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Earth Hour: Finding a Moment amongst the Shadows

London lives in illumination: the dazzling west-end lights, the soaring tower blocks, the racing buses and trains all spilling into perpetual brightness. This is a city averse to the dark.


The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Earth Hour invites Londoners to take a break from their luminous lifestyle and approach their energy usage with more consideration. From 8:30pm-9:30pm on the 26th March all are encouraged to turn off their non-essential lighting and take a moment to exist within the natural dark of the night; to question how we over-consume energy in the name of artificial irradiance.


We only know our living space, our entire cityscape, bathed in luminosity. These spaces going dark feels unnerving, alien, an inconvenient affair. It can be easy to forget that electric light is a relatively new improvement to human life.


Decades before Thomas Edison filed patents for the filament lightbulb in 1880, Humphry Davy had successfully generated light with electricity, presenting his invention to The Royal Society in London, in 1806. Over the years, the technology Davy first presented was improved and refined to bring the lightbulb to the average consumer. London has been hypnotised by faux glow ever since. However, as Earth Day approaches and we are offered a moment to reflect, the prospect of the city seeing lights out is actually nothing new.

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Punters drinking beer by candlelight in a pub (Image copyright: Newcastle Chronicle)

Even Parliament was required to meet in candlelight…

The city witnessed enforced blackouts during The Blitz, with windows shuttered, street lamps snuffed and even car headlights given translucent filters to avoid detection whilst night driving. Thirty years later, during the miners strikes of 1972-1974, the city plunged into darkness again. Coal production had ground to a halt with reserves shrinking by the day. A three-day working week was declared, alongside limitations on central heating and all non-essential lighting. Even Parliament was required to meet in candlelight whilst the negotiations between the government and the National Union of Mineworkers were underway.


Whilst surreal, albeit farcical, to imagine Parliament squabbling by candlelight, such potential limitations on light usage might not be too far removed in reality. With recent news of a looming energy crisis and unrest between nations supplying natural gas to meet surge demands, it might be worth welcoming an hour of darkness for contemplating energy issues on a more personal level.


Imagine this: you’ve raced home from daily routines, structural integrity leaving your limbs at the sight of the sofa. You slap on the main light, zone out for a while in post-day limbo. Before you know it your absent mind has emblazoned your residence with unceremoniously dazzling lamps, lights and LEDs gobbling energy throughout. The third lamp in the living room glows delicately creating a harmonious mood. The kitchen strip light flickers irrationally. A tempestuous ringing emanates from the dimmer switch – it tends to squeal away for days on end in the strange half-light of your bedroom. You’re uncertain you’ve ever actually seen the place fully dark. Why must it be this way?


Imagine again. You only have to pay attention briefly to avoid such mess; to avoid the proverbial naughty corner of Earth Hour. Otherwise you might end up sulking for your sins in a gruelling, hour long darkness, rocking in a corner, mocked by the smart meter. But maybe, Earth Hour could offer us something, rather than take something from us. It could be a chance to explore what life is like without lavish light usage.

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Journalists working by light of candles and hurricane lamps during power outage in 1972 (image credit: Newcastle Chronicle)


A fascinating ideation can be found within the essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. The essay traces the distinctions between Western and Eastern uses of light and shadow. Tanizaki writes, ‘So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination’. Rarely is thought expended in our lives to the shadows in the room, other than finding another lamp to banish them.


It begs the question: When did we last sit in a dark space and absorb the atmosphere for what it is? With most of our walls painted white, scrambles for Southern-facing property, and a light in every room, it seems absurd – borderline maniacal – to suggest we might possibly sit in a dark room for no other reason than the joy of it. Yet, as the lights go out for Earth Hour and the mesh of silhouettes take their place, a small pocket in time exists for us to engage with this other shadow world.


Sure, London looks enticing with its gleaming veneer; but sometimes it becomes easy to neglect the natural cycle of light and dark, to see it as inevitable. Yet there is more to be seen here beyond an impersonal energy crisis. This is a moment of change for us personally. We might wish to take the chance, become aware, and heed the history – and possibly future – of turning on the lights. We could change our habits for good this Earth Hour, by simply finding a moment amongst the shadows. There is nothing to be scared of in the dark… except ourselves. 

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