The season for photophilia

At this time of year I savor the efforts of my fellow residents to brighten the winter landscape with holiday lighting—the more excessive the better. Maybe it’s a touch of seasonal affective disorder setting in, as the days shorten approaching the winter solstice, or some atavistic fear of the dark activated by the necessity of driving home from work, but those lights cheer me and serve as helpful navigational beacons. Naturally, I can’t help hoping everyone is using LEDs, which consume as much as 95% less electricity than conventional lights, and shutting down overnight to preserve the dark night sky so we can all get some healthy sleep—but I won’t let common sense ruin the childish joy evoked by those brave lights.

I can’t help it: humans are photophilic, and like many plants and animals we thrive in light. Metaphors about light permeate our culture and are embedded in our everyday language. We speak of “shedding light” on a problem, enjoying an “illuminating” discussion, or finding “enlightenment” in new knowledge or perspective. We describe a smart person as “bright,” a foolish one as “dim,” a magnetic personality as “scintillating.” Anger blinds us, but we equate light with truth in a whole collection of metaphors, and we use the phrase “see the light” to denote a sharp insight or new understanding.

A few weeks ago I felt the need to revisit the many definitions of sustainability. I hoped to find comfort and some new insights, and I was well rewarded. There are movements all over the world finding ways to improve local economies, protect quality of life, make their communities more resilient to the effects of climate change, and be more inclusive in their institutions and decision-making. None of those definitions was forged in anger, and none focuses on blame or condemnation. They shed light on the interconnectedness of life and the practical ways we can preserve abundance for future generations, all under the general rubric of sustainability.

The past year has been a rollercoaster for anyone working to promote the principles of sustainability or address the impacts of climate change. At the federal level, there’s been a destructive push to undo our climate progress, hamstring renewable energy, and impose consumer-funded pricing supports for obsolete coal-fired power plants. In response, many state and local governments have redoubled their commitment to a range of climate and energy-related efforts, with a number of major corporations lending their vocal support.

Ever since world literature my sophomore year, I’ve been inspired by the last words of Goethe, crying out for “Light, more light!” I was shocked to discover recently that historians have debunked this romantic deathbed legend, touched up for metaphorical drama by the poet’s devoted followers. They say he was really just asking someone to open the shutters to let more light into the room. But for me, the practical simplicity of the request doesn’t detract from its symbolic value. More light! And some brisk fresh air to start the New Year.


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