Light and Ecology

In the modern world, we light our cities at night with the burning up of fossil fuels, a practice that now seems unsustainable without a new energy source. In the meantime, this material practice reveals a symbolic quest to banish the night – and with this attempt comes a raft of associations that are coloured with the dualistic oppositions so well known as part of the course of western history. Light defeats darkness as masculine, urban reason overwhelms chaotic feminine nature. So why are we so addicted to light?


In the course of being Hellenised for a new audience, the ancient Judaic theme of a divine voice speaking truth in the wilderness is translated into a transcendent light that exists free of the limits of earthly life. You can sense Plato’s seminal influence all over this material. Philo of Judaea plays a significant part in this transformation via translation. When we read the visions encoded in Revelations, we find an idea of heaven on earth that is called the New Jerusalem. Here, there is no night and the great holy God is worshipped permanently. This vision is inspired by the same dream that motivates us moderns to light up our cities in the night. The symbolic attempt to banish darkness from human history and experience seems to be a deeply ingrained drive that i have found in large-scale agricultural settlement civilizations in general. It’s not just a religious thing and it’s not just a technological version of a Christian hope (otherwise known as the ‘secularisation thesis’). But, the dream behind this symbolic quest – the attempt to create (or regain) a paradise of light (or heaven) here on the material plane – might ironically be costing us the earth.

We all know the burning up of fossil fuels we see in the NASA image of the planet at night is unsustainable (unless nuclear energy is considered safe and economically viable), so it should follow that our addiction to light is likewise ecologically harmful. Hence my conclusion: lust for endless light and the associated fear of the darkness will bring on the very nightmare they are designed to avoid.

In order to answer my questions about this state – of material and symbolic concerns – i’m exploring how such myths infect modern materialism and how technologically advanced postmodernity perpetuates an ancient dualism even while manifesting the complex and diverse world we know.

While our addiction to light looks a lot to me like a desire to manifest transcendence in immanent (or physical, bodily) terms – specifically, to create heaven on earth – there are also a great many other forces at work, not only dualistic and ascendant in orientation. In order to make clear this complex relationship between the symbol of light, its mythic power and the environmental concerns that drive my work,  I have broken this research project down into sections. They are:


In many cases, light is born out of darkness and remains intertwined with it in a way that could be seen as mutually reinforcing, or complementary in the Taoist sense, as if each gave way to the other in turn. This complementary aspect is often associated with ideas of light that are aligned with cosmologies in which lunar or stellar lights retain an important part in the collective psyche. In ancient Sumer, for instance, Nanna (or Suen) was a masculine moon-god and the father of the sun. He took pre-eminence especially in Ur, the city of which he was tutelary deity even after the last dynasty of the Sumerians were overrun by invading Elamites around 2000 BCE. Nanna and his son Shamash (or Utu) shared responsibilities in the sky, dispensing justice and looking over their people.

But over time, around 4,000 years ago, a state of virtually permanent warfare gave rise to the role of sun-king. This military leader stood as representative of the people of any given city-state, but just as importantly he claimed descent from the sun-god. The universal authority assumed with such venerable genealogy justified imperial campaigns, inspired extensive new modes of law and order and eventually resulted in the idea of monotheism; where, inevitably, a god of light lorded it over a pantheon of lesser deities, or over an enemy of the darkness… or over, in its most radical form (Augustine’s Christian thesis of creation ex nihilo) over no other idea of the divine at all.

The monotheism that becomes conventional in Christian history erases vastly more common traditions of complex pantheonsin its wake. It is the result of an experiment that has a couple of prominent early examples (and both are failures). In Egypt, the Pharaoh Akhenaten attempts to place the solar disc in universal glory at the cost of the other gods in the fourteenth century BCE. Akhenaten initiates monotheistic worship of a sun god that brings life and banishes death, at the expense of the traditional pantheon. He is thereby resisted. Not warlike, he does not extend territory. His veneration of light is fundamentalistic – it brooks no compromise or complementarity, ignores the darkness that it cannot answer, and is devoted to goodness – the classic absolutism. But it is without vaster significance at its time, fading within years of his death (or rather having its main points grafted onto new recapitulation of tradition). In Rome, young Emperor Elagabalus (216-213 CE) is prompted by his Syrian inheritance to likewise revere Sol over the complex Roman families of gods. A temple priest from an early age, Elagabalus raised his Sol Invictus, or Unconquerable God of the Sun, to pre-eminent heights. Many soldiers of the time would have felt comfortable with the parallels to the Persian Mithraism that was popular with men at arms. While Aurelian would promote a similar cult of the sun half a century later, and Constantine would eventually pave the way for the Christianisation of Rome under a very singular God of heavenly light, Elagabalus’s experiment, like Akhenaten’s, failed miserably in its times. The pantheon of other gods prove far too popular to last past the short reigns of both leaders.


As we all know, though, western history is marked by the victory of a monotheistic God of light, on behalf of whom all other gods are to be declared idolatrous and heathen, and towards whom all prayers should be directed. This victory has, as its direct sponsor, the military cause so common to shifts in political allegiance across civilised history of all stripes. Soon after Roman Emperor Constantine’s victory at Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, the relatively minor religion of the persecuted Christians becomes the spiritual conscience of the greatest ancient empire of the west (albeit one destined soon after to crumble). Medieval history and the cultural dominance throughout its thousand years of the Catholic Church owes as much to this moment as it does to the greatness of Christ’s message of radical love and compassion.

