Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun, 2012 Photograph: Merklit Mersha
Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun 2012

Seventy years ago a gigantic project to invent the sun was launched. We already had a sun, but this was an effort to make a sun on earth, a short-lived, unstable sun that would use our sun’s energy source – nuclear fission – to fuel its chain reactions. The fissioning material would reach millions of degrees and spread light, heat, and radioactive material in a sudden burst. In 1945, the first sun on earth exploded. That is, on 16 July of that year, in the New Mexico desert, the American and exiled European physicists and their military surround detonated the first nuclear bomb. They called that explosion a test, and over the decades that followed more than a thousand manmade suns were detonated, none for any beneficial purpose.

Humanity had figured out how to make suns or stars, but there was no good use for the big suns. They were used twice in Japan to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, but the devices were so terrible that their actual function was never called upon again. They remained threats, threats that at times seemed poised to annihilate the world or the northern hemisphere, maybe even the weather, in that era when we feared nuclear winter before we feared the heat and chaos of climate change. They weren’t only threats: their creation made them sources of contamination everywhere uranium was mined or refined or deployed or dumped afterward. They were borrowing from the future, since each one created waste that would be hazardous for tens of thousands of years, longer than civilization would exist.

These weapons were supposed to become energy generators, but the energy was never as cheap as promised, and like existing power plants, nuclear power consolidated the resource in the rich world, leaving the remoter places and the poorer people in darkness. They were part of the strange imagination of modernism, which wanted to homogenize, centralize, and consolidate, to work on the biggest possible scale, to create monumental alterations of nature and massive impositions of authority. The big suns were authoritarian technology, costing tens of millions to billions apiece, requiring profound faith in political and military leaders, engineers and managers to keep the suns from burning us with accidental explosions or misplaced radiation. The big suns on earth were destructive. (The nuclear tests were so bright people saw the bones of their hands through their eyelids as they tried to protect themselves: light so bright and brief illuminated only death and madness.)

What we needed were little suns that soaked up the energy we already had from the sun we already had, polluted nothing, destroyed nothing, killed no one, little suns that would never be weapons. And the little suns have arrived. The era of the big suns was the era of superpowers, of modernism’s big technologies and big impositions, but if we are to embrace a decent future it will have to be the era of the small. These small suns exemplify a decentralized, nonauthoritarian technology, one that neither leads to war nor leaves future generations to clean up after us. It is a technology that can travel in a pocket and go to the tops of mountains and the headwaters of rivers. These suns spread light into the unlit places.

Light correlates to power, both the literal power that generates electricity and the financial power to own it, to pay for it, to use it and use it up. And light is part of the problem, for those who have too much and those who don’t have enough. We make light the way we always have, with fire – the fire of burning fossil fuel to make steam to turn turbines to generate electricity, or sometimes with nuclear fuel allowed to go subcritical to boil that same water and turn those turbines. Then in the overdeveloped world we get profligate with that electricity, lighting rooms in daytime, lighting up streets all night and parking lots and so much more that the stars are a rare sight for many urban people in the global north. We need more darkness.

There’s a photograph of the earth at night where you can see what parts of the world emit the most light and which still lie in darkness. Nearly all Europe glows, the whole eastern seaboard of the United States, parts of Asia are bright, and parts lie in darkness along with much of Latin America and almost all of Africa, truly the dark continent in this framework.  But those areas that are dark on the photograph need more light, light to read by, to cook by, to live well beyond the hours of sunlight. The darkness correlates to poverty, to people who are off the electrical grid, who will suffer the most from climate change, whether they are in sub-Saharan Africa or the Andes and the Himalayas. These little suns are for all of us, a reminder that the great burning star that lights our days could light our nights and do far more, a liberation for the people who deal with the fumes and expense of kerosene in the regions off the grid, a little step lit by little suns lit by the sun itself. I hope these suns proliferate, that they light our way toward a world in which light and darkness like wealth and power, like food and education, are more equitably distributed, in which the small is not dominated by the big, in which New Yorkers learn what the Milky Way looks like and children in Nepal can read their books at night. 

Rebecca Solnit
Writer on environment, politics, place, and art, San Francisco, USA