Violent (De)Lights
The Moth in Me (and in Hans)

re:imagine your city:

rethinking urban paradigms

Shift Books

- 2023

©Shift Books

A moth from the Agrotis genus dances in frantic, illuminated chaos around a street lamp in Berlin at night. As its spiralling flightpath winds tighter and higher, the moth inches ever closer to the source of the light itself — the lamp’s radiant core. Then suddenly, collision. The moth strikes the outer glass casing of one of the lightbulbs with such force and uncontrollable determination that the little moth is at once ejected from the lamp’s orbit and cast out into the abyss of night. But only temporarily. Unperturbed, the moth begins its re-approach by accurately training its wings downward toward the lamp and then entering into a steep dive. Confused, blinded, yet unable to find an exit, the moth thus embarks upon a frenzied marathon of relentless take-offs and collisions throughout the night. This cycle will continue for many hours and perhaps into the morning if the moth is not eaten by a natural predator, such as a bat. As the sun’s presence grows faintly over the tops of apartment buildings nearby, the moth becomes unable to fly any longer. Exhausted, it eventually flutters to the ground and, joining many a fallen comrade, dies. 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, Hans. You can’t keep running around like this... constantly shitfaced on artificial light night after night. It’s not healthy. But we’re gonna get you some help, ok? Don’t worry! You can beat this.”

Moths have been characterised in this way for as long as humans have been around to spectate the phenomenon of them flying excitedly toward bright things. On the one hand, we interpret the relationship between moths and light somewhat romantically as being ruled by desire. Yet, on the other, this same relationship is defined by what we perceive as the casual impulsiveness of moths. For example, although the scenario above of the Agrotis genus moth is quite tragic, and we can therefore extend a level of sympathy to urban moths owing to them persistently dying at the bases of street lamps each summer, we also speculate that the fault lies, nonetheless, with moths themselves. We suspect that this nightly per-formance is born from an evolutionary disadvantage in moths that they must overcome in order to coinhabit the industrialised terrains of humans. I mean, seriously, moths... adapt already! What’s taking you so long? Hence, rarely do we advocate for much unity with moths, or sensitivity for their ephemeral existence in this age of lightbulbs and LEDs, as they flit and hurry from the darkness toward the lights inside our homes:

“Silly things. They discard their little lives so readily... throwing caution to the wind to fly so aimlessly and dance so daintily around pretty lights of all shapes and sizes. And what for, heh? Poor little buggers. Whatever do they see in light, anyway?”

Here, we explicitly assign to moths a degree of anthropomorphism by emphasising that their love for light is shamefully unrequited. This, we deduce, is their true weakness: they’re desperate! 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. Perhaps it is only in this respect that we feel a modicum of comradery with moths, as most people can recall both the terrifying vulnerability induced by professing unconditional love for someone and the consequent anguish in not having it returned. Conversely, the experience of flight-till-death around a street lamp is a lot harder for we wingless beings to relate to. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. Though wings we surely lack, humans do have an affinity with light. We have demonstrated this connection not only through the mass industrialisation and commercialisation of artificial light over the past 150 years but also throughout our whole development as a species in seeking to create tools that extend and simulate the illumination of day. It is not without irony, therefore, that we pity moths for their shallow attraction to street lamps (as if this were somehow by choice). This characterisation is so embarrassingly misdirected that it strikes at ignorance. It is we, after all, who have erected street lamps in cities across the globe and forced artificial light onto the night with such recklessness that ecosystems inherently reliant on darkness are breaking down before our eyes. It is we who are shitfaced on light, despite the many hazards and warning signals issued from the biosphere.

How much longer, then, can humans afford to gaze ambivalently upon moths and feign that we are not afflicted by the same ailment?

As manufacturers of artificial light and gatekeepers of darkness, we hold the keys to our future and, to some degree, the successful restoration of ecologies as they verge on the precipice of collapse. The sombre experience of moths around street lamps night after night in our cities should be a wake-up call for humans. We must act. The survival of moths, and therefore of ourselves as a species dependent upon the role that moths play as nocturnal pollinators, hinges upon our ability to re-think our relationship with light. 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?


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