Amid harsh, constant lighting, we’re blind to the wonder of our night skies. As we emerge from a difficult year, let’s cherish the darkness, writes Martin Wright
You want it darker?”, growled the late Leonard Cohen on the title track of his final album. To which the only conceivable answer is surely: “Er, no, you’re all right, Len, thanks for asking”. In an uncertain winter, more darkness is surely the last thing we need. Bring on the light, eh?
Well, yes. Only, maybe not too literally. Our world is lit up as never before, and not in a good way. Where once the bustle of the day gave way to the softness of starlight and the spell of the moon, now everything’s illuminated. We banish the dark at every turn. And as it fades to grey, so do we.
Romantic whimsy? Far from it. Lighting up our planet, 24 hours a day, plays havoc with the natural rhythms on which so much of life depends. For millions of years, it’s evolved in sync with, and dependent upon, a daily shift from light to dark, light to dark, regular as clockwork, ages before we ever dreamed of a clock. Not any more. Scientists say that cloudy skies over cities at night are now up to 1,000 times brighter than two centuries ago – and the sky glow spills out way beyond city limits. Messing with that ancient circadian rhythm is disrupting everything from migratory patterns of birds to the hatching of sea turtles, and holds at least part of the blame for the decline in insect numbers and other species, as well.
Species like us. We may be daytime creatures, but we’re designed for the darkness, too. There’s mounting evidence that circadian disruption is leading to everything from attention deficits and depression, to suppressed immune systems and growing risks of cancer and heart disease.
Beyond biology, it’s surely not too woo to suggest we lose something of our souls, if we can’t drink in the sparkle of the Milky Way, stretched over the night like a silver sand drift, just by stepping outside our front door and looking up.
Or if we can’t witness that particular magic, when the moon is new and the sky is clear, of pure starlight, casting its own soft shadows – a sight I never saw until one night 20 years ago, deep in rural Devon. I’ve sought it ever since.
But what of safety, I hear you cry? Darkness may make life easier for wildlife, but also for criminals, yes?
Well, no, actually. A range of studies found no association between light levels and crime, except that more crime tends to occur in brightly lit areas. Bright lights create shadows, in which a criminal can hide, while still being able to operate. And so much is so unnecessary. We’ve all been dazzled by sports grounds floodlights that spill so much light into the night that they could be signalling to spaceships rather than just illuminating a pitch – not to mention billboards’ blinding glare.
This isn’t an argument for a round- the-world blackout. We still need light in our lives, but just in the right place, at the right time, in the right amount.
We lose something of our souls, if we can’t drink in the sparkle of the Milky Way
So it’s heartening that the ‘dark sky’ movement, once very much a fringe affair, is now fast gaining ground, with a growing network of dark sky parks and sanctuaries. Some, such as the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, make a virtue of their remoteness. Others, like the growing numbers of designated ‘dark sky communities’, take deliberate policy decisions to encourage sensitive lighting – on to the ground where it’s needed, not up into the sky where it’s not.
These range from the very first, Flagstaff, Arizona – a city whose 70,000 residents can still see the Milky Way – to ones such as the Scottish community that proudly declares: ‘Welcome to the Dark Sky Town of Moffat’ on a roadsign.
Backed by groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association and the The Commission for Dark Skies, such influence is spreading. In the UK, where light pollution is now recognised as a statutory nuisance, the Institute of Lighting Professionals has published detailed guidance for avoiding light ‘leakage’, and simple steps such as shielding the tops of streetlights are starting to take effect. The Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks were, in November, named international dark sky reserves. Seven European nations are promoting good practice with the Night Light initiative.
Elsewhere, others are celebrating the night with Dark Sky Festivals, such as one held recently on Exmoor, combining night safaris, talks, walks, feasts under the stars, reading events for children – and, of course, stargazing.
There’s a long way to go. As satellites show, we’re living in an ever more illuminated world. But we’re learning to dim the lights. And discovering that, when we do, we can see so much more.
So, “You want it darker?” Yes, within reason. Yes, please.
Illustration by Matt Murphy