Violent (De)Lights

ReImagine Your City Magazine:
ReThinking Urban Paradigms

- 2023

Speak with anyone who is even mildly concerned with light pollution and you will likely hear the term ‘vacuum cleaner effect’ used to illustrate the stark, ecological consequences of applying too much light, too frequently, into the night. The vacuum cleaner effect describes the bizarre behavioural reaction of moths in the presence of the countless street lamps we use to illuminate our ‘humanly’ spaces. The problem we are now facing, since the industrialisation of light some 150 years ago, is that the spaces we designate suitable to settle in and terraform must also be shared with a host of flying, crawling, mating, and pollinating beings that, it turns out, prefer to conduct business under the protection of night.

Just as a vacuum cleaner sucks up dust particles from a carpet, so do street lamps extract nocturnal creatures from the darkness. In doing so, the same structures we erect in order to secure human safety and productivity during hours of insufficient natural light have exactly the opposite effect on the majority of wildlife. In the case of migratory birds, for example, they are frequently drawn off course when the dazzling lights of the city are mistaken for the shimmering reflection of the moon on lake or river water. Under normal conditions, these patterns of light would indicate to such species the sites of ancient nesting grounds. Modern cityscapes, however, and much to the confusion of birds, present far too many opportunities for misdirection. Trusting their instincts, but mislead by human intervention in the landscape, birds all too often collide directly with brightly-lit skyscrapers at high speed and cruising altitude. If collision can be avoided, birds sometimes then fly in circles around skyscrapers until morning, thereby losing much-needed energy for the remaining, cross-country journey.

For moths, however, the hypnotic glow of street lamps is mistaken for the light of the moon itself. Moths require at least several hours of continuous darkness in order to be active at night. Like many other nocturnal insects, they then use the light of the stars and moon as navigational tools to find nectar-producing plants to feed upon or fellow moths to mate with. Moths simply keep a fixed bearing, with their wings trained at a constant angle relative to the moon, and fly out into the darkness until their desires are met. That is unless something more enticing than the moon comes into view.

Enter light pollution.

Here, moths suffer the greatest casualties. The enormous sucking capacity of street lamps is simply too strong for the delicate willpower of moths, who are so easily seduced by bright and twinkling things. Night after night in summer months, after moths have awoken from their wintery cocoons and begun fleeting careers of feasting, flying, and fucking, street lamps abruptly cut short whatever raunchy, nightly delights moths might be in the process of enjoying.

How rude! How unproductive and anti-capitalist!

But hey, no biggie, right? Surely it doesn’t matter too much if a few dusty moths, here and there, become distracted from nibbling those annoying little holes in our most expensive garms or reaping havoc inside the kitchen pantry. They actually do have a taste for the finer things, you know - wool, fur, silk, feathers, felt, and leather. Well, it turns out that, yes, it is quite a biggie after all. Remember those shady businesses conducted by moths at night? This collective activity amounts to no less than half of the insect driving force behind the functioning ecosystems we, as a species, inherently depend upon.

Street lamps are therefore positioned in direct conflict with the biosphere. And, believe you me, they do a fantastic job of screwing up the immensely complicated infrastructure of plant networks we rely on for our food, maintained by an undercover insect workforce that operates both day and night. Yet, the magnitude of this conflict and its wider consequences are only now becoming clear.

To us, at least.

As early as 2012, reports began circulating in the news that farmers in rural China, in the Sichuan province, had resorted to hand-pollinating the cherry blossoms of apple and pear trees in their mammoth-sized, grossly-cultivated orchards. Photographs depicting thousands of workers climbing trees, equipped with self-made, pollinating brushes attached to sticks, universally shocked and abounded. But why, you may ask, would such a drastic and dystopian measure even be necessary? Isn’t the job of plant pollination already taken care of, pro bono, by, like, nature and stuff? Well, it certainly has been the involuntary task of nature and stuff up until, give or take, the last 50 years. However, as a result of reckless agricultural practices (such as the use of harmful pesticides) as well as our increasingly wild and excessive application of artificial light to the darkness, humans have, for want of a better term, changed the playing field altogether for pollinators. In the wake of all this mismanaged agricultural calamity, nature and stuff are adapting as best they can just to stay in the game.

