Historical Resource Analysis Sheds Light on the Sustainability of Our Future

March 4, 2020 | Blog
Home > Historical Resource Analysis Sheds Light on the Sustainability of Our Future

by Kai Whiting (University of Lisbon) and Edward Simpson (Abertay University)

This blog is derived from: Whiting, K., Carmona, L.G., Brand-Correa, L., & Simpson, E. ‘Illumination as a material service: A comparison between Ancient Rome and early 19th century London’, Ecological Economics, 169 (2020), available here 


The way in which we conduct socioeconomic activity is often to the detriment of healthy planetary processes and human and wildlife communities.  Many believe that innovative technologies will help us overcome most, if not all,  environmental challenges. Techno-optimists argue that new technologies will enable us to become more resource efficient, which can be broadly defined as the ability to support increasing levels of socioeconomic activity with less energy and material inputs. However, our artificial lighting case study into the fuels, lighting devices and the associated infrastructure that offered Ancient Romans and Georgian Londoners the opportunity to participate in diverse activities during the hours of darkness (or inside a dark room) questions the validity of that argument.

We modelled artificial lighting levels (in lumens-hours) for the average urban Roman and Georgian Londoner using a stock-driven approach. The latter requires information on the type of materials used in a lighting device (e.g. an oil lamp or gas-fed lamppost), the cumulative weight of all its components, the volume of the fuel that the device uses (either olive oil, tallow or coal gas), the amount of hours that the average device was used for, and the number of devices in circulation. It also required data pertaining to energy and material production, which involved research into the construction of gas retort houses, gas pipes and pottery kilns, amongst others. We obtained these records via the archaeological findings of Pompeii and Herculaneum, utility service contracts, legal proceedings, engineering manuals, sales catalogues, and building blueprints.  We made sociodemographic assumptions and extrapolated information from other representative cities when data was incomplete or absent.

Using this model, we estimated that the average Ancient Roman experienced approximately 41,000 lumen-hours/capita/year, which was around 6000 lumen-hours/capita/year, or 17 percent, more lighting than their Georgian counterpart. In fact, it was not until around 1850 that Roman lighting levels were superseded. Our explanation for this observation focuses on societal values and preferences. The Georgians had both a candle tax and a window tax, which we believe is indicative of their relative indifference to lighting level provision (artificial or natural).[1]  Roman Law, on the other hand, prohibited the construction of fences that would excessively inhibit the passing of sunlight into a neighbour’s dwelling. This suggests that societal values, more so than the way in which we physically provided lighting, was the determinative factor in a citizen’s access to illumination and lived experience of lighting levels.

Figures 1a and 1b are to scale graphical representations (Sankey diagrams) of the fuels, metals and non-metals used to provide artificial lighting in households, commercial and cultural spaces. For the Romans, our baseline year was 79 AD, while for the Georgians it was an average year in the 1820s. From Figure 1a, we note that the Romans relied heavily on fuels (particularly olive oil) to provide lighting.  This meant that the amount of fuel (as depicted by the proportional thickness of the lines) required to produce a lumen-hour was relatively high. In other words, they used fuels in a rather inefficient manner. However, when we consider the amount of lighting devices and the infrastructure that supported their production and use (as demonstrated by the size of the blocks), the Romans were more efficient. As Figure 1b shows, it seems that the opposite was true for Georgian society: it required less fuel but considerably more lighting devices and supporting infrastructure to provide artificial lighting.

In comparative terms, 1820s London was four times more fuel-efficient than urban Ancient Rome. However, there was a trade-off given that the Georgians were 53 times less efficient than the Romans when we consider the amount of material required to produce and maintain lighting devices and infrastructure.

Picture 1
Figure 1. Schematic representation of Stocks, flows and service for illumination – annual per capita. 1a (top): Ancient Rome. 1b (bottom): Georgian London.

Our results highlight the problem of overemphasising fuel efficiency at the cost of the different material types and substantial quantities required to produce, run and maintain lighting devices and their associated infrastructure. This has implications for current  environmental policy, for example, the promotion of LED lights, which are viewed as ‘clean’ technologies because of their lower energy consumption. However, this view does not account for the additional chemical elements that constitute LEDs[4]. Every extra material requires a different type of mine and mining is far from environmental. Our results also challenge the techno-optimist assumption that we can solve almost all socio-environmental ills simply by incentivising technological innovation. Surely, as the Roman and Georgian lighting regulations show, we should focus on the underlying personal and societal values and preferences that determine the way in which we use resources and provide societal services to begin with.



Window Tax https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/tyne-and-wear-case-study/about-the-group/housing/window-tax/

McCulloch, John R. 1845. A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation. Vol. 1.

Thomas Wardle, Bronin, Sara C. ‘Solar rights’,  Boston University Law Review, 89, https://www.bu.edu/law/journals-archive/bulr/documents/bronin.pdf

Carmona, L. G., Whiting, K., Carrasco, A., Sousa, T., & Domingos, T. (2017). Material services with both eyes wide open. Sustainability, 9(9), 1508.


To contact the authors: 

Kai Whiting (kaiwhiting@tecnico.ulisboa.pt),  @kaiwhiting

Edward Simpson (e.simpson@abertay.ac.uk)



[1] Window Tax https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/tyne-and-wear-case-study/about-the-group/housing/window-tax/ ; McCulloch, A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation;  Bronin, ‘Solar rights’, p.1257; https://www.bu.edu/law/journals-archive/bulr/documents/bronin.pdf; Carmona, Whiting, Carrasco, Sousa, and  Domingos,  ‘Material services’, p. 1508.