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The Real Fireworks Are Up There

Are we afraid of enlightenment?


Photo by Klemen Vrankar.

Last New Year’s Eve (NYE), I heard the fireworks rather than watched them. I had already tucked myself in for the night but had not yet fallen asleep when the crackling sounds made their way into my hiding place.


I live in a city which in 2014 broke the Guinness World Record for the largest ever fireworks display, and where fireworks are a weekend occurance at a local entertainment destination which is open six months a year. This NYE, we have been promised another show of explosives. Yes, the chemicals used in most fireworks are the same ones found in explosives, and gunpowder is the component which makes fireworks “go boom.


Gunpowder was incidentally invented in China and is hailed as one of its Four Great Inventions. In China, setting off firecrackers and fireworks during the Chinese New Year period is an important custom, reportedly because in traditional Chinese culture, firecrackers were originally used to scare away evil spirits. Is Covid-19 then a consequence of the Chinese not exploding away enough firecrackers before the start of this year?

Is Covid-19 then a consequence of the Chinese not exploding away enough firecrackers before the start of this year?

“We want to send a message of hope, happiness and positivity into the world because that is the spirit of Dubai,” said Mohamed Alabbar, founder of Emaar, the company behind Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure and building in the world, referring to their NYE plans. Earlier this summer, a Covid-19 stricken world watched the nuclear explosion reminiscent cloud of smoke bellowing from the city of Beirut’s port, and the source was dozens of bags of fireworks. So what is it about explosives that can inspire “hope, happiness and positivity”?


It could be the millions in tourism revenue. Last year, despite the raging bush fires, Sydney, one of the first cities in the world, time-zone-wise, to welcome the New Year, went ahead with their globally renowned Harbour Bridge fireworks display in spite of protests and a petition titled “Say NO to FIREWORKS NYE 2019,” which maintained that fireworks sent the wrong message and “may traumatize some people” who are dealing with “enough smoke in the air.” Australia had been experiencing hotter and longer summers, with unusually prolonged and intense bushfires which burned nearly 12 million hectares and killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion animals that season.


In the United States (US), where fireworks have illuminated cityscapes during the Fourth of July celebrations for 223 years, fire bans have been put in place in drought-stricken regions. Having cancelled its fireworks display, to mark its Fourth of July celebrations in 2018, the city of Aspen in Colorado staged a 50-drone computerized light display for the first time. The inpiration for the flame-free display came from the winter Olympics held in South Korea, and was prompted in part by the adverse weather conditions associated with climate change.

Earlier this summer, however, a Covid-19 stricken world watched the nuclear explosion reminiscent cloud of smoke bellowing from the city of Beirut’s port, and the source? Dozens of bags of fireworks. So what is it about explosives that can inspire “hope, happiness and positivity”?

Restrictions have similarly been placed on the sale and use of fireworks in India, where airborne particles from the fireworks used to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, have been found to deplete lung defences far more than pollution from traffic sources. The festival’s fireworks were also reported to cause pollution that is “far worse than Beijing on a bad day” and particle pollution in the air has been found to eventually deposit on the ground and get washed into lakes and rivers.


Photo by Thomas Drouault.

Cities around the world have cancelled firework celebrations this year, citing public health and safety concerns, and explaining that they would simply not be able to enforce Covid-19 related physical distancing otherwise. Babies, pets, birds and those of us suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder will finally not have to put up with … pyrotechnics.


A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with with a friend when the subject of the sky came up. I was explaining how when I was growing up I never really got to look at the sky very much, and that it took my moving out of the city (and the country), for me to be able to notice the clouds in the sky. It was also a change for me to live in a suburban town where street lights were non-existent. On moving back to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I could not help but be dazzled by the lights which welcomed me back, but now my friend and I marveled at the possiblity of having to experience the night sky without all the artificial lights.

Could it be that we too have become confused into seeking out light sources which can kill us?

Research published recently in the journal “Lighting Research & Technology,” identifies artificial light from advertisements, floodlights, lit buildings, facade lighting, parking lots and sports stadia as a source of light pollution, which can affect our health and sleep, and can disrupt the light-dark cycle that migrating birds, insects and other animals are tuned into. Artificial lights confuse insects and lure them to death. Could it be that we too have become confused into seeking out light sources which can kill us?


I believe that our fascination with fireworks and artificial lights exists because drawing attention to what we are capable of producing is one of the ways we can proclaim our existence and our might. Light is also synonymous with guidance and is used to commemorate many national and religious occasions. However, it is important for us to realize that our innate desire for guidance has allowed us to seek comfort in polluting artificial lights, and potentially harmful candles and fireworks. What we might be missing out on is the opportunity to feel vulnerable, to develop our night vision, to self reflect, and to feel the connection we have with the universe through the unadulterated night sky.

What we might be missing out on is the opportunity to feel vulnerable, to develop our night vision, to self reflect, and to feel the connection we have with the universe through the unadulterated night sky.

In March 2019, at an entrepreneurship conference in which Alabbar was a speaker, I had stood myself up from among the audience and voiced a question to him which was unlike the other questions being asked; I was not seeking his expertise. I asked him what Emaar was doing to address its environmental impact and complained that some of the company’s employees were not taking our efforts to meet and look into what can be done seriously.

The employees I was referring to at the time are no longer with the company, and I hope that next NYE I will not have to hide.

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United Arab Emirates

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