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.

What about Green Hypocrisy?


Artist info in the image. From

I’ve been spectating with mild amusement on the frustrations of fellow academics as they contend with end-of-semester grading—and their efforts to assuage themselves (through social media venting) of the troubling notion that their students have either ignored or misunderstood their every utterance for 16 weeks, or simply lack the basic literacy skills to demonstrate otherwise.  I am thus necessarily reminded of some (there were several) of my own existential troubles with my last teaching gig.  Because it was at a school with an environmentally-themed curriculum, environmental or green hypocrisy became a subject of discussion with irritating regularity.  But my experience of this was before we all became unwittingly subsumed in a media culture mired in gaslighting and whataboutism.  What is curious, in a way, is that there is a rich discussion of green hypocrisy in both print and online media circles, but it dates back a few years.  More recently we’ve faced these newer debates about the rhetorical tactics being used to deliberately derail both informed discussion and the infusion of expertise and research into political and cultural discourse.  The kinship between these ideas has enabled me to recognize in retrospect that what many students were really engaging in was a culturally driven resistance to the very staples of the curriculum they were being presented and the ethical premise of the institution they had all chosen to attend. They were pursuing an education and resisting it at the same time.


John Oliver from Last Week Tonight, November 12, 2017. Click image to watch on YouTube.

Now, let’s be clear: there’s never been any greater antenna for hypocrisy than the average American nineteen year old!  I have spent many hours wondering if the mood of my students was a reflection of simple teenage angst and a predisposition to smell conspiracy under every rock—a logical and necessary outcome of the profound experience of beginning to see the world rapidly expand towards its actual size.  Or was it the consequence of young people being challenged to think critically and for themselves, and, in effect, flexing some underdeveloped muscles in inconvenient directions? Or, worst of all possibilities, had the ubiquity of Fox News noise and the bilious nonsense that has spawned in the shade of that tree, Alex Jones and the like, actually succeeded in closing their minds before the maturation process and societal institutions designed to generate enlightenment could open them? Had the culture wars effectively derailed higher education and science by “sweeping the leg” that supported their credibility? I suppose the former sociology instructor would conclude that each of these was playing a role, but that the extent of influence of each could not be readily quantified.

Students were always frustrated that they would make contact through their courses with ideas and technologies that were not being implemented around them. They were learning basic precepts of sustainable development and being taught to question externalities and recognize different types of fiscal and social costs. And because this type of inquiry is increasingly important, the campus was growing to support heavier enrollment. But when trees were cut down to make way for dormitories, and technologies they had read about were not incorporated into the design, students howled. When Sodexo trucked in food to a dining hall that sat mere feet from fields and greenhouses maintained by the sustainable agriculture program, they decried waste and inefficiency. And like any public place that houses a population there are regulations and standards that require heat and light —giving rise to controversies between public safety, light pollution, and conservation, and because this campus was in central Maine it faced the unavoidable reality of routinely supplying heat to unoccupied spaces. The curriculum touted responsible management and removal of waste all the while the campus was limited by the services available to the village and county in which it was situated. You can imagine the indignity of students who fall asleep reading about sustainable energy and wake up to the oil delivery truck downshifting as it leaves the campus.  To my mind (and thus my class discussions) these realities provided the perfect crucible to assess the complications of sustainability—I saw beauty and complexity in such controversy and was frequently encouraged to realize that they had noticed disconnects between the actual and the ideal. But they leapt with characteristic abruptness from recognition to outrage, which often meant that the extenuating details fell away. Because once you are labelled a hypocrite, nothing else you have to say is of any use. Your membership card is revoked!


Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons

As noted above, this idea got some play a few years ago.  We can all remember the outrage stoked on the right over Al Gore’s air travel.  I remember environmental historians engaging in some collective introspection over the carbon footprint of an annual conference with international attendees and offering opportunities for members to offset their estimated travel impact.  And of course there were the obvious and predictable photos from the aftermath of the climate marches in Washington and New York, showing that these dim-witted, so-called environmentalists generate litter and refuse just like any other massive crowd of people—what a bunch of hypocrites!  We didn’t label this response as such at the time, but we can identify this, with the help of our current rhetorical context, as classic cases of whataboutism.  I suppose at the time it was neither cynical nor sinister enough to warrant a name. We were all so innocent then!

