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London, keep the lights on!

Tomorrow night, Harrods, the Ritz, Buckingham Palace and millions of Londoners will be asked to take part in a mass ‘switch-off’ to save electricity. Don’t do it, says Josie Appleton.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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Convention has it that when a cartoon character gets a brainwave, a light bulb switches on above his head. Conversely, switching the lights off is traditionally a symbol of disillusion and retreat. ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?’, said the Sun’s frontpage headline on the day of the 1992 UK General Election, picturing then Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s head inside a light bulb.

So it is a little distressing that London, one of the world’s greatest and liveliest capitals, is making great play of turning out its lights. ‘Lights Out London’ is a coordinated switch-off between 9pm and 10pm tomorrow (21 June) to raise awareness about climate change, backed by everybody from the London mayor Ken Livingstone to Capital Radio, and also the Houses of Parliament, the freesheet newspaper Metro and the National Grid.

At the appointed hour, nighttime landmarks – the glitzy fronts of Harrods and the Ritz, the National Theatre’s multi-coloured highlights, Buckingham Palace, the BT Tower – will all black out. Seven million Londoners are being asked to unplug their home’s lights, TVs and radios, and sit in the gloom for 60 minutes. The sky will darken as it hasn’t darkened since the Blitz.

London follows in the wake of Sydney’s Earth Hour on 31 March this year, when Harbour Bridge and the Opera House went dark and an estimated two million people turned off at once, cutting electricity usage by some 10 per cent. Photos of Earth Hour show a brilliant skyline becoming a ghostly outline, the shapes of the buildings just about visible (1).

Paris and Hong Kong have made similar gestures, and city switch-offs seem likely to spread. The organisers of Earth Hour are trying to make their initiative global next year, imagining a domino effect of darkness that will play out across the globe and be visible from space. Why are cities suddenly switching themselves off?

As a rough measure, a city’s energy level can be measured by its light level. Towns where people go home after work are dark and quiet, but urban streets come to life at night, as the working day gives way to something more interesting. One small irony is that this week of ‘Lights Out London’ is also the bicentenary of the first London street gas lamp, which allowed people to carry on life after dark 200 years ago (2).

City lights aren’t only there to ensure you don’t trip over or get mugged; they are a spectacle in themselves. Urban planners seem to be only just discovering the possibilities of innovative urban lighting. London’s South Bank is relatively dull by day, but is now a delight by night, with its rotating colour scheme for the buildings and all-year Christmas lights for the trees. Londoners now discover light artworks unexpectedly in an underpass or on the side of a building; Birmingham’s grey city centre has been transformed with a new coat of fluorescents.

Tomorrow night’s switch-off isn’t heralding a massive cut in energy consumption, and nobody is suggesting that we return to Blitz-like conditions and stop using lights on a regular basis. The practical effect of the event will be negligible – perhaps a 10 per cent reduction, for an hour, for one city, for one night.

The event is meant primarily as a symbol, to ‘raise awareness’ about the threat of climate change, and to show that together we can ‘make a difference’. London’s Tubes and streets are currently plastered with Greater London Authority (GLA) posters bearing statistics on exactly what kind of difference we can make together, if we all wash our clothes at 30 degrees or unplug our mobile phone chargers, for example, reducing carbon emissions by x and saving the economy y.

Switching off becomes the way that we can change things as individuals. The ads for Lights Out London picture smiling celebrities, their fingers poised over a light switch in what is becoming a contemporary act of radicalism. Switching off is also the way we are supposed to connect with others in a city, turning off the TV or the cooker while thousands of others do the same, or standing in crowds in front of darkened buildings.

Yet we also know that at 10pm tomorrow night, London will swing back into life. The Savoy and the South Bank will light up once more and we’ll carry on with our evening.

Lights Out London is a symbolic gesture from a high-speed culture that is deeply uncomfortable with itself. We have so much at the flick of a switch, yet we are uneasy about the idea of using energy, and a light bulb is becoming a symbol of angst rather than a bright idea. We in some respects seem to find darkness more meaningful than light, inaction more meaningful than action.

This is unusual, not merely in terms of modern industrial society but also in terms of humans throughout the ages. People have always been attracted to intense sources of energy and sought to harness their power. They looked to the sun, the stars and fire. They did not look to the black bits between the stars, or the ashes left at the end of the fire.

As for the vision of a united global blackout, this gets everything the wrong way around. It is the image of the globe with its spider’s webs of city lights that demonstrates people’s connections to one another. This shows that all across the world people are going places and doing things, together and on the same planet. Turn the lights out and the Earth just looks like a black ball in space.

It doesn’t matter whether urban neon is powered by wind, nuclear or solar power, but it is essential to a city’s spirit. If Londoners are not yet tired of life, they should keep the lights on.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network that is running an ongoing campaign against over-cautious child protection measures (see the Campaign Against Vetting). Email Josie {encode=”Josie.Appleton@manifestoclub.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton argued that the ‘global warming story’ owes more to the anxious zeitgeist than scientific findings. James Woudhuysen examined three new tracts on planning, energy and waste in Take a PEW, hear a sermon. James Heartfield objected to Seeing people as a plague on the planet and celebrated the human footprint. Or you can read more at spiked-issue Environment.

(1) Congratulations Sydney! Earth Hour 2007 results, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2007

(2) Lamplighters rekindle their old flames from 200 years ago, The Times, 18 June 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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