Hopes and Memories
Shereen Rana (Environment)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
On the Subversion of Darkness
"The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God!"
There are the classic sayings: “If there be light, then there is darkness,” “without darkness, there would be no light,” “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” These sayings have held fast throughout time for their figurative quality: the dark is intertwined with each individual life and through the expanse of history.
The sky and the dark have not only beckoned humans to cross oceans and measure time, but also question our own selves and what the enormity of the universe made us—enter, the “grand scheme of things.” All facets of the human effort—scientific, artistic, philosophical, and geographic have been tied to the stars.
For a very long time, the Paiute of North America have believed in the North Star being a sheep, Nah-gah, that had lost its way high above a mountain, and now stayed there, a beacon guiding other sheep on their path. But now, the Earth itself risks losing direction as light takes over everything.
Jean Baudrillard has said, "We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning." Our eyes are subjected to layers upon layers of bright visual stimulation while we lose our definition of the night, of connectedness with the dark. This rings truer when we see how strong, unshielded lights, whether industrial or on our phone screens, serve to spill over and minimize the natural dark, making it deeper, more consuming.
A Globe at Night research from 2021 shows data points from 20,801 observation points across 90 countries. Out of these, 14,719–more than 70%—had a limiting magnitude (LM) of 1-3, which indicates that only the brightest stars were visible. And further research found that over the 12 years, from 2011 to 2022, the sky brightness increased by 7-10% per year, 9.6% on average (Kyba et al. 2023). This occurrence can be explained by the fact that as artificial lighting is cast up, shining into the night sky, alongside rain and snow, which is reflected by clouds and particles causing a phenomenon termed “skyglow.” This complex system of light and reflection has thrown a white sheet over the sky, blanketing the dark realm that all life had witnessed—until now. Yet, the problem of light pollution goes deeper than merely our “right to starlight.”
For one, astronomers dread that the very anchor of their calling is now being lost, curbing new aspirations from a generation growing up without ever seeing dark skies. D.L Crawford also sheds light, so to speak, on how so much of science and its accuracy is lost because of skyglow—the city lights outshining astronomy’s subjects make them increasingly hard to see through even telescopes. For example, the Hoher List Observatory at Bonn University was, in the 1950s, a wonderful point for seeing—acknowledging—the true night sky, but is now drowned out by the lights of nearby towns.
The night is thus no longer a time of darkness. Something that has, over millions of years, been ingrained into our systems, physical and ecological, is twisted out of the blue, and has consequences for humans as well as other species. “...When we talk about ecological light pollution, we talk about the health of ecosystems, and no matter who we are or where we live, we live as part of one. Our ecological knowledge is really knowledge of our own health” (Bogard, 2013, p. 121).
Melatonin, a neuro-hormone, called the “hormone of darkness” is produced and secreted under dark conditions. Even short wavelengths of light work to suppress melatonin production (Haim and Zubidat, 2015), linked with increased tumorigenesis. Melatonin has other areas of operation too: possessing antioxidant properties, inducing sleep, boosting the immune system, helping the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands and lowering cholesterol.
Paul Bogard, in his book The End of Night (2013), emphasizes evolutionary perspectives. “Light pollution threatens [our] biodiversity by forcing sudden change on habits and patterns that have evolved to depend on light in the day and darkness at night,” he writes. Our internal circadian rhythms that synchronize the internal processes of birds, fish, insects, and plants— just as they do for humans—are disrupted by reception of light even with our eyes closed! Largely, humans’ biological clocks determine midnight to 6 a.m as a circadian trough, a time of sleep, and darkness. The absence of these is heavy on our body. Consider the classification of night shift work as a carcinogen (Zhang and Papantoniou, 2019); people that lose such rest are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, depression, substance abuse, and, as previously stated, breast and prostate cancer.
Moreover, the pervasiveness of blue light in our environment is even more hurtful than is currently widely understood. Our eyes are extremely sensitive to it. Our quest for energy- efficient lighting manifested in LEDs comes with a trade-off with our personal health as they produce a large amount of light in the blue spectrum. A Harvard study also drew possible connections between blue light and diabetes and obesity (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). The researchers put ten people on a schedule that gradually shifted the timing of their circadian rhythms. As their circadian rhythms were disrupted, so that their rest time became later and later, their blood sugar levels increased, throwing them into a prediabetic state, and levels of leptin, a hormone that leaves people feeling full after a meal, went down. When baby sea turtles first step out into the world on sandy beaches carefully selected by their mothers. They move seaward, given the right conditions of the moon and the tide.
They know where to go because the moon tends to be on the side of the sea, along with the brighter reflection of the moon and the stars on the water. This is how it ought to be, anyway, but when the glaring streetlights and/or local disco outshine the sea, they are misdirected, and paddle along to their likely demise inland, away from any semblance of home (Mizon, 2002).
Dung beetles, too, are another of the victims. Research has found them unable to use their celestial compass in the presence of light pollution. They followed streetlights and illuminated buildings instead. Naturally, these beetles disperse in all directions, steering clear of one another and thereby avoiding confrontation (which often leads to death), but with artificial streetlight in the picture, they go in one direction owing to polarized light and increasingly meet their doom (Lund University, 2021).
Further, the United States alone on a daily basis sees more than a million birds and animals caught in the headlights and left behind as roadkill (Bogard, 2013). Half and some more of these occur at night, given many animals’ nocturnal nature. These nighttime collisions are incredibly costly to humans as well. Bogard writes, “...statistically, deer are far more dangerous than mountain lions or bears or, certainly, wolves” (2013). More light does not necessarily translate to good illumination. The generous amount of optical rods in animal eyes blinds and stuns them in bright headlights. Thus highway lighting often proves ineffective.
Illumination is important. Tackling light pollution does not deny that; it simply acknowledges that most outdoor lighting used at night is inefficient, excessively bright, poorly targeted, improperly shielded, and too often unnecessary, wasteful. Misdirected light (and electricity) spills into the sky rather than serving its purpose of well-defined illumination to increase our range of vision and, therefore, our safety.
The incessant search for light despite the costs—financial, ecological, biological—has positioned the stars into a tragic place (or role). The 1994 L.A. Earthquake left people, in the middle of a black-out, dialing 911 at the sight of a bizarre, unexpected “cloud”—later recognised to be the Milky Way (Drake, 2019, National Geographic). People in that moment were not worrying about the dark, but about the light that they’d forgotten about, that of the stars.
The night sky is something we, and other creatures with just as much right to the earth and the stars as us, have evolved and grown under. But we run the risk of losing our cradle as we watch the stars go out. Astronomers and their science, migratory birds, and elephants, insects, turtles and deer, and the human sense of having a place in the universe are now completely blinded. “To be alone in the dark is to drop back through the years,” Bogard writes (2013). What could the very first humans have thought of looking up at the stars, so far, so inexplicable? It’s safe to say, they loved them enough to eventually give them order, to name them before we truly knew them. These constellations and stories are dying now, going limp as we take the stars away. Luckily, unlike a lot of other forms of pollution, light pollution can be reversed. The International Commission on Illumination and the United Nation’s Convention on Migratory Species are two of many organizations that provide crucial guidelines on how we can overturn the encroachment of light, and reclaim the dark skies.
Maybe one day, once again, we can look at Nah-gah and his starry brethren as we wonder at the skies, full again, in all their deeply dark, glimmering transcendence.
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Smithsonian Institution. (2018, June 8). Star Stories: The Star That Does Not Move [Video].
Bogard, P. (2013). End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Back Bay Books.
Mizon, B. (2002). Light Pollution: Responses and Remedies. Springer Praxis Books.
Haim, A. & Zubidat, A. E. (2015). Artificial light at night: melatonin as a mediator between the environment
and epigenome. Philosophical Transactions B. The Royal Society Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4375362
Kyba, C. C. M., Altintas, Y. Ö., Walker, C. E., & Newhouse, M. (2023). Citizen scientists report global rapid reductions in the visibility of stars from 2011 to 2022. Science, 379(6629), p. 265-268.
Zhang, Y., Papantoniou, K. (2019). Night shift work and its carcinogenicity. The Lancet Oncology. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(19)30578-9
Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Blue light has a dark side. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
Drake, N. (2019). Our nights are getting brighter, and Earth is paying the price. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/nights-are-getting-brighter-earth-paying- the-price-light-pollution-dark-skies
Lund University. (2021). Artificial light disrupts dung beetles’ sense of direction.