So it’s striking to me, as I begin this series, that I feel like I need to address this question and perhaps even justify my relationship to it. Am I just yielding to the cultural forces that would negate my credibility before I’ve even sought to establish it? If there is a mild comfort that comes from an interrogation of the past it is that what so often seems new and unprecedented, usually isn’t.  Questions as to the voracity of facts, the accuracy of measurement, the authenticity of ideas and the nature of truth and credibility have been part of the scientific enterprise from the beginning. When science became professionalized in the nineteenth century and then yoked by government for the solving of practical problems the stakes and the scrutiny of such questions were raised dramatically. When universities were still accessible only to the elite (even more so than now) public lecturing became a popular genre of entertainment, and because scientific societies would pay for an engaging lecture and there were no universal systems for credentialing experts, they needed to develop ways of preventing quacks and charlatans from delivering tall tales with oratorical style and questionable scientific substance.  Multi-layered systems of gate-keeping were gradually established that include, today, things like advanced degrees, peer review, and even the modern scientific method. Public lecturing and the rise of a networked press posed both opportunities and challenges to scientific inquiry in those days, just as the implementation of radio and television would bring new visitors to the gate and alter the approach to defending it. With the rapid and chaotic growth of the internet, quackery has breached the gate and run ragged upon the neatly manicured grounds. And if there’s a silver lining, it’s that such changes generally force us to reevaluate not just the gate itself but who is on either side, what are we’re protecting, and what are we protecting it from. Science is more than an accumulation of facts, it is the continuous rearranging of the very dynamics of inquiry—and that includes charges of hypocrisy, dissemination of apocrypha, and indictments of credibility, baseless or otherwise.

gbrownOne of the rhetorical traps wired into the discourse of sustainability is that by embracing wholes, we inevitably generate large narratives that can be weakened by attacking singular parts.  And that mode of argument is effective for those who have not adopted a similarly broad view. If you are steadfast in a hyperlocal, individual worldview, then any argument about climate change or sustainability is going to seem like nonsense. So it should come as no surprise that gaslighting and whataboutism have gained attention. Much like with my students, we have now as a society entered into the era of systematically missing the point—partly out of hostility towards it, partly out of indifference to it, and partly out of an inability to recognize it.

I noted in my previous post that I drive a pick-up truck. I hope to write about vehicle choices and driving habits in the weeks ahead. Hypocrite? Sure, I guess. I would argue that another term for green hypocrisy is reality. Part of the point here is that we can’t always make the most sustainable decisions and choices because they are unaffordable, impractical, or unavailable–but the very complexity of these kinds of evaluations and the fact that they engage us financially, ethically, socially and politically is what sustainability is, or at least should be, all about. To sniff around for things to label as hypocrisy is to attempt to quell discourse before it happens and ignore a rich and intriguing set of dynamics in our relationships. The truth of it is: I knowingly and deliberately consume more fossil fuel in transportation than I need to. And if you believe that that disqualifies me from writing about sustainability, I suspect you stopped reading a long time ago anyway! For the rest of you, tune in next week because the only logical topic to take up next is dog shit!

Introduction: Why Me? Why Now?

Not long ago a friend and former colleague posted a query to a popular social media platform in which she looked for recommendations for written collections about sustainability. And perhaps I was grafting my own notions and designs onto hers, but I felt what she was after was not works by economists pitching philosophies of the marketplace, engineers touting emerging technologies, or environmental scientists bing-bonging between hope and despair as they do. Instead, what she was looking for was individuals writing about the experience of living sustainably, or at least making their best efforts to do so. I checked back to her post a few days later—since we had both been teachers at a place that styled itself as “America’s Environmental College,” I figured if neither she, nor I, nor her network of friends could render a list or even think of an example, then it might be fair to conclude that no such literature existed. Or at least that it was not widely known. When there were no titles offered, it occurred to me to suggest that she should write one! But while swimming in the social media angst I tread through before each input, my finger teetering over the “post comment” button, I thought, “screw that…I should write one!”


Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Creative Commons image.


