Choosing Dark: A Month Without Lights


February 17. First night.

For the last three weeks I have been sitting in the dark. I don’t mean metaphorically, although some would say. I mean I am actually eschewing the use of lights.

While I have been engaging in similar sorts of lifestyle experiments for years, I will admit that some portion of the idea came from reading and watching No Impact Man. When I was teaching environmental studies my students would often refer to this book, by which I mean they were actually referring to the film assuming it was the same as the book and they were only doing it to suspend attention to the fact that they hadn’t done the readings of Malthus, Emerson, Marsh, Stegner, and Muir that they’d been assigned. And when they discovered that I was not familiar they would attempt to keep the conversation in that space for as long as possible. When I began trolling through literature and media that might help inform this blog project, I came upon Colin Beavan’s work and decided to get into it. I didn’t actually care for the film that much—it seemed too preoccupied with other people’s reactions to the project, whether his wife Michelle (who was inconveniently a far more compelling camera presence than Colin) or the media and media-consuming public. The film offered little room for the kind of reflection and introspection that I felt animated the book in positive ways. Like anything else we can often find whatever messages we go looking for, but I felt that one of the more powerful ideas Beavan proclaimed was not that we need to be vegan, or Luddite, or go off grid. It was that we need to consider our lifestyles as individuals, households, families, and communities and be always critical in interrogating our choices. What we find in so doing is that things that we just accept as normal actually are choices!  There are things we have because we think we’re supposed to, things we eat because we do, and things we do because we always have. Beavan would say and I would agree that that’s not necessarily living thoughtfully. Therefore to engage in the kind of experiment that became No Impact Man (or other documentaries like Supersize Me, Vegucated, or the recent Oscar winner, Icarus) or the ones I’m pursuing with Sustaining Abilities forces us to consider the nature of our own existence and the sets of relationships that we maintain with the wider world.

Beavan’s experiment in sustainability developed in phases, enabling he and his family to inspect different aspects of their lives at different times… and in different chapters. In one of the phases they actually disconnect their electricity altogether. The refrigerator and stove, not to mention, modem, router, and well-charged laptop are pretty central to my existence so that wasn’t really going to work.  As I’ll talk about in another post, I’m also well along in another life experiment with veganism. The only thing I’ll say about that here is that for all the various benefits to my own health and climate impact that come with non-animal-based food products, in my particular community it does lead to having to cook for yourself far more frequently. So whereas I once garnered 3-7 meals per week from eating out or eating take-out, I now cook more, and use more electricity to do it!  I also try to eat local, which in January and February in Maine usually means a lot of roasted root vegetables. I’ve also begun making my own bread. Both of these mean I use the oven more than I have in the past. So like all good sustainability questions you find yourself making positive steps in one area while seeming to lose ground in another. This is part of what I was trying to get at in my last post on green hypocrisy. It’s part of what Beavan discovered as well—people all too eager to point out that you’re actually doing more harm than good…”you self-righteous twat” being the common subtext to such observations.

So while I’ll be looking with a bit more interest at my next electric bill to see if my experiment without lights had any noticeable impact on my usage and costs, I’m also aware that some of the other changes I’ve been making in my lifestyle may have more than absorbed any savings in energy use.  I’m well aware that a light bulb, particularly a modern LED bulb, is a comparatively modest user of electricity compared to other household appliances. Also, compared to larger households my primary energy users are the ones already mentioned. I don’t have a dishwasher. I don’t have a washer or dryer. I don’t have a TV. And my stereo is sitting in a corner while I decide whether to sell it for a few bucks to an enthusiast of old stereo equipment or just unload it to the Goodwill.  Other than that the only things that get plugged in in this joint are lamps and kitchen stuff like the slow cooker, blender, and coffee maker—any one of which you’d have to fight me for!

So, just a few of the things I’ve learned from sitting in the dark:

  1. We don’t need much light to see. We all know that our eyes adjust. But it’s interesting to put yourself deliberately into a situation to appreciate just how well they adjust! You find yourself paying more attention to your surroundings, and it’s absolutely true that your other senses compensate. You also quickly realize just how much light a laptop screen generates!
  2. We routinely light unoccupied spaces. You quickly recognize how many lights you’ve typically kept on for no earthly reason. The light over my kitchen sink was pretty much always on if it was dark out. I would even leave it on for my dog when I went out. Did I really think a dog needed a night light? I was not on the level of having a light on in every room, but it wouldn’t be unusual to have the kitchen light, a bedside lamp, and another lamp beside me in the living room—lighting three rooms when I was only in one of them!
  3. We use lights when we don’t need light. I have found myself slipping up and flicking on lights—but more during the daytime than at night. I’ll walk into the bathroom and flip the light on even though there is more than enough natural light available to see. So we (or I—I won’t presume to speak for everyone) use lights because they’re there, not necessarily because we need light. What other things are we using more out of habit than necessity?
  4. Darkness facilitates organization. Some things do require light. I have had to reorganize my days so that cooking, in particular, takes place when natural light is available. So I did restructure my meal times a bit—which may falsely imply that they were structured at all before. I go to bed earlier and I get up earlier. The availability of unlimited light enables us to completely separate ourselves from the natural cycles of day and night.
  5. I spend more time in public spaces. Winter in Maine is a hell of a time to try something like this! So when nighttime starts at 4:30 or 5:00 I would find myself more inclined to seek out a coffee shop or do some work at the library. I have no illusions of igniting a new Enlightenment (so to speak) or anything, but I am a believer that spending time in public spaces, even if in solitary pursuits, helps build community.
  6. Darkness makes it easier to END your day. I don’t know if I would call myself a workaholic but I have absolutely been ensnared by that cheeky cultural myth that tells us we are not productive enough. And some of us are sufficiently addled to believe that we will escape that by moving away from a 9 to 5 existence (incidentally, when will we get to actually admit that it’s much more like 7 to 6? I mean do we really need a song?) Truth is, it gets worse with unconventional jobs and undefined hours—which we’re supposed to spin positively by calling “flexible.” However we want to think about it, I, for one, have generally gone to bed when I could no longer hold my head up but taken books, ungraded papers, and/or my laptop with me. I would estimate that I have fallen asleep with at least one light on and the trappings of my professional life in close proximity to my face on the majority of the nights of my adult life. Without getting into the laundry list of ways in which that is unhealthy, and sticking to the topic at hand, I have routinely left lights on that didn’t need to be.

