Lighting and Temperature in St. John’s, Newfoundland

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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

When I was an undergraduate student living in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I occasionally took early morning hikes to the top of Signal Hill overlooking the Port of St. John’s. Going through the empty streets before dawn was a mixed experience of feeling vigilant, sober, and cold. The ultimate reward, as one might expect, was the panorama of St. John’s Harbour and the city’s starry lightscape. As Michel de Certeau asks, what is the source of this pleasure of “seeing the whole”? Although it is a “voluptuous” bodily experience of elevating oneself from the laws and crowds on the ground, the hilltop of Signal Hill, after all, is not the sheltered rooftop of skyscrapers in Manhattan, and the howling wind of Atlantic Canada would soon numb one’s feet and hands. While shaking in the wind, I looked at the snapped panorama photo, and it seemed there was something troubling about the view. But what was the source of this uneasy feeling? 

Panorama over St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland. Photograph by the author.

Later I encountered NASA’s then newly-released image of the earth at night. Historian of technology Sara Pritchard proposes to look at the map from the perspectives of both “light pollution”—excessive artificial light disrupting the health of life and the environment – and “light poverty”, a lack of artificial light at night.

Composite image of the Earth at Night. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA

The panoramic image of St. John’s Harbour, however, offers a much smaller scale than the NASA image. Thus, any conclusions about social inequality solely based on the interpretation of the lightscape will be arbitrary. At the same time, despite recognizing light pollution as an environmental problem in the metro St. John’s area, I try to find another approach to the “light pollution” and “light poverty” paradigm. Instead of elevating myself to the hilltop to see the whole picture, I turn to the political economy of the light and dive into the specific case of lighting and energy use in the Port of St. John’s.

Google Earth Image of St John’s, Newfoundland at Night.

I go back to the panorama photo, to the glare near the wharf, and ask, to whom does the glare belong (in the sense of who produced it) and what does it represent? I discovered that the glare originates from the ships and vessels of the Canadian Coast Guards and Canadian energy giant Irving Oil. I would also like to bring attention to a locally-owned corporation—A. Harvey & Company Limited.

A. Harvey has its tentacles in marine bases, oil, road salt, home heating, and even a Pepsi factory. The marine bases are at the east end of Water Street in St. John’s, at the port. They support the logistics of the offshore oil and gas and products mentioned previously. It operates seven berths and several floodlighting installations that light the night wharves with no difference to the daytime. Through this dispatch node, A. Harvey strategically builds a network that, in their words, “serves the city”, or in my words, controls the city.

Image: A. Harvey & Company Ltd.

St. John’s needs A. Harvey. During the long winter, the heating oil warms one-fourth of the homes in the city and the road salt melts the ice and snow on the streets. In addition to the marine bases, A. Harvey controls the city by manipulating its temperature. A. Harvey does not simply complement the municipal duties: the company is municipal, controlling the space. With the help of lighting technology, furthermore, A. Harvey stretches the short North Atlantic daytime into the night, and turns the dark waters and lands into a 24/7 workplace—to manipulate time and maximize profits. 

The geography of St. John’s presents the people in the city with a long, dark and cold winter, and affords A. Harvey and its peers abundant oil resources, a fine deepwater harbour, and access to endless sea salt. Overlooking the city from the top of Signal Hill, the lighting of St. John’s shines only on the empty streets and workers at the marine bases. Hearing the sound of whistling wind and metal hitting the wharf, my uneasy feeling grew from the corporal sense of cold and the desire to see. But if in St. John’s citizens feel critical, I remind you that you need A. Harvey, the manager of the North Atlantic resources, for warmth and light. 

Feature image: Panorama over St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland. Photograph by the author.
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Yandong Li

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