What exactly is lost with each bit of dark night sky that’s blotted out by artificial light? Paul Bogard’s book The End Of Night: Searching For Natural Darkness In An Age Of Artificial Light chronicles both the scientific and mythic consequences of the fact that “some two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night-that is, real darkness-and nearly all of us live in areas considered polluted by light.”
With a voice that’s equal parts methodical and poetic, Bogard takes readers from the earth’s brightest nights to its darkest, exploring humanity’s storied relationship with light and darkness-and how dependent we are on darkness for our health, both physically and psychologically. We asked Bogard about the artificial light-cancer connection, why we’re afraid of the dark, and why we should be turning down our lights.
1. You talk about “night consciousness” frequently. Can you explain what that is and why it’s important?
Simply an awareness of night, that’s it’s not the same as day, that it has value for our physical, mental, and spiritual health, and that its darkness is vitally important for us and for the rest of life on earth. Also that it’s incredibly beautiful, that it has its own beauty, its own scents and sights and sounds that enrich our lives. With our lights, we too often extend our day past sunset without even becoming conscious of the unique qualities of night.
2. If not all lighting is inherently pollution, what’s the difference between “good” and “bad” lighting?
Good lighting is pointed downward, and not in any other direction. It’s subtle lighting, rather than bright. It’s lighting that’s only used when we need it, and only in the amounts we need it. Too often I hear the phrase “well lit” when people really just mean “super bright.” But super bright lighting is bad lighting-it doesn’t make anyone any safer, it wastes money, and it’s ugly. Well-lit should mean subtle, beautiful, only what we need.
3. You talk about a “western” way of looking at darkness and light. What exactly do you mean by that?
In the West we’re really good at dichotomy, at separation, rather than unity or wholeness. We like to divide stuff: man and woman, right and wrong, good and bad, human and animal, rather than see the unity and continuity between these things. When it comes to light and dark-which we see as different but which are intimately connected-we too often see light as good, and dark as bad. We think this is what the Bible teaches, for example, but if you look in the Bible, you’ll find many examples of night and darkness being “good.” And if you look at other cultures-Native American for example-you don’t see this separation, this dichotomy between light and dark, good and bad.
4. As we lose dark skies, do you think we’re missing out on a spiritual and metaphorical connection, as well as physical?
Absolutely. As long as humans have looked up at the stars, we’ve been inspired to think of our spiritual lives, our place in creation. To lose that opportunity-it’s basically impossible to quantify the cost. How much is it worth to look out into the night and be inspired to live a certain way, to feel small in the face of infinitude, to recognize-as I say in the book-that there is no other place to go, and therefore we ought to find the beauty and meaning here on earth? I remember one of the guys I talked to in Quebec said basically that losing our view of the night isn’t the worst thing that’s happening, but it’s symbolic of what’s happening everywhere-of what we’re doing, of losing our connection to the rest of life.
5. You tell a personal story of your attempt to get over your fear of the dark by walking on a moonless night, until hearing a wolf’s howl changed your mind about fear of the dark. How did you actually come to value your fear?
I think I more value humans’ fear of the dark in general because I like the idea of people staying inside and leaving the night world to our fellow creatures. We so dominate the daylight, humans everywhere, that I kind of love the idea of everyone being so afraid of the dark that they don’t go out at night. But of course, I think a prime reason we use so much light at night-a prime reason for light pollution-is our fear of the dark. We might deny it, but I definitely believe that we’re afraid of the dark and we want everything lit. We feel safer when we see lights, even if the lights might actually be so bright that they make it harder for us to see the bad guy hiding in the shadow.
6. It’s striking that the way we see our own night sky affects how we perceive art portraying the night sky. How is this evolving?
The example I use is of Van Gogh and his famous paintings of the night sky, like Starry Night. We look at this and think he saw the night this way because he was, as one curator told me, “a werewolf of energy.” And obviously he was artistic and had a great style of painting, but he was also inspired by a much more impressive night sky than what we experience now. He wrote letters about the colors of the stars over Paris, for example, and if you’ve been to Paris you know there really aren’t many stars left, let alone stars of different colors.
7. It’s unclear whether increased lighting actually increases safety and reduces crime. Did that surprise you? If that’s true, why are people still over-lighting?
Light at night and safety is a complex subject, but we almost always reduce it to a simple idea that light equals safety and darkness equals danger, and therefore more light is better. Oftentimes, actually, the safest thing would be to turn off the lights, and almost always we could do with less light and have as much-or probably more-security than we enjoy. People are over-lighting because we’re afraid of the dark, we’ve been told over and over that light equals safety, and we’re afraid of violent crime, even if we live in places where violent crime is incredibly rare. I live in a town that was recently ranked the ninth safest city in the U.S., and it’s as over-lit as the 900th safest. No one is saying we shouldn’t have lights, but people are saying we can use less light than we do now.
8. You cite research showing that our increased exposure to artificial light is terrible for our health. Steven Lockley of Harvard Medical School even compares our situation to cigarette smoking in the 50s. Is this a fair comparison? An exaggeration?
He’s basically saying that our understanding of the negative health effects of light at night is where our understanding of smoking was in the 50s. We have research that seems to be telling us that all this light at night is harmful, but we can’t yet exactly say how it’s impacting us, or how much light it takes. What he and others do say is that light at night disrupts our sleep, confuses our circadian rhythms, and impedes the production of melatonin, all of which are harmful to us. The World Health Organization now considers working the night shift a probable carcinogen. If you’re reading this, the best thing-the thing researchers told me again and again-is to sleep in the dark.
9. What are the effects of over-lighting on animals and environments? What kind of solutions are possible?
This is the issue that is closest to my heart. We’re having a serious impact on the environment with light pollution, and so much of it is unnecessary. When you consider that life on earth evolved with bright days and dark nights, and need both for health, you start to understand how flooding the world with light might not be the greatest thing we could be doing. More than 60 percent of invertebrates-mostly insects-and thirty percent of vertebrates are purely nocturnal, and many of the other species are crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk. For them, light pollution is like a bulldozer, destroying their lives.
10. Arguments for aesthetics are difficult to win in the face of practicality. Does the dark sky movement have momentum? Is it possible to turn the tide?
I think it’s completely possible to turn the tide. There is reason upon reason why we should solve light pollution, and almost no reason why we shouldn’t. Again, no one is saying let’s not have lights. What people are saying is let’s stop using light irresponsibly, without thought. We’re so used to all this light that we don’t think night could be anything different, but it absolutely could. Simply by pointing our existing lights downward so that no light went into the sky or into our neighbor’s bedrooms would cut light pollution in half. Why should that be so hard?
Bonus: How do you define adventure?
In this context, I’d say adventure is just venturing out into the dark. I had such a great time researching the book because time and time again I got myself to a new location and then waited for darkness to rise. As everyone else was going back inside, I was heading out into the dark. Like when I walked out of Concord, Mass., on the train tracks to Walden Pond in the dark, I admit I looked behind me a few times to see if I was being followed. But man, that was a great adventure.
Photo by David Kingman/Flickr, Andy’s Pictures/Flickr. For more great conversations, check out additional 10 Questions interviews.