Give us back the dark

I am about 8 years old. We are walking through the partly built-up area between North Hykeham village and the edge of Lincoln. It is pitch dark, apart from regular pools of light beneath the gas-powered street lamps. I am astounded and inspired by the beauty of the heavens, as my dad points out some of the constellations – the Plough, Orion, the Pleiades… – and the Milky Way.

This was the inspiring experience of all our ancestors, yet within a couple of generations it has become a much less common experience for today’s children, because of light pollution. You just cannot see the sky with the same intensity, if at all, from most inhabited areas. We are losing contact with the heavens, and hence the sense of our place in the universe.

Light pollution is one of the scourges of our time see eg this excellent article by National Geographic, the Wikipedia entry, and the dark sky movement. Here are just some of the ways in which increasing light pollution is detrimental to (our) life on earth:

  • harming animals whose life cycles depend on dark
  • endangering ourselves by altering the biochemical rhythms that normally ebb and flow with natural light levels
  • losing our connection to the nighttime skies, the tapestries into which our ancestors wove their stories of meaning, timed the planting and harvesting of crops, and deduced the physical laws governing the cosmos
  • thus losing our connection with the Earth itself
  • artificial lighting of buildings kills migrating birds in their thousands
  • nighttime lights suppress fertility in wild animals, affect their sense of direction, disrupt their natural rhythms, affect the ability of moths and other insects to navigate, with knock-on effects on bird populations
  • studies show that light pollution increases atmospheric pollution.

All this is pretty well known science, and many local authorities have responded over the years. I well recall that in the 1980s there was tremendous publicity about the scattering of light around and upwards by street lights at the time. But increasing awareness and improved technology have led, over the decades, to today’s more sophisticated lighting which casts light downward, giving an effect more like the local pools of light I recall from childhood.

But recently the ubiquity of cheap lighting has led, at least in our area of UK, to a new source of this pollution: individual households putting up relatively bright lights on the walls of their houses or the end of their drives, and leaving them on all hours of the night, others leaving outside Christmas lights on for months on end.

This is totally unnecessary, as modern movement sensors ensure that lights are only on when needed – surely the only sensible approach. What is it about people who press on regardless, because they ‘like their house lit up’, or feel they need their driveway under permanent illumination? “It’s a free country, I’ll do what I like.” It seems like ignorance and lack of empathic connection with nature and other people, with perhaps an underlying fear of the dark. Could this relate to a fear of the inner darkness perceived within themselves, because the inner world is an unknown land? The outer reflects the inner.

The dark is necessary for our sanity, as well as for nature.

Featured image is from the website of Dark Sky Association.

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

1280px-Another_Milky_Way_Shot
The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons