming our days and activities to the natural patterns of the sun and the whims of the weather.
      There is nothing more closely associated with cvilization that electric light. For years, the measure of a great city was how bright it was during the evenings, showing the progress that this society had achieved. Times Square in New York seems brighter at night than during the daytime. Costs of lighting and electricity have increased and as a result, many downtowns that used to be adorned generously with neon and the warm glow of incandescent lightbulbs has been replaced with LEDs, flourescent and halogen lighting. Unfortunately, the energy savings in lighting the streets has been used to power large video screens that are essentially advertising and messages of various commercial propoganda. It seems soothing our fear of the dark has come at the trade off of making us 24-hour consumers.
     And yet, this powerful and reliable form of light has a problem even when nothing has gone wrong and it is working perfectly... Way on the other end of the electrical wire, the power turning that turbine and generating the electricity is a chemical reaction usually fueled by fossil fuels and often the fuel is still: Coal. So even after a hundred years or so, most of our electric light is still generated, at its source, by chemical reaction. And although the burning of fuel happens at a great distance, it's impact is felt through global warming and the production of greenhouse gases.

What's so Scary?
But why do we fear the dark? Is it really necessary to get so anxious and nervous at the thought of the lights going out? If a creepy little bug walks across your toe, you might recoil and hide your feet in a pair of heavy boots, but did the bug really hurt you? It's far more likely that the bugs in your house don't want to bother you or bite you, there's nothing lurking in the corner or the closet or even in the dark basement.
    Moreover, it seems strange that as a species, we are always trying to light-up the night. No city wants to be known as that 'sleepy little town where everything shuts down at eleven p.m.' but at the same time we have to ask why do our cities have to look like everyone who lives there is always awake all night long? What the hell are we doing all night that's so important? Why do we need video screens in our streets, subways and on top of buildings? Can we light our streets without having to turn our night-time into daytime?
    And even if we were to suddenly plunge, powerless, into darkness, what would happen? Riots in the streets? Rampant gangs of looters and mayhem? Would anarchy reign in the darkness of a night lit up only by the moon? Is the night so fearful and complicated and able to bring out all of our deepest, most selfish, violent and evil impulses to steal and harm others and try to get away with breaking every law that we could until such time as the lights came back on and order and peace is restored. Even moreso, are we, in darkness, plunged into a helpless and hapless fear and paranoia, suddenly distrusting all that we know before.
   If we let our minds get the better of us, we would all imagine the worst of the worst crimes and troubles, but is that really what would happen? Recent history suggests not:
  • In 1999 Brazil was plunged into darkness partially due to a lightning strike and partly due to poor maintenance by a deregulated and privatized power industry in that country. As a result, almost 97 million people were left without power for about 5 hours. Although there were reports of robberies in every major city, the number of murders actually fell by one-third. Some reported that arrogant drivers were taking chances driving in cities without traffic lights, but most people stayed off the streets and stayed home. Considering that 97 million were affected, it suggests Anarchy did not take over. 
  • Sept, 2004, Parts of Switzerland and most of Italy were cut off from power for almost 18 hours due to an electrical short in a Swiss power line. Many people were left to sleep in train stations and most airports had to be completely shutdown, but there were no major reports of rioting or looting.
  • Aug 14, 2003 Northeast U.S.A. and Ontario, Canada. On one of the hottest days in that summer, a software glitch at a power transfer station in Ohio set off a cascading set of safety-system-induced power-plant shutdowns that left over 50 million people without power for as much as three days. Eight different U.S. states were affected as well as all of Ontario, Canada. All of New York City was also affected. No mass riots were experienced, and no large amounts of looting or robberies. 
There were a reported ten fatalities from the 2003 blackout, most caused by careless use of candles, fireplaces and electrical generators. However, people did not riot and fight each other to cause three days of anarchy in the streets of New York or Toronto. Instead they helped each other, some citizens even helped to direct traffic in busy intersections. Subways without power left people stranded and although many chose to use taxis, many more chose to take a nice walk on a hot afternoon turning New York's Queensboro bridge into a citizen-mandated pedestrian walkway. It should also be noted that, in New York and other major cities, there were many reports of people 'enjoying the blackout'. Many restaurants, left without power switched to using barbecue and gas powered cooking and candle-lighting, while some small grocery and convenience stores gave away free ice creams to customers to avoid cleaning up the spoilage of melted products

So Turn the Lights OUT! For an Hour or so! 
   Don't be afraid! Join millions around the world who are all going to turn their lights out. Go to earthour.org to add your name to a long list of people who are pledging to turn out the power for an hour. Make a statement in favour of conservation, the environment and against terrible and short-sighted politicians like Stupid Harper in Canada. It may not seem like much, but it can lead to better things, and it's much better than doing nothing! Prove that you're not afraid of the dark, show your kids how to deal with a blackout properly and safely! And do it just because some idiot politician or oil-rich capitalist will not like it (every light that goes out causes an oil-baron to shed a tear.)
P.S: A bit of Irony: Iron Maiden plays the song Powerslave, when the power goes out in Madison Square Garden in 2008!