Not so terribly long ago, people everywhere experienced nights so black that even the Milky Way could cast shadows on the earth. According to some estimates, around 80 percent of people now live under night skies so polluted by artificial light that they’ve never seen the Milky Way at all.
As with many aspects of modern life, light pollution represents both a triumph of technology and a minor disaster. Along with increased safety, convenience and economic benefits, an artificially lit world brings heath problems, environmental degradation and another layer of inefficient energy consumption. It also disrupts a fundamental relationship that has evolved between humans and the natural world. Far from the province just of goblins and bandits, historians such as A. Roger Ekrich have noted how darkness influenced cultural and social practices. The territory of intimacy and imagination, night can also carve out a refuge from the never-ending responsibilities of the day.
This notion, that night is an integral, and profound, part of the human experience, not merely a few inconvenient hours away from the sun, underpins author Paul Bogard’s impassioned defense The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.
In the book, Bogard, who teaches creative nonfiction and environmental writing at James Madison University, and often lectures on the subject of light pollution, charts a geography of night across Western Europe and North America in which the majority of their residents under 40 have been raised in a world without “real night.” For Bogard, who spent his childhood summers in the dark nights at the edge of a Minnesota lake, the pace at which we’re relighting the world has pushed us to the cusp of an incalculable loss. Unchecked, the damage renders our world not just poorer, but also smaller. Throughout human history, for instance, the night sky has offered a taste of transcendence with its awe-inspiring beauty. “And in this beauty,” Bogard writes in the introduction to The End of Night, “the overwhelming size of the universe has seemed less ominous, Earth’s own beauty more incredible. If indeed the numbers and distances of the night sky are so large that they become nearly meaningless, then let us find the meaning under our feet.”
In the edited conversation below, the author discusses the dangers of staying up late with your iPad and the $2.2 billion we could recoup overnight. A PBS piece on light pollution talks about how, after a huge power outage struck LA in the 1990s, Angelenos were reportedly so freaked out by the appearance of “strange clouds” hovering overhead that they called 911—evidently that was the first time most of them had ever gotten a glimpse of the Milky Way. At this point, what relationship do you think most modern Americans have to the night sky?
I remember recently being in Times Square, and there was so much light that it just felt like we were in a domed stadium almost, looking up at something totally artificial above us. That is obviously the extreme of the situation, but I think that when most Americans are living now in cities and suburbs where they’re getting anywhere from two dozen to four dozen stars instead of 2,500, which is the number you could see on a normal night with no light pollution, it’s almost like why bother? Why have a relationship? I don’t know if most people even look up and notice the stars. And certainly way, way back, when a night sky was something that would tell you stories about your life, we’re way beyond that.
I have very good friends in New Mexico, and I was just out at one of the pueblos there, like an hour from Albuquerque. I said to our guide, it must be amazing here at night, and he said, yeah it is, and I asked, do you have stories associated with the constellations for example? He said, yeah, we have a whole mythology filled with stories about how to live and what a good life is and all that. Human culture in America is totally disconnected from that now.
Your book incorporates a number of literary quotes, as well as references to artists and thinkers like Van Gogh and Thoreau. You seem to be drawing an implicit connection between darkness and the creative impulse.
I was just working on an essay where I was talking about the intangible value of darkness. At least a significant part of its value is these intangibles, like we were just talking in terms of mythology and metaphorical darkness, and I wrote something like, “Darkness is always a part of creation, every artist knows that.” Every artist has had that experience where you’re just like, oh my god, I don’t know what to do next, what’s the next line? What should I paint here? That’s that darkness. It’s not being able to see; it’s not obvious; it’s not lit up.