I did a bit of reading before beginning this little enterprise. It quickly provided a reminder of why people get so frustrated with sustainability questions—and why, I could only imagine, people seemed to have such a visceral reaction to Colin Beavan. Because I think a lot about food I couldn’t help likening it to Michael Pollan’s description of the Omnivore’s Dilemma—not the book, the actual dilemma it describes. Abundance, choice, and privilege have become problematic in ways that I think far transcend food. Pollan believes that food marketing, manipulation, diet culture, and food science have all contributed to an environment in which healthy eating is nigh impossible. Coffee, red wine, and chocolate, in particular, swing on a continual pendulum between potentially deadly and wonder drug status—a deliberately constructed state of bewilderment designed to make us all eschew our own choices and eat what we’re told to eat. Why would we think that anything but the same kind of proven strategy would be animating the energy sector? We’re not supposed to understand how grids work, how OPEC works, how gas prices get determined, or even what the meter on the side of the house is actually metering. As long as it all stays within some highly adjustable threshold of affordability we don’t ask too many questions because we don’t have the available RAM to process the complex answers. Because it turns out that solar panels are made with toxic chemicals and wind turbines are ugly and kill birds they can be grouped right in with fossil fuels as having their pros and cons. And as long everything has pros and cons we can be content with our own choices, habits, and behaviors.

Likewise, my experiment explored some alternatives. I began by picking up some candles at the Goodwill store and dusting off one of my oil lamps. So naturally I got into reading about the merits of lighting by open flame and the inevitable comparisons of relative impact. It turns out that the flame of my candle emits carbon dioxide. Oh no! Can’t win! However, on closer inspection it appears that a candle will emit about .044 pounds of carbon dioxide every two hours. I probably keep one burning for two to four hours a night—let’s say four for the sake of argument. So that would be .088 pounds coming off my candle. Grist found that from an emissions perspective, powering a light bulb by electricity generated from natural gas would be almost identical, and coal significantly more. My electric, to my knowledge, comes from hydro power, so who knows? For some context though, a person exhales, on average, 2.3 pounds of carbon dioxide in a day, or .38 pounds in the same four hour period that my candle is burning, which means that I could burn four and a half candles and still not create the same emissions that I create by having another person in the room (and we thought companionship was healthy!). This is part of why our impulse to quantify everything drives me up the wall! Still, there are some valid considerations about burning candles, and some rational warnings about paraffin candles, and the fumes associated with certain types of lamp oils. In order to make such comparisons, though, we need to assume equivalence in one criteria in order to support a comparison of another—in this case a duration of time or a quantity of light. But this assumes that we will use the light for the same things and engage in the same behaviors. That assumption just doesn’t work. I didn’t replace electrical light with the equivalent amount of candle light of maintain the same duration of illumination. The switch brought about a wholesale change in my lifestyle and behaviors—making such comparisons at best anecdotal. People always tell new vegetarians that they’re not going to get enough protein. Well how much protein do you need and are there other places to get it? How much light do you need?

My electric bill, even with the recent rate spike that was imposed, rarely exceeded $16 or $17 a month, and that was in the winter. So I don’t anticipate a dramatic financial reward for my altered behavior. The impact emissions-wise is negligible. Am I healthier sleeping in a darkened room? Prevailing wisdom seems to indicate that I am. Am I a bit more deliberate, self-aware, active, social, organized, and productive? I’m still programmed to doubt the last one, but otherwise probably. Are any of these things really quantifiable? No.

There’s been a big push to introduce sustainability as a science. I can remember being a part of discussions that sought to define sustainability science so that we could coherently build a curriculum around it. However, it’s in the humanities that we synthesize ideas and then hold them up against questions of experience and existence. It’s in the humanities that we not only tolerate but embrace the questions that have no immediate or easy answers—where we let ambiguity and abstraction reign. It often seemed to me that what scientists sought to challenge themselves to become was what the humanities had been all along! Impressive though it may be that we’ve agreed to acknowledge a third bottom line and invited social or cultural issues (duh!) into the models we use to balance ecology and economy, I’m just one doofus sitting in the dark but it seems to me there’s far more than three, they aren’t lines, and to imply a “bottom” implies an end point that doesn’t exist. If we are going to seek changes in behavior and lifestyle in the name of sustainability, it can’t be just a science. It should promote observation, analysis, the gathering of data, and careful experimentation, but it should also be an ethic, an ethos, a civic duty. We need to be able to recognize choices even when they don’t appear to exist or are made on our behalf and deliberately engage in the entirely human endeavor of making different ones just to see what happens. As Beavan discovered and as I can concur, doing so challenges and empowers you to see yourself and the world from new perspectives and reap benefits you hadn’t anticipated.

Saturday will be one month in the dark. Haven’t yet decided whether to continue on from there, though Daylight Savings has made evenings much easier. I can imagine that staying dark would only enhance the appreciation of the seasons that has come from being an experimental locavore.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Dark: A Month Without Lights

  1. Pingback: University, One, World – Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

  2. Pingback: It’ll Come Out in the Wash | Unguided

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