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There’s nothing more precious than light  

Christmas illuminations at Kew Gardens. Tolga Akmen/Getty Images

“The history of humanity is about the quest for light,” says Simon Barnes in Tortoise. This is true of religion – “the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world” – but also in the most literal sense. Humans first lit fires as long as two million years ago, not just for warmth, but to see their enemies coming. The invention of lamps 70,000 years ago gave us the gift of time – more hours in the day to “sing, worship, feast, play and socialise”, to become a “different kind of species”. Street lamps shaped our cities: by 1588 Paris had a torch burning at every intersection; by 1816, when gas lighting came to Preston, “we had cities that glowed”. 

If anything, we have been too successful in combating darkness. Almost three-quarters of the world’s 350 million street lamps are powered by fossil fuels; more than 80% of humans live “under a light-polluted sky”. Excessive exposure to light has been linked to “worker fatigue, stress, headaches, anxieties and a tendency to have less sex”. Yet who can blame us? “We know, deeper than almost anything else, that when there is light the evil things will vanish: the troll will turn to stone, the vampire will lose his powers, Aslan will come to life on the Stone Table.” Without darkness we can live “enlightened lives” – our “never-ending days” filled with “sweetness and, of course, light”.  

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