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City Lights From Above – We Are Bleeding Fuel

April 1, 2013

Flying home to Australia, i spent a bit of time looking out at the surface of our planet from the sky, as i always do when flying. (Yup, i know this international flitting about is part of the problem of excessive fossil fuel usage and i’ll come back to it later.) Because of the flight path and cloud cover, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to observe the landscape, by day or night. But landing in Melbourne before dawn meant that i finally had a moment to dwell upon the city lights after which this site is named. And there i was reminded of two images that accompany the sight of so much artificial light, dotted in grids and curves and extending out from our city centres to cover the land more each year.

One image is that of the humble campfire, which prompts me to reflect upon each light of the city as if it is like a symbolic flame around which people warm their hands, keep the darkness of the night at bay, allow us to see each other and feel a bit safer and cook and stay warm and converse. This stands whether the actual lights seen from above line a street, illuminate a factory or glow from a house window – they all help to fulfil part of the same set of functions.

The other image that comes to mind is not so conducive to homilies about the timeless human spirit and communal values. Because each electric light is also a contained fire, an ingeniously crafted combustion of fossil fuels that we have become so used to commanding that each example is another open wound in our ecological relations on this planet. We are bleeding fuel because of our love affair with contained fire.

We know how to suck up the dark fuel from the ground and ignite it in safe, confined hollow tubes of glass and we warm ourselves at the flame. We can virtually reproduce daylight at night, granting almost unlimited extra time to work and play, and we have quickly come to assume that this is our right. I suppose it’s pretty much the same for any invention; new technology becomes naturalised and in no time at all we can hardly remember living without it. But what do we do when we realise it is killing us and so many of our fellow creatures?

I’ve travelled enough to know i’ve burnt my fair share of aviation fuel. George Monbiot, in Heat, claimed that international flight was one of the few problems that couldn’t be solved in terms of creatively rethinking the way we deal with the carbon costs of modern life. Yet Michel Serres, in Angels, saw that same industry as a messenger of the gods, bringing loved ones together from all over the world in a sign that some of the magic of modern technology could still outweigh the costs. (Serres also wrote the impressive Natural Contract, asking for a new way of thinking the culture/nature balance.)

The campfires are getting bigger and spreading further afield from each original space of settlement, covering the land with cement and steel, bitumen and pipelines and the structure of civilisation. The developing world is claiming such facts of life for their own. And while we huddle around our magical new form of light, the world burns, in a new way. We’ve touched the fire and are touched by it – and we cannot seem to stop. This fascination is already burning us back but we control the way this story is told and our creativity is threatening to kill us and so much more with it. The mirror is alight.

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