As the coronavirus pandemic has moved around the world, cities have gone into lockdown and people have been encouraged to stay at home. In many places, curfews have been introduced.
Back in spring under the first UK lockdown, I went on numerous night walks in my home city of Manchester. I was struck by several things. Without traffic or trains, birdsong prevailed in this peculiar quietness. The air was fresh and crisp without the usual pollution. Yet, the artificial lights of the city at night still blazed, for no one.
Now, as England enters a second national lockdown, urban landscapes remain just as bright. It’s a similar situation around the globe, a powerful reminder of the wasteful ways we have become so accustomed to that we don’t even think about them.
Nick Dunn @darkskythinking/instagram
Light pollution is a big problem, not just because of the needless energy and money that it represents. Light is everywhere, an often-uninvited byproduct of our contemporary lives, shining from the devices we use and through the environments we inhabit.
Darkness, meanwhile, appears unwanted. How did we get to the point where if an urban landscape is not dazzling with light it must be troubling, even threatening?
From dark to light
Since the Enlightenment, Western culture has been closely bound with ideas of illumination and darkness as representative of good and evil. Shining a light on all things meant the pursuit of truth, purity, knowledge and wisdom. Darkness, by contrast, was associated with ignorance, deviancy, malevolence and barbarism.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe, for example, changes in attitudes and beliefs toward the night were important in framing perceptions of darkness that have endured. Transformations in societies gave rise to new opportunities for labour and leisure – which, coupled with the evolution of artificial illumination and street lighting, recast the night as an expansion of the day. Rather than being embraced, darkness was viewed as something to be banished with light.
But this view was not necessarily shared by other cultures. For example, in his 1933 classic In Praise of Shadows, the Japanese author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki pointed out the absurdity of greater and greater quantities of light. Instead, he celebrated the delicate and nuanced aspects of everyday life that were rapidly being lost as artificial illumination took over:
The progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
Get The Latest By Email
In the context of many city centres today, darkness is unwanted – connected to criminal, immoral and sinister behaviour. Yet recent research by engineering firm Arup has shown that some of these concerns might be misplaced. Further research has shown that cities need a better understanding of light to help tackle inequality. It can be used to promote civic life and help create urban spaces that are vibrant, accessible and comfortable for the diverse people who share them.
Meanwhile values of light, clarity, cleanliness and coherence in urban landscapes have been transferred across the global experience of culture more widely, resulting in a worldwide disappearance of the night sky.
The cost of light
This is not a small issue. Scientists are increasingly referring to this as a global challenge. The International Dark-Sky Association has shown that the waste in both energy and money is huge – in the US alone this adds up to $3.3 billion and an unnecessary release of 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Of greater concern are the devastating impacts over-illumination and light pollution is having upon human health, other species, and the planet’s ecosystems.
The circadian rhythms of humans are disrupted by exposure to artificial light at night, making those working on-call, long hours or in shift work prone to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and gastrointestinal disorders. Britain’s night workers now account for one in nine employees, so this is a significant issue.
It is clear we need alternatives – and quickly. Instead of reducing lighting pollution, new LED technologies actually increased it. This is because they have been rolled out with an emphasis on economic savings rather than scrutinised and applied with the nuance they are capable of in terms of array, colour, and power. Shifting the emphasis from quantity to quality is crucial so that we can appreciate different types of lighting appropriate to different contexts, such as the lighting scheme for Moscow’s Zaryadye Park, designed by US design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which reflects existing sources of light.
Dark skies have value. They are a profoundly wonderful yet highly threatened natural asset. It is unsurprising that people are increasingly rediscovering the joys of walking at night, whether in cities or the countryside.
We need a new conception of the dark and new visions for places that enable us to reconnect with the night sky through more responsible and less environmentally harmful lighting. Although intended as art, Thierry Cohen’s Villes éteintes (Darkened Cities) photographic series is powerful in the way it conveys how future cities could be with a more responsible and ecological approach to urban illumination. His photographs are a reminder of our connection to the cosmos and the dark skies many miss out on.
Among the complex and cascading issues that climate change presents, engaging with the potential of darkness in our cities is more important and urgent than ever before. Urban development around the world remains uneven and it would be easy to repeat and increase the problems we have already caused with light pollution. It is time for us to embrace the darkness.
About the Author
Nick Dunn, Professor of Urban Design, Lancaster University
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall
by Mark W. Moffett
If a chimpanzee ventures into the territory of a different group, it will almost certainly be killed. But a New Yorker can fly to Los Angeles--or Borneo--with very little fear. Psychologists have done little to explain this: for years, they have held that our biology puts a hard upper limit--about 150 people--on the size of our social groups. But human societies are in fact vastly larger. How do we manage--by and large--to get along with each other? In this paradigm-shattering book, biologist Mark W. Moffett draws on findings in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explain the social adaptations that bind societies. He explores how the tension between identity and anonymity defines how societies develop, function, and fail. Surpassing Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind created sprawling civilizations of unrivaled complexity--and what it will take to sustain them. Available On Amazon
Environment: The Science Behind the Stories
by Jay H. Withgott, Matthew Laposata
Environment: The Science behind the Stories is a best seller for the introductory environmental science course known for its student-friendly narrative style, its integration of real stories and case studies, and its presentation of the latest science and research. The 6th Edition features new opportunities to help students see connections between integrated case studies and the science in each chapter, and provides them with opportunities to apply the scientific process to environmental concerns. Available On Amazon
Feasible Planet: A guide to more sustainable living
by Ken Kroes
Are you concerned about the state of our planet and hope that governments and corporations will find a sustainable way for us to live? If you do not think about it too hard, that may work, but will it? Left on their own, with drivers of popularity and profits, I am not too convinced that it will. The missing part of this equation is you and me. Individuals who believe that corporations and governments can do better. Individuals who believe that through action, we can buy a bit more time to develop and implement solutions to our critical issues. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.