Monday, February 9, 2009

Afraid of the Dark

Face it folks, we are afraid of the dark. And I am not talking about being-in-your-bedroom-and-being-afraid-of-the-dark afraid, I am talking about being outside, in your community, whether it be rural, suburban or urban and being afraid of the dark. At night anymore, it’s often as bright as it is during the day.

Up until about 100 years ago, you could see the stars at night, even in the city, because back then, the lamps –which were gas-fired or simply candles, weren’t near as bright or as frequently placed as today, nor was there as much light escaping from buildings as there is today. Imagine what that must have been like, to stand in the streets of any major city, from New York, to London (the most populated city in 1800), to Moscow, to Hong Kong and still look up and see the stars, perhaps even the Milky Way. Now however, our communities are lit up in the name of security, and from interior light escaping from our buildings through windows. Then there’s decorative and accent lighting, to show off features of buildings and bridges. And more. And to boot, all this light is reflected, refracted and scattered above us, creating an even brighter halo over top the community.

Bright Lights. City Nights.
All this light is wonderful and beautiful in some respects –it’s quite something to fly over cities at night, the glowing network of roads and buildings below, but what is the cost to nocturnal environments? Because remember, even though we are diurnal creatures, the world doesn’t exist just for us, and just as much activity goes on at night as during the day. And indeed, migration, reproduction, and feeding patterns and habits of other creatures we share Earth with have been adversely affected. Birds get trapped and disoriented in our glowing cities, often colliding with buildings, killing up to 100 million birds each year, (click here to learn more about FLAP), turtles who’ve just laid eggs on the beach can sometimes be led off course, following the glow of a city beyond, instead of the natural glow of the horizon, and frogs and toads who live near brightly lit areas are thrown completely out of kilter, to name a scant few examples. Our built environment, our imprint and legacy, has drastically altered the natural environment, whether we want to admit it or not.

Regaining Transcendence
The first time I saw the number of stars in the sky was on the Big Island in Hawai’i. Over my head were millions of lights of various size and brightness. I had never seen such a sight and can still remember it today, as well as exactly that, the feeling of transcendence and awe. There is also a sense of deep humility that accompanies this experience. And I think humility is something we need right now.

We are also working towards reducing light pollution, and that’s a good thing, although admittedly we doubtfully will ever return our night skies to what they once were. Today, however, light fixtures have cutoff design, and the LEED rating system requires that specific requirements be met for both interior and exterior building lighting, so as to reduce light trespass and overall lighting power density. It's a start.

But there is something else to be gained by reducing light pollution, that being a reconnection with the stars and the galaxy beyond, and the transcendence and awe associated. Imagine what it might be like to stand in your community, whether small town USA to Times Square, New York City, and look up and see more stars than you have ever seen up to this day in your lifetime. Imagine too, what it might be like to proclaim as the Psalmist does in Psalm 8 “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the Earth! You have set your glory above the heavens!"

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