Bees, wasps, moths, flies, and many other invertebrate pollinators (around 20,000 species worldwide) play an integral role in land-based ecosystems by unwittingly cross-pollinating their food at the dinner table. This happens while insects indulge in all-you-can-eat buffets of the sweet, nutrient-rich nectar that is produced by flowering plants wishing to share their pollen. However, with two out of five said species already on the path toward extinction by the time of the Sichuan drama (UN Report, 2012), both ravenous, pollinating insects and bountiful, nectar-rich plant buffets are in equal and critically short supply. A recent study conducted by Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health concluded that the global loss of pollinators is already causing around half a million early human deaths a year due to the reduced supply of healthy foods it has generated (Guardian, 2023).

Faced with the bleak consequences of ecological decline, humans must, for now at least, continue to embark on clunky and utterly inefficient cultivating processes to mimic the maintenance work once fulfilled by far-better-qualified insects. It is estimated that a good yield for an individual farm worker taking up this task is ten artificially pollinated trees per day (Eklöf, 2022). If you compare this to the work of a small colony of bees that is capable of pollinating 100 times this amount, you begin to see the problem. Or, depending on your perspective, a marketable solution to recent lay-offs at Tinder and Bumble (Reuters, 2023). Why not put these digital match-makers to better use in the orchards of Sichuan province? Their delicate, techy fingers are perfectly suited to tickling floral reproductive organs.

Surprisingly, it is only within the last decade or so that scientific researchers concerned specifically with biodiversity loss in farmlands in the UK and Germany have made the vital connection between moth decline and low plant regeneration. Whereas the most pervasive causes of crop shrinkage were previously considered to be urbanism, monoculture, and the use of pesticides, the evidence now strongly suggests that light pollution plays a more than significant role. One recent study from the UK in 2021 compared the number of insect individuals found in bright versus dark control sites in rural Oxfordshire. The study found a reduction of nearly 50% in caterpillars collected close to large LED street lamps, compared with searches made farther afield in the darkness. It is the strongest evidence yet to support claims that light pollution directly and detrimentally impacts local insect populations (BBC, 2021).

In Germany, it was in 2017 that alarm bells first rang in the national press to signal a worrying decline in insect numbers across the country. This came after a ground-breaking study published in Open Access by Entomoligischer Verein Krefeld found that the number of flying insects in parts of Germany had fallen by more than 75% in just four years (Tagespeigel, 2018). The study was conducted in over sixty different nature reserves, where insects were captured, identified, and then weighed. Although the methods of this study have since fallen under scientific scrutiny, one conclusion is abundantly clear: insects (and humans) are in trouble. Their numbers are indeed shrinking. In the fallout of the study, news reports of an insect Armageddon captured the attention of the general public.

Another study, conducted by the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in 2016, set out to discover which specific lighting conditions provoked the greatest behavioural changes in moths. The study found that moths are most attracted to the light on the borders of dark zones, where they are presented with less competition for distracting light sources and will simply fly toward the brightest, most-illuminated thing (IGB, 2016). Having recorded the behaviour of moths in a control site in Westhavelland Nature Park for a period of over two years, this study generated immeasurably valuable data showing precisely how much light, at which colour temperature, and within which radius moths are most likely to change their flight paths to navigate toward artificial light in their environment. In doing so, the researchers aim to inform urban planners on how to best distribute street lamps in cities in the future in order to reduce the impact upon moths.