The outcome of the research i put into my PhD thesis concluded with the opinion that the universal dominion of capital and the associated worship of the commodity shares much genealogy with these early flourishings of a worldly empire of light based upon a shared quest for transcendence. I summarised some of these findings in an article called ‘Manoeuvring Light: utopian urbanity and its ecological cost,’ which can be found online at:



When Greek philosophers debated the nature of truth, they had to weigh up relative authority as it seemed bound up in the spoken word, in stories that referred to history, to ancient oral mythological tales and to new concepts of reason. Major shifts saw the philosophical argument transformed from pagan (or country-dweller) to urban styles of thought, from ancient Mystery School initiations into an underworld to the rational method of Socratic discourse, from Ionian paradox and flux to Plato’s appeal to the Eternal Forms that reside outside of our imprisonment in the corporeal cave of the earth. These debates about what is true continue today and the conventional idea that myth must be false or at least fabulous arises from such skirmishes.


The Biblical myth of the fall relies for its rhetorical power on an idea that humanity is not quite at home here on earth. While God’s creation is good and we are at the apex of its spiritual potential in regards to embodied life, our sojourn across the dusty threshing floors of the earth begins when we are exiled from the one place we knew perfect harmony. Interestingly, this exile to earth is based on a model that begins when rival deities battle it out for supremacy in the heavens, the loser/s regularly banished to chthonic imprisonment beneath the earth. From here it a short step to kinship with the creatures of the earth; and, from another temporal direction, to the traditional (and perhaps perennial) place of nature spirits who inhabit this place with us, mysterious and often capricious tricksters, sprites, guides and daemons who, like us, are destined to live on the earth and not in some transcendental heaven purified of materiality.


The Enlightenment philosophers inhabited an era during which thinkers collaboratively hailed a new method for ascertaining human certitude with recourse to systematic testing of hypotheses and the rejection of traditional assumptions and superstitions. The hopes and dreams associated with this liberation of human reason saw the symbol of light slowly but surely shifted from its venerated domain in the unquestionable empyrion of God’s heaven of pure thought to the hands and minds of human consideration and action. My work in this area traced the lineages of this shift and concluded that the dazzling nature of the potential unleashed by it blinded western humanity to the threat harboured in the shadows of reason. Thus, it took as its emblem the frightening figure of Oedipus, so determined to see the truth yet destined to end in blindness, ignoring the seer Tieresias’ sage wisdom that his cleverness was ultimately also his downfall, his talent concurrently his misery. The mechanical universe uncovered by Enlightenment thought unleashed the Industrial Revolution, previously unimagined productive forces and an alienation from its impersonal universe so deep we continue to feel its abyss tugging, like vertigo tinged with ennui wrapped in angst, at the ground beneath our feet.


For a brief few decades from the late 18th to early/mid 19th centuries, a movement of such revolutionary force it continues to inspire countless facets of contemporary art and thought today turned the Enlightenment gaze back from its dizzy heights to the darkness within and without. The Romantic poets and philosophers rediscovered the perennial quest into the underworld, undertaking an Orphic rite to discover the light that is born from the depths, that sustains the human from its source in nature and in the mysteries of the human soul. While the results of this blazing trail are not without problematics of their own, the Romantics’ mythopoeic resistance to the great machine otherwise consuming the earth in the name of ever-greater profits continues to inspire those who would love the earth on its own terms; even when mad, bad, and dangerous to know.


What happens when the symbolic representative of the light – of all that is talented in its vision of civilised greatness – travels upstream to its own heart of darkness? According to many who have dwelt upon this possibility, many of the foundations of civilisation crumble to reveal a barbarism every bit as brutal as those seemingly left behind in the process of shifting from primitive to developed political economies, with their ideals of rule of law and fair dealings. The Modernist paradigm ushered in with the early 20th century revealed a chaos seething beneath the thin mantle of civilised reason, a darkness to threaten the light, a Waste Land without a hero, its symbolic king awaiting healing without hope, his ideals shattered and the dream that inspired his forebears lost. Occasional glimmers of unannounced liberation still slipped through the new imprisonment of reason, however; an enigmatic sensation of relatedness with the greatness of the universe, impersonal but not reduced to the machine, leading the splintered individual of modernity back to a greater and more humble recognition of themselves in the mirror of life.


At the turn of the 21st century, we see evidence of our addiction to light in NASA’s photographs of the planet at night, aglow with hives of activity as if inhabited by intelligent, technologically developed primates with moth-like proclivities. While it must seem obvious that there are valid material reasons for this luminescence, there is also a symbolic rationale in play: a clear indication that the darkness is unwanted, that light is considered the ‘normal’ condition under which human life should be lived, that existing within the light is manifestly more highly valued than coping with darkness could ever be. I do not deny that this represents the way most people believe life should be – what interests me is the way this light is focussed, the things it illuminates, and what they say about humanity and the way it feels about and lives within the earth. I am convinced that we manipulate technologically enhanced forms of light in order to illuminate the things we most love and these things are commercially marketed products – the commodity fetish, in the spotlight. Alongside our love of material possessions we must consider the very process by which the cities are lit – the fuel fetish, or our love of conflagration, which insists we look harder for a new energy source rather than power down our eternally lit hives of activity.


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