“Explore Brooklyn Botanic Garden like never before,” the ads invited. So, on a cold December night, I showed up to be wowed by the holiday extravaganza of fanciful illumination known as Lightscape. Although it was good to see New Yorkers enjoying the outdoors, the experience left me feeling disturbed. Lightscape welcomes the public to an “enchanting” display of gratuitous energy usage — in the process suggesting that the earth doing its thing only merits our attention when subjected to extravagant mediation. Given the harrowing backdrop of climate emergency and threatened ecological collapse, this message would feel deeply wrong even if it didn’t so blatantly disregard the BBG’s proclaimed mission of encouraging “stewardship of the environment.”
For example, an exhibit entitled “Fire Garden” disperses many small flames across a fenced-off area, creating an eerie effect. Workers move around positioning candles housed in small metal cans. The multiplication of flame, beautiful though it is, inevitably calls up images of ravaging wildfires racing across the globe, while the presence of workers stoking the conflagration hints at heavy industry — or a vision of devils in hell. But there’s no encouragement to reflect on troubling implications amid Lightscape’s carnival ambience. An adjacent “S’Mores Station” seems meant to evoke the innocence of campfires past.
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As “Fire Garden” suggests in almost too literal terms, Lightscape may be the perfect entertainment for an era that environmental historian Stephen Pyne has labeled the Pyrocene. Even beyond the questionable choice to turn a botanical garden into a backdrop for glitzy special effects, there’s something particularly jarring about the exhibition’s reliance on two of the principal culprits behind current ecological disruption: lavish energy consumption and literal fire. By exemplifying the problem while totally ignoring it (we are invited to wander an “enchanting” trail, not inquire as to the sources or carbon cost of the glow), Lightscape intimates that everything can stay the same and the planet will continue to offer a backdrop, an “environment” for the pursuit of human pleasure and profit.
Ginia Bellafante, writing in the New York Times, hailed Lightscape as “exactly what the city needs,” a “reframing of the season … against the joylessness of the pitch black.” This approach, oblivious to the rampant problem of light pollution, unimaginatively doubles down on the ancient metaphor of illumination, and only illumination, as synonymous with hope, goodness, and god. It overlooks the needs of northern ecosystems for seasonal variations in the balance of day and night. It ignores the spiritual and cultural resources that darkness, too, may offer.
At a time when only drastic changes will improve the already unbearable ecological and social conditions experienced by a huge portion of global humanity, it’s wealthy and urban populations that need to reframe our approach to what’s around us. I found bits of true enchantment on the garden’s dark fringes: a cold moon peering down at the razzle-dazzle. I’ll be a ready customer if the BBG invites us to explore the grounds at night with flashlights in hand.