- Shitfaced on Light

The ill-fated relationship between moths and light can be traced to almost every language and culture, from the earliest use of fire to the recent (considering the age of the Earth) and near-global application of artificial light in cities (Gandy, 2016). In Paiute culture, for example, one traditional story tells of Moth, the fire dancer, whose flirtation with the campfire, night after night, finally exceeds his otherwise masterful and mesmerising skills on the dancefloor. Although cautioned many times by his father not to dance too close to the flames, Moth’s desire finally proves too great. Assumed to have perished, engulfed in flame, Moth is mourned by the Paiute people who sit around the campfire. The loss of his enigmatic nightly performances that had once so entertained them was felt deeply. The story concludes, however, with Moth’s return through spiritual reincarnation. His wings, once black, become saturated in luminous red and orange, as if painted by the very flames that had once burned him (Caduto + Bruchac, 1994). Tales such as this engender the symbolism of moths as not only mystical but, importantly, transformative beings.

It is certainly no news that moths are attracted to light, whether it be the shimmering reflection of the moon on a droplet of water, the embers of a once-roaring campfire, or the electric radiation of modern LEDs. But by far the most dramatic change brought upon moths by the industrialisation of light over the past century and a half is simply the scale of this relationship (and its repercussions). Take, for example, the transformation of the circa 352 km2 stretch of land in the rocky basin of the Mojave Desert we know as Las Vegas - the entertainment capital of the world. Although founded in 1905, it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that Las Vegas saw its first illuminated casino signs go up. Yet, in less than the average human lifetime, this city has undergone quite the makeover – and not the good kind. Needless to say, before Las Vegas was even an idea in someone’s head, this area would have been as dark as any other part of the Mojave Desert after the sun retreated over the horizon. Today, it is the single brightest point on Earth at night, as observed in countless satellite photographs and measured by cameras aboard the ISS.

This is due, in no small part, to the addition of a single element on the Las Vegas skyline that is visible on land from 40km away. At the south end of the Las Vegas strip, sitting atop the Luxor Hotel and Casino, is the world’s most powerful illuminated object - the Luxor Sky Beam. It has blasted a jet of continuous light directly out into space since it was first opened in 1993 (that’s thirty years of uninterrupted jet-blasting). Each of its thirty-nine xenon bulbs projects 7,000 watts, equalling the strength of 42 billion candles (Eklöf, 2022).

Exactly how are nocturnal, wild, or native species of plants or animals expected to compete with such monumental change? The grim reality is that they cannot. Nature must deal with violent and obtrusive additions of light such as this or, like the rest of us, nature will surely cease to exist.

With the invention of the lightbulb, humans entered into the natural realm a tool of unquestionable power (and destruction). A tool so powerful that, if applied with enough force, it is capable of blurring the margins between day and night. These same margins are foundational to the behavioural rhythms of almost every living thing on the planet, from bacteria to plants to people: the circadian rhythm. It is thanks to the lightbulb that we are no longer limited in our social routines, work responsibilities, or other humanly activities merely by hours of daylight, as dictated by the speed of our spinning planet as we pass in and out of the exposure of the sun. The landscapes we have built and the futures we have forged as a species are shaped by our ability to apply light freely into the darkness.

I doubt, therefore, that many people wish for a time pre-lightbulb when it was entirely plausible to succumb to a fatal accident simply by attempting to navigate the city by night (with arms stretched out into the darkness to avoid colliding with walls and buildings, only to fall down a hidden pothole or get hit by something hard and moving quickly). However, already within the last 150 years since the invention of the lightbulb, during which time humans have largely enjoyed the many freedoms offered by perpetual brightness at the flick of a switch, we have begun to notice the eye-opening residual effects of this innovation. And not just for moths, bats, birds, and plants. Humans are also on the receiving end of the erosion caused by applying light to our streets in a fashion comparable only to that of decorating a Christmas tree.

This is most evident in highly populated cities like Las Vegas, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and London, where inhabitants are increasingly suffering from the negative health effects of light trespass (when light infiltrates inside private space where it is unwelcome and prevents sleep). Human health is dramatically impacted by prolonged exposure to light. The effects of this can be seen clearly in shift workers who battle their circadian rhythms to sleep during hours of daylight and be active from the evening onwards. Unlike moths - our nocturnal comrades - humans simply have not evolved to live in this way. We need sleep and darkness just as we need food and water. Yet, as a result of the demands placed on them by employers and a global society that operates around the clock, shift workers in particular are at incredibly high risk of developing chronic sleep disorders and, as by-products, obesity, and even breast cancer. (Bogard, 2013).

