Friday, December 27, 2013

Morton Arboretum Scores With Illumination, But Is It Green?

After hearing a minister decry the commercialized trivialization of the important messages associated with the holidays during this year's Christmas Eve service, I was struck by the power of a candle in its ability to stir the soul. And yet, two nights later, my wife and I joined the thousands of people who are flocking to Morton Arboretum to see Illumination, a new kind of holiday lighting display.  The display is truly enchanting and unique.  The display requires visitors to walk around Meadow Lake and up the small hill. Walking the path reveals an enchanting display of color and motion with interesting opportunities for visitors to interact with the display.  There are stations along the route for buying hot chocolate and cider (and yes, “spiked” if you want it) and there were several warming campfires.  I must say the Arboretum did well in making this an enjoyable family experience.

The light changes colors and brightness, with spotlights shining up into the trees.  Some of the lights are in motion, while others were stationary but revealing the beauty and texture of tree bark and branches.  There are several opportunities for interaction between trees and visitors, including the ability to cause trees to light up in response to a tight tree-hugging.  My favorite is the ability of visitors to project images of their own faces into the tree canopy.

Although Illumination allows us to see trees in a new light, I noticed it has a tendency to reduce human interaction with nature on nature’s terms; it becomes a more abstract entertainment experience.  You may disagree with me on this point, and I welcome your thoughts.

If nothing else, Illumination shows how far light-emitting diode (LED) technology has come in just a few years.  The lights at Illumination, which are mostly focused beams of light, are absolutely intense when viewed up close, and can be used more creatively than incandescent lamps.  As a side note, some incandescent bulbs will soon be disappearing from store shelves due to tightening federal energy efficiency standards, but this may not be noticed once consumers find out how many amazing new bulbs that are now becoming available.  We are in the midst of the most significant lighting revolution since the light bulb was made practical over a hundred years ago by Thomas Edison.  ComEd is a co-sponsor, and is a promoter of LED technology, as is the Cool Cities movement.

Because of environmental concerns about the promise and peril of LEDs and the possibility of the exhibit encouraging more backsliding on society’s efforts, such as they are, to reduce light pollution, I had engaged the Arboretum staff in some discussion about the sustainable aspects of this display.  The brochure states the display uses as much energy as three homes. I have not seen the math used to arrive at that figure, but there is a fallacy in arguing that LEDs are “green” when you are burning energy to save energy, a lot like spending money at a retail store where they say “you saved money today.”  We all know better.  Don’t we?  LED lights are indeed more energy efficient than older incandescent lamps, but adding this new event at Morton Arboretum – even if we judge it worthwhile – represents a carbon footprint increase for the institution. 

The Arboretum correctly points out that this is a family experience for the holidays.  In that respect, the display truly shines. It also offers visitors a new experience at gazing at the structure of trees.  And of course, it is bringing in more money to support good tree advocacy and research programs.  Finally, Arboretum staff claimed they gave serious consideration to ecological concerns such as having a winter time display that has minimal effects on insect life. 

So should you try this at home?  Arguably not!   The Arboretum had access to a professional lighting company known for supporting sporting events and rock concerts that has access to the latest technology.  The Arboretum has large grounds suitable for such a display.

But as soon as this technology begins to trickle into big-box retailing environment, I expect to see more amateur lighting projects popping up in suburban backyards.  I do not believe homeowners are as knowledgeable or sensitive as the Arboretum may have attempted to be.  Homeowners will try to make it a year-round experience, and may have a negative impact on neighbors.  It will also make it even harder to see the stars at night.  As pointed out by darksky advocates an entire generation of Chicago area residents has grown up without seeing the moist magical light show of all - the aurora borealis and the Milky Way.  My suggestion: we leave displays like Illumination to the professionals, as we should do with large fireworks.   The environmental movement should not deprive us of the human need to celebrate the darkness of winter and the magic of holidays with light.  It is indeed important to us.  So leave home with your family and visit a large display such as Illumination. With the money you save by not buying all of the latest gadgets and technology that will soon become available, consider making a donation to an institution like Morton Arboretum, or any environmental group you choose, with the money you save.

Perhaps it is another zoo-light experience done differently, but soon it will be over, and the natural environment of the Arboretum will return to peaceful slumber during the stillness and darkness of night as nature rests for the winter.

Illumination continues through January 4, 2014 at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

-Jeff Gahris

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful essay balancing the various aspects of holiday celebrations and ecological and environmental considerations.