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Can Lighting Save Us From Ourselves . . . NO!


Where is lighting commentary headed?

Once upon a time, lighting magazines concentrated on things that I cared about; how light and space worked together, lighting techniques and how lighting technology could best serve the practicing designer. I fear, though, that we're seeing a shift in emphasis. I've written previously about the way that we, as a species, often prefer to go chasing rainbows rather than get down to the real business of making our mutual future secure.

And this time around the fantasy thinking came via a phone call from LUX magazine: would I be prepared to write a piece on How Lighting Can Save Us From Ourselves - no doubt thinking that my evangelical interest in Sustainability chimes with the adolescent thinking of Those Who Believe In Technological Progress.
Sorry to disappoint everyone . . .

Anyway: what I DID write was a piece on How Lighting Will Not Save Us From Ourselves. Here's the text:

Can lighting technology save us from ourselves?

Hmmm – what’s this all about? I feel a bit of deconstruction coming on.
LIGHTING TECHNOLOGY: with the entire lighting business falling into the maw of the electronics industry, I suspect that this is all about having chips with everything.
SAVE US: why, are we going somewhere? Oh yes, we’re racing headlong towards the cliff-edge of environmental disaster.
OURSELVES: and who might WE be, I wonder? How far do we spread our pernicious bonds; beyond our front door? our national boundary? our hegemonic boundaries? far enough to embrace humanity in general?
We need to decide on answers to these questions before the original poser makes any sense.

One of the stumbling blocks of working out our ‘sustainable future’ comes from the limitations we place on what ‘sustainability’ means . . . because, generally, A Sustainable Future means A Sustainable Future For Us. We choose not to see the whole picture and prefer to concentrate on the minutiae of our society. Naomi Klein (THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: pub. Penguin) calls it ‘looking away’. Like - someone points out the global effects of our daily behaviour (eg: severe weather impacts of Climate Change) and rather than looking at it and facing the problem directly, we prefer to busy ourselves with the latest generation of stuff that might reduce our energy consumption at home. But, and be sure about this, we won’t look for anything that might restrict our behaviour in any way, or anything that is to our detriment (such as turning down a thermostat, walking to the shops or maybe even using LESS lighting).

‘Smart products’ are making me increasingly grumpy. Whether they be light fittings or a park bench that speaks your weight, these concepts are all fine examples of ‘looking away’. ‘Smart’ devices seem such small incursions into our societal fabric – what harm can they do? We know the impact that they’ve had on the way that we live, but we never question what’s going on behind the scenes.  We choose not to see what lies behind the attractive, visual and tactile, design and – let’s face it – the FUN that we have with these tiny critters. We might discuss the relative merits of VLC (Visible Light Communication) in pimping our retail experience, but we choose to ignore the real cost of wireless communication and cloud computing technology – because we don’t see it.

The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) estimates that the carbon footprint of wireless access technologies will have increased from 6 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015, the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads.

And if we look at the continued exploitation of metals and minerals, we might wonder why a company such as Umicore ( expects to thrive in the field of recycling of specialist metals – to the extent that it actually offers a management programme on metals that includes a leasing arrangement. So you buy the metal for your product – then it goes back to Umicore’s metal bank once the product has done its work.  And this matters because of the speed that we’re taking material from the ground and not paying attention to what happens when the product is finished. Of course, the percentage of specialist metals taking this route-to-re-use is miniscule compared to the quantity of metals headed straight for landfill.

Perhaps the final nail in our collective coffin will be the continued demand for economic growth. Even here, we’ve attempted a sleight of hand by introducing concepts such as ‘eco-efficiency’. But that can never become a negative, we only slow the growth down. The figures are out there demonstrating that the Jevons Paradox, or Rebound Effect, is alive and well. A hundred and fifty years ago, Williams Jevons showed how increased machine efficiency simply led to more goods being made – because more profit could be made as costs dropped. There was no incentive to reduce energy consumption or material exploitation. And that very thing is going on today in the world of electronics (for which, read LED lighting and Smart Technologies). No one is looking.

I’ll come back to the original question: Can lighting technology save us from ourselves?

There is one way that lighting technology (VLC and the rest) can save us. It requires a leap of faith – but it’s just the kind of blind leap of ignorance that we unfailingly fall for. All we have to do is to carry on as we’re doing, allowing all of the technology to connect itself together – and then send out the instruction to ‘Save Us From Ourselves’ - at which point, everything will shut down and we’ll have no access to anything technical, because the machine-mind will know better than we do. So that’ll be OK then.

The article appears in the May 2015 issue of LUX magazine.



And if you'd like to read more about my views on lighting design and technology, please visit my LIghting Design blog pages HERE!

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