The End of Night Nov30

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The End of Night

One of the quietest environmental problems of our era may very well be light pollution.

You may only notice it on certain occasions – when the neon lights at the mall make it almost daylight-level in the parking lot. When you go for a nice summer nighttime walk – and realise you can’t see any stars. Or when your awesome neighbor decides to leave his high-wattage porch light on all night, and it shines through your window right onto your TV right as you’re trying to watch Game of Thrones.

A new book by author Paul Bogard, aims to inform and enlighten (pun intended) on the topic. End of Night begins, as he puts it, “in some of our brightest places, and concludes in some of our darkest.” Along the way, he talks about the threats of light pollution and the perhaps unexpected value of darkness, which he traveled across America and Western Europe to seek out.

the end of night
“I was inspired by learning about how light pollution has robbed us of the night sky, and from there, I learned about how artificial light is impacting life on earth in major ways,” Bogard explains.

Bogard’s colleague, Mary Stewart Adams, is the program direction for one of the official International Dark Sky Parks (her territory being north of a quaint small town in Michigan, U.S. called Harbor Springs.) Dark Sky Parks have to be properly certified, to show that they are, first of all, in an extremely dark location that’s conducive to brilliant viewing of the night sky. But these unique parks also work to preserving that atmosphere and environment, as well as educating the public in what kind of work needs to be done to preserve our “dark skies.”

Adams also considers light pollution a “huge issue” that is only now starting to be addressed. It’s an especial concern for her, of course, since the park that she runs is dependant on its darkened surroundings.

“Over time, it seems to me that the issues that Paul’s book addresses will be so evident that his book could have an effect similar to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (the book that is said to have helped launch the North American environmental movement),” Adams explains.

End of Night discusses the entire spectrum of environments affected by light pollution, from the most light-polluted environments (Las Vegas being one) to how the City of Paris employs a “lighting design professional” tasked with artistically illuminating the city’s monuments at night, to the effects of artificial light on every being, from the many (human) night-shift workers with cans of Red Bull in tow to remote bat colonies.

light pollution map from wiredLight pollution’s increase across the United States.  Photo credit: Wired

 

So exactly why is light being spoken of in such a negative… well, light?

“We don’t have any idea that we are using too much light,” Bogard points out. “We just think all this light is normal. But we are using more light every year, but we almost don’t even see it because we’re so used to it.”

The top concerns of light pollution, in Bogard’s opinion, are threefold – one, he says, it’s a huge waste of money and energy.

Two, it has proven detrimental effects to human health, from causing higher stress levels and sleep disorders to throwing off human circadian rhythms (this is part of why you may find yourself hitting your snooze button far more times than you need to – ack, late for work again!). And three, the roots of our life on Earth evolved with bright days and dark nights, which means that our planet, not to mention many of its species, needs both for optimal health.

“All of our light is having serious effects on ecology, especially on noctural species,” Bogard explains. “Not having a real night, or a real view of the universe, impacts our psychological and spiritual lives in intangible ways. We’ve lost what was once a common human experience of knowing the night.”

headlands dark sky park miThis is what the sky’s really supposed to look like (photo from Headlands International Dark Sky Park)

Adams agrees. “The most popular question we get from visitors to the Dark Sky Park is ‘when can I see the Northern Lights?'” she says. “The second most popular question is, ‘what can I do about my neighbor’s lights?’ The big problem that this reveals is that light pollution threatens our capacity for community.”

“I define light pollution as any artificially-generated light that is being wasted,” she continues, “spilling out away from where it’s needed, with the result that it encroaches on natural habitat, trespasses onto other people’s property or into their homes, and diminishes natural views of the night sky.”

Now before you start thinking that people like Bogard and Adams just want the world to be plunged back into Middle Ages level darkness (they don’t – they agree in “safety first,” but just want us to be more careful about how we achieve it), keep in mind that as a species, we’re not particularly careful about our light, even though it’s technically an unnatural thing to put into the world. The new “rules” may sound like you’re back in grade school (minus those weird blobs of unidentifiable lunchroom vegetables), but, hey, if you’re not using common sense, perhaps someone should give you a helpful nudge in the right direction.

“We still have a long way to go to really be effective in addressing this issue in our communities,” Adams says. “Especially with our public street lighting. Community members should take a look at the light being used and address their municipality about how it can be corrected. Take a look at the lights you use outdoors, at home: are you using the right amount of light? Are your lights on timers, or do they stay on all night, and is that necessary? Can the light be capped and focused downward? Are the lights spilling into your neighbors’ yards or windows?”

Adams suggests the website darksky.org as a good resource, where you can research good lighting fixtures, sample lighting ordinances for communities, and even sample letters to encourage your neighbors to be more responsible with their outdoor lighting. Bogard agrees that fixing light pollution needs to start at a grassroots level.

“Become aware of the problem,” he says. “Support efforts in your community to implement and enforce dark skies ordinances. Turn off *your* lights at night. And spread the word.”

“Eliminating light pollution enhances and restores the natural beauty of any environment,” Adams adds. “And, as the 18th-century German thinker Goethe said, ‘Beauty is everywhere a welcome guest.'”
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Paul Bogard’s book, End of Night, is out now. To learn more about International Dark Sky Parks, including the one that Adams oversees, visit www.darksky.org