The Moth in Me (and in Steve)

NEUWERK #10 - Magazin für Designwissenschaften: BLACKOUT
Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle

- 2024

©Neuwerk Magazin. Photo: Maja Nacke, Laura Schnieber, Lesya Kuranova

A moth dances in frantic, illuminated chaos around a streetlamp. As its spiralling flightpath winds tighter and higher, the moth inches ever closer to the source of the light – the lamp’s radiant core. Then suddenly, collision. The moth strikes the light bulb’s outer glass casing with such force and uncontrollable determination that the little moth is at once ejected from the lamp’s orbit and then cast immediately upwards, out into the abyss of night.

But only temporarily.

Unperturbed, and as if locked in a magnetic trance, the moth begins its reapproach by training its wings downward at the lamp and entering a steep dive toward its target – a navigational tactic used by moths so that they can locate the tasty nectar of night-blossoming plants. Confused, blinded, and yet unable to find an exit on the dancefloor, the moth thus embarks upon a frenzied marathon of relentless take-offs and head-on collisions. This cycle will continue for many hours and perhaps even into the morning – that is, if the moth can avoid being swallowed whole by one of the many predators circling in the darkness, such as larger insects or bats, no doubt drawn out of the night by the fantastic advertisement made by this spot-lit carrousel of ready-to-eat meals.

As the sun’s presence appears faintly over the tops of apartment blocks nearby, and as sparrows begin darting hurriedly between their concealed bush cities bordering the footpaths below, the Agrotis moth grows tired. After its night of intense aerial manoeuvres and repeated concussions, the moth is simply unable to fly any longer. The party is well and truly over. Exhausted, it eventually flutters to the ground and, joining many a fallen comrade on the concrete, dies having achieved none of its nightly goals. No food. No sex. Just a whole lot of incandescent light.

Now, were this manner of behaviour to be observed not in an insect but instead in a human being, we might conclude that the poor bastard has a compulsion – no, an addiction – to light:

“We’re really concerned about you, Steve. You can’t keep running around like this… constantly shitfaced on artificial light night after night like you’re still in your 20s. It’s not healthy. But we’re gonna get you some help, ok? Don’t you worry! You can beat this.”

Moths have been characterised in this way for as long as humans have been around to spectate on the phenomenon of them flying excitedly toward bright and shiny things. On the one hand, we have a somewhat romantic interpretation of the relationship between moths and light as being about desire. Yet, on the other hand, we perceive this same relationship as being about the moths’ uncontrolled impulsiveness. For example, although this is quite tragic, and we may feel some degree of sympathy for moths as they persistently die at the foot of the city’s streetlamps each summer, we also speculate that the fault may lie, nonetheless, with moths themselves. We suspect that this nightly performance is the result of an evolutionary disadvantage that moths must overcome if they are to coinhabit the terraformed landscapes of us enlightened humans:

“I mean, seriously, moths... adapt! What’s taking you so long? Can’t you see that we need streetlamps for our modern way of life? We can’t simply go around in the darkness like… well, like animals. Streetlamps are here to stay – for productivity and for our safety. For the safety of women! Yes, for women’s safety. So, moths, I’m terribly sorry but you’d better just deal with this light thing and get used to it. Upgrade or get lost.”

Moths mistake the hypnotic glow of streetlamps for the light of the moon itself. Like many other nocturnal insects, moths use the light of the stars and the moon as navigational tools to find nectar-producing plants to feed upon or fellow moths to mate with. They simply keep a fixed bearing, with their wings trained at a constant angle relative to the moon, and then fly out into the darkness until their desires are met. That is… unless a source of light more enticing than the moon comes into view. And it is here that moths suffer the greatest casualties. The enormous sucking capacity of streetlamps is simply too strong for the moths’ delicate willpower, who are so easily seduced by bright and twinkling things. Night after night during summer months, after the moths have emerged from their winter cocoons and begun their brief careers of feasting, flying, and fucking, the streetlamps abruptly cut short whatever raunchy, nightly delights the moths might be in the process of enjoying.

Yet, despite this, rarely do humans advocate for much unity with moths or, for that matter, show a great deal of empathy for their ephemeral existence in this dazzling age of lightbulbs, LEDs, and strobe lighting, especially as they flit and hurry from the blackness of night toward the tempting lights inside our homes. More often, in fact, they appear to us as a kind of mild burden, like ants infiltrating a picnic:

“Silly things. They discard their little lives so readily… throwing caution to the wind to fly so aimlessly and to dance so daintily around pretty lights of all shapes and sizes. Look at them, doing pirouettes in the air and falling over themselves just to be in the spotlight. And what for, heh? Poor little buggers. Whatever do they see in light, anyway? Don’t they understand it’s all for nought?”

In such instances, we also thoughtlessly anthropomorphise moths by emphasising that their love for light is shamefully unrequited. For it is certainly true that lightbulbs still lack the emotional depths required to reciprocate the enthusiastic affection of moths (much to the chagrin, we fantasize, of the horny little moths craving a little midnight lightbulb action). This, we conclude, is the moths’ ultimate weakness as a species: they’re desperate! And in this way, we rather pity moths. But it is not because they die that we pity them. We pity moths because their love for light is fruitless and therefore their attempts at courtship are pathetic:

“Urghhh, losers! They can’t even hook up with a lightbulb. How embarrassing, am I right? They should go back to hitting on the moon or whatever. Maybe they’d have more luck”

Perhaps it is only in this respect that we begin to feel a modicum of comradery with moths, as most people can recall the terrifying vulnerability that comes with professing unconditional love for someone just as vividly as they can recall the consequent anguish and emotional torment of not having it returned. Conversely, the experience of flight-till-death around a streetlamp on a mid-summer’s night is somewhat harder for us wingless beings to empathise with.

