By Robert Shaw (Newcastle University, UK) and Ankit Kumar (Eindhoven University of Technology, NL)
Public lighting is widely understood as a basic service, a marker of the state achieving its minimum goals – of “keeping the lights on” – and there is often frustration or even outrage when power cuts plunge places into unexpected darkness. Both the UN Sustainable Development Goals and World Bank reflect this, by acknowledging lighting as the first step towards access to modern energy.
Lighting technologies and provision have also changed rapidly during the last decade. New LED lighting is cheaper to run and more flexible than previous technologies, and therefore is easier to integrate into smart technologies. It can provide the same levels of brightness at lower wattages, and produces a targeted light which reduces light pollution. LEDs are thus – in the minds of those marketing the technologies at least – a potential solution to challenges in society, culture and climate.
Now, when thinking about lighting not many people would make much of a connection between Bijuriya in India and Daddry Shield in the UK. Separated by approximately 5000 miles and found in two very different developmental contexts, these villages in rural India and rural Britain seem, despite their shared connection to British Empire, very different places indeed.
Yet in discussions over the last few years, we have found a number of unexpected connections in our experiences researching changes in provision of lighting infrastructure in County Durham and Bihar, the provinces in which these rural villages are both located.
In our recently published paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, titled Transforming Rural Light and Dark under Planetary Urbanization, we call these sites ‘Ordinary Countrysides’ as a way of drawing attention to their similarity to Jennifer Robinson’s concept of ‘Ordinary Cities’. These ‘Ordinary’ spaces are part of large global networks, affected by flows of people, capital, things and information. Yet they retain distinct geo-social characteristics, which require attention in order to understand these bigger flows.
County Durham is using this new technology to facilitate a reduction in the provision of lighting, with lights being removed or dimmed at certain hours. In Bihar, lighting is being rolled out through a variety of different initiatives and processes, driven by the national state, regional state and NGO’s. Yet, despite these differences in trajectory, the changes in lighting reveal for us three important similarities which reveal the nature of rural life in a global urban system.
Comparing lights in Bihar and Durham: three similarities
The first similarity is that while the Ordinary Countryside is dominated by infrastructure, the hold that rural places have on infrastructure is more tenuous than in urban places. In Durham, a new rating system allows street-lights to be removed from rural places, but not urban places – echoing a broader retreat of the state as austerity politics threatens or withdraws schools, healthcare and public transport. In Bihar, infrastructure is only provided at a tenuous level, subject to inequalities in access based on caste and gender in particular, and appearing at a very varied level depending on the activity of the state and NGOs, both working with limited funds. In both cases, nearby urban residents have access to infrastructure which is more (though not necessarily fully) secure and certain. What this means is that while the rural is infrastructural, it is not infrastructural in the same way as the urban. Social scientists have often elided the presence of infrastructure with the presence of urbanism, however we argue this is misleading.
Second, rural places appear to be more planetary than urban places, particularly in terms of the depth of their connection to earthy-systems and processes. For example, the transformative nature of darkness on the landscape is felt more starkly in County Durham and Bihar than in urban locations, which are more widely lit. Such divisions apply even when accounting for inequalities. Specifically, while the urban poor in informal settlements may gain few benefits from the presence of street-lighting, they still experience its effects through light pollution and the construction of infrastructure, both of which distance people from the planetary. By contrast in our research sites, darkness penetrates quickly at night, spreading and transforming the landscape. Archipelagos of artificial light stand isolated in seas of darkness, and the dangers that residents fear are of accidents or animal attacks, rather than of human threats found in urban areas.
Third, the rural is increasingly becoming a space for experimentation. Rural light-art in the UK – see also the research of Morris (2011) and Edensor, (2018) – has driven innovation in LED lighting, and in County Durham it has been used both for the reduction of street-lighting and in production of events such as the ‘Waterfall’ art installation at the Bowlees Visitor Centre. In Bihar, Lighting a Billion Lives has experimented with various technical and social models of lighting provision around solar powered LED lamps. Some of these lighting systems, outcomes of experimentation in rural global South, are now sold in global North as new ways of ‘experiencing the planet’, reaffirming the infrastructural connections.
Working with the distinct histories and cultures of Bihar and Durham, we have found connections through ‘global’ infrastructures and ‘planetary’ sensibilities. Focusing on changing lighting technologies and their impact on spaces of light and darkness has been productive in revealing distinctly rural engagements and understandings of infrastructure. In turn, these similarities also prompt us to consider more broadly the connections between the specificities of our research sites and the wider global flows in which rural space of the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ find themselves.
The key lesson from the lights therefore is that more cross fertilisation between urban and rural studies will allow for better understanding of these spaces in tandem – something that will becoming increasingly important as we attempt to grapple with the challenges laid out by both planetary systems and the Anthropocene.
About the authors: Dr Robert Shaw is a Lecturer in Geography at Newcatle University, UK). He is an urban and social geographer with an interest in all things related to the night. Dr Ankit Kumar is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, Technology, Innovation & Society at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. His research focusses on access to low carbon energy in development projects.
This blog is based on a recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:
Kumar, A., & Shaw, R. (2019). Transforming rural light and dark under planetary urbanisation: Comparing ordinary countrysides in India and the <scp>UK</scp>. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 00, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12342
Free to read link here: https://rdcu.be/bTnEd
Edensor, T. (2018) Moonraking in Slaithwaite: Making lanterns, making place. In Price, L. and Hawkins, H. (eds) Geographies of Making, Craft and Creativity. London, Routledge, 60-75
Morris, N. J. (2011). Night walking: darkness and sensory perception in a night-time landscape installation. cultural geographies, 18, 315-342. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1474474011410277