Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.
Could God have been wrong? According to a Swedish scientist, quite possibly. A little light may be a good thing, but too much of it can be and has been devastating to many species including Homo sapiens. Like anything, too much of a good thing is likely, in the end, to be a bad thing.
For my part, however, I have always craved light, as much as possible. Growing up in sunny California, I was often bathed in light, and I loved it. As some of you know, I see very poorly, so in order to read, I need as much illumination as I can get. Hell, I even entitled my most popular NDE book Lessons from the Light. And I know from my NDE work that heaven itself – or whatever you want to call the realm where NDErs go to die – is filled with light. As one NDEr assured me, “there is no night there.”
My girlfriend Lauren, however, while visiting me, often works at her laptop in semi-darkness. I am forever asking her, “sweetheart, don’t you want more light?” She simply shakes her head and continues to type away in the murk of my dining room. I, in turn, shake my head. I can’t understand how she can possibly see anything!
Turns out, the world would be better off with more Laurens and fewer Kens.
We are all used to worrying about various forms and effects of pollution – our phosphorous-filled lakes, our contaminated water supplies, the carbon dioxide in the air, the plague of plastics everywhere, the alarming melting of the glaciers, and so on into the night – a phrase redolent with portentous meaning, as you will soon see.
But among these well-known dangers to the integrity of our environment, there is one that tends to be overlooked: light pollution. Van Gogh’s “starry night” is now likely to be obscured, especially in our large cities, by all the artificial light we project toward the heavens. Indeed, cities like Singapore and Hong Kong are now so brightly lit that one wonders whether its inhabitants’ descendants may end up losing their night vision altogether as their rhodopsin becomes irrelevant.
Of course, I exaggerate for effect and with some lame humor, but light pollution is no joke to many of our fellow creatures who earn their living, hunt their prey or seek their mates under the canopy of the dark sky.
The Darkness Manifesto by a Swedish chiropterologist (which, I learned, refers to someone who studies bats) named Johan Eklöf, during the 1980s, bat colonies in Sweden were plentiful. No more. Most of them have disappeared. And why? Light pollution seems to be a major factor, according to Eklöf:
District after district has installed modern floodlights to show the architecture it’s proud of, all the while the animals—who have for centuries found safety in the darkness of the church towers and who have for 70 million years made the night their abode—are slowly but surely vanishing from these places.
And not just bats, but the lives of various species of moths have also been seriously disrupted by the brilliance of urban lighting. Eklöf gives several examples, but here let us just consider the lowly cabbage moth.
Once the sun sets, the adult moth begins to fly, looking for its mate. The female takes the initiative by extending her antennae forward, flapping her wings (“come to me, baby!”) and exuding her distinctive “come hither” scent. Successful mating will soon lead the female to lay her eggs. But what happens when this kind insect coupling goes awry because of light pollution? Again, Eklöf:
The female emits fewer pheromones in the presence of artificial light, and furthermore, the composition of the scent is completely different from that emitted in darkness. So mating never gets started. The females wait in vain in the darkness.”
This may seem trivial in the scheme of things, but it’s not. The reason is that moths play a crucial role as pollinators, which are vital to keep our ecosystem thriving. And if you happen to remember a blog I wrote some time ago about insects, you may recall that “bugs” are absolutely essential to human life as well. Without insects, humans would not survive. So we have every reason to be concerned with the romantic lives of moths!
And, joshing aside, there are good reasons to take this threat seriously because, according to Eklöf, in recent decades, the biomass of all flying insect species has apparently collapsed by nearly an unnerving 75%! If this continues, then we could really be in some deep you-know-what.
Adam Gopnik, who, you might know, played himself in a cameo role in the recent film, Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, apropos of nothing. But what is relevant here is that Gopnik, in his amusing fashion, points his finger squarely at the cause of all this meddling and messing with our natural environment.
The source of all this harmful light is, of course, us, city-dwelling human beings, who are presumably keeping the lights on all night in pursuit of our own couplings. Where once human life had its nocturnal rhythms, interrupted only by the dim light of candles and fireplaces, the Earth is now so lit up that, seen from space, it glows like a Japanese lantern. Since the invention of the light bulb, street lights and floodlights have come, ominously, to disturb age-old circadian rhythms, to the point that, Eklöf writes, “artificial light, the polluted light, is now dominant—light that causes birds to sing in the middle of the night, sends turtle babies in the wrong direction, and prevents the mating rituals of coral in reefs, which take place under the light of the moon.”