But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Though wings we surely lack, humans do have an affinity for light. We have demonstrated this not only through the mass industrialisation and commercialisation of artificial light over the last hundred and fifty years or so, but indeed throughout our collective development as a species. Humans have repeatedly tried to create tools that extend and simulate the illumination of day, often with little to no consideration for what the repercussions will be further down the line. It is not without irony, therefore, that we pity moths for what we perceive as their shallow attraction to light (as if this impulse were somehow a choice). This characterisation is so embarrassingly misguided as to seem ignorant. For it is we, after all, who have erected streetlamps in cities across the globe, these cheap beacons that so craftily distract moths from their nightly missions, and have forced artificial light on the night with such rigor and determination that ecosystems are breaking down before our eyes.

It is we who are shitfaced on light, despite the many warning signs issued from the biosphere, shouting loudly for all those who wish to receive the message, “please humans, just stop”.

How much longer, then, can we afford to gaze with ambivalence at the experience of moths and feign that we are not afflicted by the same ailment, the same impulsive weakness towards light? As producers of artificial light and as gatekeepers of darkness, we may feel that we hold the keys to our future by mastering the technology necessary to restore the ecologies dependent on darkness, which are currently teetering on the precipice of collapse. And yet it is moths who are leading the way forward, not us.

That’s right… moths have been preparing for an evolutionary glow-up!

It’s hot moth summer, babes.

Recent studies conducted in several European cities show, remarkably, that urban moths are adapting their behaviour to changing light conditions within the urban landscape. Moths are indeed upgrading to meet the demands of the market. This raises the question of what exactly our role is in all this. But not as contributors to the problem, of that there is no doubt. At stake here is our ability to lead the way forward, up and out of this shitstorm. A shitstorm bolstered dialectically by claims to unending productivity and, when all other arguments fail, the safety of women in the city at night.

Framed differently, what can our role be now?

Perhaps the most significant challenge of our time is how to deal with the ugly products of the past centuries: industrialisation, monoculture, colonialism, genocide, urbanisation, global capitalism, nuclear waste, climate change, and so on. Our efforts to reduce, clean, mitigate, forestall, and slow down the symptoms of these destructive processes are therefore entirely at odds with the values and ambitions of the societies that came before us. Such is the cultural debt bestowed upon living humans today. We are gifted with the responsibility to reverse, reconcile, reclaim, restitute, and remember.

Harder still to accept is that, in many ways, the nature of moths and humans run counter to one another. Each operates at an opposite pole of the Earth’s rotation. Each requires a delicate cocktail of light and temperature in order to be most successful. If we want to reconcile our differences, both moths and humans must therefore drastically adapt their hardware to current conditions. Have we waged war on moths by condemning their nocturnal existence to brightness? If so, moths surely have the upper hand. Moths are adapting their behaviour to artificial light, while we are as weak and exposed after sunset as we have ever been. “After thousands of years,” wrote Annie Dillard, “we’re still strangers to darkness, fearful aliens in an enemy camp, with arms crossed over our chests.” (Hunt, 264)

Moths have taken one step closer to our diurnal experience. What will be our next evolutionary move, I wonder?

A lasting symbiosis between moths and humans in the cities of the future will require us to re-evaluate our relationship with the darkness, just as moths are changing their relationship to artificial light. We must reclaim our wildness. Yet, for humans to embrace darkness is to act against our inner mechanisms. So far in evolutionary history, our survival has been shaped by our ability to hunt during the day and, conversely, to avoid being eaten at night. For it is at night that we lose our greatest gift – our astonishingly accurate eyesight – and become prey to animals whose vision improves tenfold in the dark. It is here in our evolutionary journey that the binary opposites of day and night, predator and prey, safe and unsafe, seen and unseen, became firmly imprinted upon us. And it is these same instincts that we must now confront if we are to continue to survive once all the lights go out.

The sombre fate of moths around streetlamps in our cities night after night should be a wake-up call to humans. We must act to defend our dusty moth brothers and sisters. Our eyes are now open to their plight as well as to our own. Surely, we can no longer condemn moths to death in all-night aerial raves around streetlamps. Our immense human capacity for care must be extended to them. The survival of moths, and therefore of ourselves as a species, depends on the vital role they play as nocturnal pollinators, and on our ability to rethink our relationship not only with light but also with darkness.

If not, we will continue to dance blindly toward a future rife with the violent consequences of our excesses.

That future will surely be bright, but at what cost?


Hunt, Will ‘Underground – A Human History of the World Beneath our Feet’, 2018


Bogard, Paul ‘The End of Night – Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light’, 2013

Bruchac, Joseph and Michael J. Caduto, ‘Keepers of the Night’, 1994

Crary, Jonathan ‘24/7’, 2013

Eklöf, Johan ‘The Darkness Manifesto – How Light Pollution Threatens the Ancient Rhythms of Life’, 2022

Gandy, Matthew ‘Moth’, 2016

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang ‘Disenchanted Night’, 1983

Tuttle, Merlin ‘The Secret Lives of Bats – My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals’, 2018