The startling health risks associated with shift work make clear that light pollution and capitalism are inextricably linked. In the unending pursuit of economic growth – a trademark of capitalist structures – the industrialisation of artificial light over the past 150 years has become a means to increase productivity and generate profits, often with little regard for the ecological fallout. As a result, there is still a tendency to prioritise the production and use of artificial light over efforts to mitigate its lasting, damaging effects.

Despite the warning signs issued by residents of Las Vegas, who know all too well the living nightmare that is unwanted light, plans for a new orb-like music and cultural venue dubbed an ‘artificial sun on Earth’ in Stratford, East London, are to go ahead this year (The Guardian, 2021). Once completed, those living close to the MSG Sphere will feel the omnipresent buzz of its 36 million LEDs pulsating through the streets and occupying the walls, furniture, and ceilings inside homes.

Such a feat would not even have been out of place at the 1889 Paris Exposition, alongside fantasy projects like that of Jules Bourdais’ Tour Soleil (Sun Tower). Bourdais intended to fix a barrage of blinding arc lights atop his 360-meter-high construction with the sole purpose of illuminating all of Paris at night. During the early, wild days of probing the limitations of nature with bombardments of artificial light, no one doubted that such a thing was possible or indeed harmful in any way. Perhaps luckily, for Paris and its inhabitants past, present, and future, Bourdais’ Tour Soleil was rejected in favour of a design that has since come to symbolise the city, submitted by Gustave Eiffel. It is worth noting that during this period, people believed wholeheartedly in the exciting potential and indefinite power of the light bulb. Dreams of turning night into day were therefore entirely serious (Schivelbusch, 1983).

Yet, just over one century later, in the early 1990s, plans by a Russian/European space consortium to synthesise perpetual “daylight, all night long” (Crary, 2013), demonstrate just how little we have learned. This scheme would honestly not look out of place in a James Bond film, revealed as the villain’s mastermind, world-ending weapon. It called for a fleet of solar-reflecting satellites to be launched into space and positioned at sun-synchronised orbits. Once extended to reflect the sun’s rays, each satellite would then have the capacity to illuminate a ten-square-mile area of land on Earth. Thankfully, however, for everyone on Earth, this idea was not given the green light. Projects such as the Luxor Sky Beam, MSG Sphere, Tour Soleil, and this insane reflecting satellite idea, each time set the bar for low ecologically sound thinking to all new (bottom of the sea) depths.

- Opening the Night

How are we to rectify the 150-year-old dispute between light and darkness, day and night, human productivity and the collapse of life, the universe, and everything? (Sorry, Douglas Adams). Well, one solution has already been developing from within the moth community itself: evolution.

That’s right… moths have been preparing for a glow-up! It’s hot moth summer, babes.

In 2016, two researchers in Austria set out to discover the driving causes behind urban moth decline. Their study demonstrated, remarkably, that moths from urban areas with high, globally relevant levels of light pollution over several decades showed a significantly reduced flight-to-light response when compared with populations of the same species from pristine dark-sky habitats (Royal Society, 2016). This proves, at least to the satisfaction of the scientific community, that urban moths are markedly adapting their behaviour to changing conditions in light within the urban landscape. Furthermore, a more recent study from 2021 discovered that, as a result of natural selection, moths with smaller eyes that are more favourable to brighter environments than moths with larger eyes are growing in numbers in cities across Europe (GfÖ, 2021).

However, is this necessarily a good thing? Although we can theorise that if future moth populations do evolve to have a lower sensitivity to light, they may be less likely to succumb to the magnetising effects of street lamps, could this lowered sensitivity truly compensate for the long-term, ecological destruction caused by light pollution? And what of the resulting ripple effects of this adaptation in the biosphere? The researchers behind the 2016 study suggest a number of potential outcomes – one being that moths simply avoid brightly-lit areas altogether.