So here I am. Perhaps it’s little more than karmic retribution for late night scoffing at student papers that quoted Thoreau or Whitman without really knowing what they were talking about. Or maybe for continually asking those same students to define “sustainability” when I had no confidence that I could adequately do so myself. But there’s more than cosmic happenstance here. I’m a historian who researches and writes about resource issues of the past. I’m taken with the ways in which populations have sought to grapple with the ethics of consumption in their own times—to say nothing of what we, as observers, should conclude from our observations of them. But I’m also a single guy, with only one canine, non-deductible, dependent. I’m a freelancer and thus not rooted, financially or professionally, to a place. I can make changes in my life and lifestyle without creating consequences that impact others. I own no home, no land, no investment vehicles. A few years ago I became a locavore vegetarian—mostly just to see if it was possible to live at 44 degrees of latitude entirely on the wares of February farmers’ markets (it is if you can develop a sense of humor and some creativity with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes). I’ve since moved on to experimenting with veganism—less as an ethical assertion and more as a logistical curiosity. I recycle in a place that has a barely lukewarm commitment to it. I stockpile things that I think should be recyclable when I don’t know how to actually recycle them. I upcycle and buy used things when I don’t necessarily need to. I compost but without a well-defined endgame. I set out to clean and wind up Googling the ingredients of cleaning products instead. I use imagepublic transportation when I don’t need to. I drive a fuel-inefficient vehicle as little as possible. I grumble when my dog, Asa, sniffs at the ankle-high, sidewalk-side pesticide application signs. I ridicule national brands and chains, but applaud when they support local non-profits and community betterment projects. I wear sweaters and hide under blankets so I can keep the heat down, even though it’s included in my rent. I watch documentaries in the “social and political” category on Netflix. I follow more farms, farmers’ markets and food security organizations than actual people on social media. I read food blogs. And I think a lot about how the people who know things can productively share them without alienating the people who need to.


Retired (and broken) ski boots. Recyclable? Must be, right?

I guess in short I make an effort to factor the earth into my daily decision making. And in the process of so doing, I recognize that my personal situation makes me sometimes more able and sometimes less able to be and behave as responsibly as I might like. So I think of myself less as a person who lives sustainably and more as a person who tries to live thoughtfully in the age of sustainability—recognizing that the term itself will become politically tarnished and be jettisoned in favor of something more promising long before most of us have fully come to terms with what it means. The scrap heap of environmental terms suffering semantic obsolescence is grand—but fortunately language is nothing if not recyclable!

There will be occasion in later posts for a deeper discussion of the philosophy of sustainability and the various strengths and weaknesses it embraces as an academic discipline, a set of ethical criteria, a benchmark or means of measuring ecological health, or a marketing slogan seeking to sell us on a more responsible outlook on and orientation to the world around us. There will be time for getting into the three circles, four dimensions, seven modalities, and what they mean for the future of partridges, pear trees, and how many bottom lines we need to consider. The hope for sustainability and sustainable development is a good one. It acknowledges that past ecological agendas have not sufficiently accounted for economic and social factors and that efforts to create economic growth have come at costs that not only cannot be overlooked but should cause us to reevaluate the actual profitability of projects and investments. It reminds us that not all value is strictly quantifiable—and if we can’t count it, it is that much more important that we describe it! It creates space for perspectives that have not always found sufficient audience. But it may also convince us that we can know things we can’t—and from that hubris may flow efforts to control the uncontrollable, count the uncountable, and attempt to regulate outcomes based on the kinds of oversimplified cause and effect relationships that politicians and governments crave.

In the days ahead I will use this page to explore ideas about how we live in relation to the resources, open spaces, built environments, jobs, businesses, products, communities, cultural messages, ethics, government initiatives, and educational programs that define who we are and how we interact with one another. If sustainability seems to retreat from the center of the story at times, that’s exactly as it should be! One possible explanation for why there is a limited literature of personal reflections on sustainable living is that it’s fucking boring! If we want people to do something or take some interest in making different life choices, it’s incumbent upon the thinkers and writers who advocate for that to make their audience care. I had a professor in grad school who would punctuate discussions with a long sigh, then lean back in his chair, stroke his beard, and say, “so what’s the news?” I won’t quote him directly because I’m quite sure he was quoting some professor he had in grad school, too—in fact he said as much. But the point was, “so what?” Why do we care about this? What are we learning today as a result of a reassessment of this particular past? What do we gain from telling this story in this way? Both as an historian and as a writer I reject the notion that we make things more interesting by making them simpler. I have enough scientific literacy to recognize that the slope of a curve tells us something important, but it doesn’t tell us a story. And regardless of how our media and popular culture reshape our consumption of them, stories are still what motivate us and shape our outlook on the human experience. As long as rich detail and complexity of plot, setting, and character makes for a good story, we should, as readers, cultivate an appetite for similar attributes in our public discourse about living sustainably. I can only hope that readers will both engage with these stories and write their own.