Then there is Las Vegas, a city I have had the misfortune of visiting only twice, and even without losing a fortune in one of their glitzy casinos, quickly learned to loathe. To me, not that you asked or care, it represents everything that is hateful about America, but I will not subject you to one of my tiresome diatribes. Still, I can’t resist waggling one of my Zola-inflected fingers at one of its most outrageous excesses.
Case in point: Did you know that sitting atop the Luxor Hotel, there is a light beam that creates an astonishing and obscene two billions candlepower of light every night? This is meant to attract tourists and gamblers, and perhaps some lowlife denizens of Las Vegas as well, and of course it does, but it also attracts flocks of birds who are evolutionarily programmed to fly toward bright lights, and it totally screws them up. Moreover, in 2019, it lured great swarms of grasshoppers, a pseudo-Egyptian plague that Alfred Hitchcock, were he still alive, could have made a movie about. Pity the poor grasshoppers.
But, to be sure, it’s not just the winged creatures of the night who are affected and thrown off course, if not destined to an early death, by all this artificial light that harshly illuminates the dark skies overhead. It also interferes with the lives and functioning of certain terrestrial bipeds, namely ourselves. Inhabitants of indoor spaces at night, we are nevertheless bathed for hours in the artificial light of our laptops and other screens, to say nothing of the kind of illumination we receive from our lamps and ceiling lighting fixtures. Eklöf points out that our daily cycles of melatonin and other sleep hormones are thereby disrupted with sometimes dire consequences. And we wonder why we have so much trouble sleeping nowanights.
The body enters a vicious circle where stress and disturbed sleep go hand in hand, we become vaguely depressed. Obesity has many causes, but one of these is constant low leptin levels, which is a direct result of the breaking down of the melatonin circle.
To which, Gopnik wryly adds: “The grasshoppers beam down to their burning death; we just grow chubby and cheerless.”
Tim Blanning’s history of the Romantic Movement, The Romantic Revolution. But you can also find it in the poetry of Novalis, in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and in the operas of Wagner, particularly in his Tristan and Iseult.
The Romantic Movement arose, of course, as a reaction against the French enlightenment with its emphasis on reason and the intellect, and its rejection of religious dogma and what it regarded as outright superstition. The apostles of the enlightenment wanted to banish the old outworn ideas of the past and looked forward to a more progressive age that would culminate in the perfection of man.
We have seen where that has led.
But the Romantics had a different vision of what life could and should be, and for them, the night was the source of the creative life and the fulfillment of the soul. They would not be happy about the trend of things today when the natural cycles of the day and night have been so profoundly disturbed.
Of course, we need light. Who would want to return to dimly lit and dangerous city streets, much less to candle-lit rooms with no television, no smart phones, no computers, and so on? No, electric lights are here to stay, and none of us would want it any other way. But, still, maybe we should strive for more balance and rein in our Promethean urges for the divine fire we now take for granted, failing to realize that what may brighten our lives may also burn us and other creatures.
Yes, I admit it – I have always loved light and loved to bask in it, but then I have always been partial to the Romantics, too. I want to have it both ways, don’t you?
Goethe, who used to hang out with the romantics of his time, especially the romantics of the Jena set in Germany around the turn of the 19th century (Schiller was one of his best friends). I will let him have the last word – before I return with a final, brief coda:
“More light!,” Goethe’s famous deathbed command, was the battle cry of the Enlightenment, which produced the progressive-minded science that eventually gave us the light bulb and the neon sign and the L.E.D. “Turn on the night!,” still the essential cry of the Romantics, from Caspar David Friedrich to Kiss, urges us to love in darkness. The light of reason makes searchlights and lighthouses; the love of darkness asks us to adjust our eyes and egos sufficiently to see as owls do. Seek light in the morning; accept the night when it comes. Then call it a day.
Or as my girlfriend, Lauren, is wont to say: “Please turn down the light, Ken. It’s entirely too bright in here.” Which is why I say the world needs more Laurens and fewer Kens.