Here, moths dutifully follow the example set by many of my Berlin friends who, having relocated to fancy, gentrified parts of the city (like Bergmannkiez, Schillerkiez, and Prenzlauerberg) now source 100% of their needs and desires from within a zone no greater than approximately 23m from their front door. And honestly, who could even blame moths for taking this precaution? They have endured quite the beating as a result of human carelessness over the past century and a half.

However, the knock-on effects of moths becoming choosier with their selection of light sources may not fare well for future city ecologies. The researchers already foresee that fewer urban plants may become pollinated at night. And it doesn’t stop there, either. Yet another consequence further up/down/around the food chain could be a decline in urban bat populations, owing to bats having fewer opportunities for food within their environment if moths steer clear from the city. The prognoses of the evolutionary adaptations researchers are now becoming aware of in moths are not yet clear. What we can surmise, however, are the factors driving these adaptations in the first place.

A promising means of gathering data on moths in cities is to study the prey-predator relationship between moths and bats, as bats are considered a potential bioindicator of land-use changes. Focussing on this relationship specifically, several recent studies have been conducted to investigate the ways in which moths are responding and adapting to intensifying urbanisation in European cities. One study in 2021, which was conducted in Lisob, Almada, Zürich, Paris, Antwerp, Poznan, and Tartu, concurrently, indicates that although biodiversity loss in both bats and moths can be directly linked with increasing levels of light at night across each of these cities, the force of this trend depends greatly upon the frequency and quantity of urban green spaces (Bioveins, 2021). This data points to a perhaps obvious, yet fundamental, conclusion: the greener the city, the wider the biodiversity in nocturnal wildlife.

Studies such as these serve as a reminder that cities do not completely interrupt the natural realm or act as a black hole for wildlife, though we may feel that way as we look out onto concrete jungles void of trees or parks. Cities are novel ecosystems that can indeed provide suitable habitats for certain species and drive rapid evolution or feature changes, allowing some types of insects, such as moths, to adapt (European Commission, 2021). To ensure that future urban ecologies are even given the opportunity to adapt fifty or one hundred years from now, we must design our urban environments differently. Urban green areas are just one part of that essential design process.

That moths are adapting to the crude intrusion of our artificial lights in cities across the world puts into question the role of humans. But not as contributors to the problem – of that there is no doubt. We must now question our power to lead the way forward, up and out of this shitstorm we have created. Life on Earth, lest we forget, has collapsed five times. The most recent being 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared along with three-quarters of the remaining animals. It is estimated that around 40% of all insect species are currently threatened with extinction. The Australian-Chinese compilation of the collected world insect data from 2019 shows that we’re moving towards the world’s sixth extinction. And humans are the cause (Eklöf, 2022).

Given that this is the case, what exactly should our role be in finding solutions? Or, framed differently, what can our role be?

As far as environmental fuck-ups go, our track record as a species isn’t very inspiring. In this sense, moths are the real pioneers here in meeting the challenge of extreme artificial light at night head-on (literally). Their bodies are morphing. Their eyes are becoming smaller. Their attraction to light is diminishing. And their ability to withstand higher temperatures (a condition of the geological era of humans: the Anthropocene) is strengthening. Moths are dealing with our nonsense in the most mature, non-confrontational, German way possible: without even the slightest passive-aggressive comment to signal their frustration. Meanwhile, humans are still fingering cherry blossoms in Sichaun and fantasising about inventive new ways to obliterate night time altogether with hip, controllable LEDs. Ok, we’re doing more than that. But you get my point. We have not even found solutions for ourselves, let alone for moths.

Which solution do you think will come first?

- Know Darkness

Any lasting symbiosis between moths and humans in cities of the future requires of us that we re-evaluate our relationship with darkness. But for humans to seek out darkness – for us to embrace it and come to terms with its wildness – is in itself to act against our inner mechanisms, for we are eternally diurnal. Our survival throughout evolutionary history has been marked by our ability to hunt during the day and, conversely, avoid being eaten after sunset. For it is in the night that we lose our greatest gift – our astonishingly accurate eyesight – and become prey to animals whose vision, to the contrary, improves tenfold in darkness. For our ancestors, the height of terror would have been wandering over the savannah in the dark, listening for a predator’s paws drumming against the ground (Hunt, 2018). It is here in our evolutionary journey that the binary opposites of day and night, predator and prey, safe and unsafe, became firmly imprinted upon us. And it is these same instincts that we must now confront if we are to continue to survive.

If that is even required.

Dark Sky initiatives are one way forward. The best known, perhaps, is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which designates titles such as Dark Sky Community and Dark Sky Reserve based on areas demonstrating exceptional dedication to reducing light pollution and implementing sustainable lighting practices to mitigate the ongoing damage. In Canada, the Royal Astronomy Society has its own awarding system of Dark Sky Preserves, whereas UNESCO initiated its Starlight Reserves program some years later. Although each program varies slightly in its approach, they all work towards the same overall goal: protecting darkness in a world of ever-increasing artificial light (Bogard, 2013).

There are several IDA sites across Germany, the most unique of which is Fulda – the Baroque city – owing to it being the second largest Dark Sky Community in the world after Flagstaff in Arizona. When I visited Fulda in 2022, I was sure I would be impressed by the city’s revolutionary lighting plan, which I had been assured was cutting edge (in other words dark). Yet, to my disappointment, it was obvious that more still needs to be done to reduce lighting emissions in Fulda and secure anything near a truly dark night. Regardless, that Fulda has this designation in the first place is, in itself, a remarkable step forward. The city’s champion, Sabine Frank, has dedicated her entire professional life as a scientific researcher at Sternenpark Rhön to combating light pollution in this region of Germany. There are countless more like her across the country working tirelessly and without compensation in towns and villages to inform local communities of the effects of ALAN (Artificial Light at Night) and to promote dark skies.

Alongside the work being done in and by dark sky initiatives to reduce global lighting emissions and spread the word about light pollution, there is also a great deal of innovation taking place in typically light-heavy industries, such as transportation and automation, to further support this mission. One innovative concept from a cooperative in San Francisco deals directly with the issue of street lamps. Named Civil Twilight, the idea is to tune street lamps to the cycles of the moon. In effect, this means that when the moon is at its brightest, the lunar-resonant street lamps dim to become barely visible. On nights when there is no moon, however, the lamps provide just enough artificial light for pedestrians and drivers (Bogard, 2013). Although this concept is clearly marketed towards reducing energy bills (the cooperation estimates that the idea could cut three-quarters of the city’s current budget for street lighting), it demonstrates a promising trend toward more dark-sky-friendly design practices. And as a by-product, this design in particular undoubtedly benefits moths.

Perhaps the most significant challenge of our time is in dealing with the ugly products of the past century: industrialisation, monoculture, urbanisation, global capitalism, nuclear waste, and climate change (to name but a few). Our efforts to reduce, clean, mitigate, forestall, and slow down the consequences of these destructive processes therefore run entirely counter to the values and ambitions of societies before us, in the 20th century and beyond. Yet, we see this as our responsibility, whether we like it or not: to reverse, reconcile, and remember.

What is less comfortable to accept is that, in many ways, our nature and the nature moths also run counter to one another. Each operates at an opposite pole of the Earth’s rotation – each requiring a different cocktail of delicate light and temperature conditions in order to be successful. Have we waged war upon moths in condemning their nocturnal existence to brightness? If so, moths surely have the upper hand right now. Moths have adapted to artificial light, whilst humans are still left weak and exposed after sunset. “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, 2018) Moths have taken one step closer to our diurnal experience of the night in desensitising their attraction to light. What will be our next evolutionary move, I wonder?


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