Perma-noon: On Light Pollution and the Way We Talk About the Natural World
By Lauren ColleeSeptember 4, 2023
IN AN EPISODE of The Simpsons from 2003, Lisa, having discovered a new passion for astronomy, embarks on a campaign to reduce Springfield's levels of light pollution. When she collects enough signatures on her petition, Mayor Quimby agrees to switch off the town's streetlights at night so as to unveil the starscape above. In the darkness, the townspeople revel in their newfound freedom: Moe and Selma kiss passionately on a park bench, Bart attempts to steal the hood ornament from Fat Tony's car. The new arrangement doesn't last long. The surge in crime forces Mayor Quimby to turn the lights on again, this time to the highest setting—“perma-noon.” Night is completely eliminated from Springfield, and the city's rhythms go haywire. A sleepless Marge irons random objects, ecstatic at the new heights of productivity she has reached. Birds begin tunneling underground. Eventually, Lisa and Bart team up to shut off the power once again, and all of Springfield gathers to watch a meteor shower light up the sky above.
Back in 2003, light pollution was still a niche subject, even for a show famous for the breadth of its coverage like The Simpsons. It had been two decades since the International Dark Sky Association was established to advocate for greater night sky visibility, but beyond astronomy circles "light pollution" was still a fairly unintelligible phrase. This was three years before An Inconvenient Truth, when the layman’s environmental concerns extended to clean rivers and the ozone layer. How could light be a pollutant? Despite our tendency to describe illumination with the language of liquidity (light leaks, seeps, trickles, and bathes), most people don't really think about light as a physical substance, let alone something that might contaminate our environment.
Around the turn of the century, though, mainstream discussions about artificial light were beginning to change. The dawn of the digital age led to new concerns around newly ubiquitous glowing screens. New research measured the capacity of bluer wavelengths in particular to disrupt our circadian rhythm - the internal clock that syncs itself to the outside world via external cues. (Such cues are known as "zeitgebers," a German word meaning "time-givers." One, of course, is light). This research linked artificial light at night (sometimes referred to as ALAN) to sleep disruption, mood disorders, and even some kinds of cancer. Meanwhile, the effects of ALAN on other organisms were becoming increasingly evident, particularly on nocturnal insects and other crucial nighttime pollinators such as bats, whose numbers had been steadily declining as electric light expanded into new frontiers of space and time. Today, scientists view the loss of the night as a kind of habitat loss, and a major driver of the current escalation in biodiversity loss that is sometimes referred to as the sixth mass extinction.
When I started writing my PhD on light pollution in 2019, there were early signs of the concept beginning to travel in popular culture outside of the astronomy circles where it originated. But the last four years in particular has seen new shows and exhibitions on the subject of artificial light, from the major exhibition 24/7 at Somerset House in London (based on the book of the same name by media theorist Jonathan Crary), to Netflix’s new nature documentary show Night on Earth. In the past year alone, two new books have come out on the topic: An Immense World by Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic, and Swedish biologist Johan Eklöf’s The Darkness Manifesto. If ecological panic is something that tends to take on a slightly different emphasis every few years ("the greenhouse effect" in the early noughts, microplastics in the early 2010s, the wildfires of recent years in California and beyond) then it seems that "light pollution" might be about to have its moment as the environmental concern du jour.
One thing that distinguishes light pollution from other environmental crises is the fact that, unlike climate change or microplastics, it could be eliminated overnight. Of course, its impacts on invertebrate populations and on the migratory patterns of birds and turtles could take a lot longer to reverse, but with the stroke of a pen or the flip of a switch, the sky could go pitch black. The fact that we could instantaneously recover the crucial habitat provided by darkness makes light pollution a particularly appealing topic, a likely candidate for the next environmental Good News Story. But this alone doesn’t fully account for light pollution’s growing popularity as a subject matter. There is another, more subtle force at work, one which has to do with the deeply rooted myths and webs of symbolism in which light is entangled.
As both a metaphor and a set of technologies, light has always been bound up with humankind’s quest for knowledge, and in particular with the Promethean myth of conquest and catastrophe. Illumination seems to go hand-in-hand with what Chris Otter (writing about Victorian England) has called the “phenomenology of modernity,” a state characterized by distraction, spectacle, fragmentation, speed, and ultimately disconnection. Such meanings tally well with contemporary anxieties about contemporary life, in which we are inundated with light from all angles—phone screens, computer screens, giant LED advertising screens. In discussions of light pollution, clear binaries emerges: between the natural state of things and the corrupted one, between urban areas and “wilderness,” between the bright noise of the digital age and the darkened silence of a lost interiority.
In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability (Rio+20), opened with a short film called “Welcome to the Anthropocene”. The piece, which was directed by Owen Gaffney and Félix Pharand-Deschênes and runs just over three minutes, visualizes the expansion of humankind across the globe as networked webs of light, each of which signifies a different dataset of human activity: under-sea fiber optic cables, airplane and shipping routes, energy consumption. Five years later, NASA released its ‘black marble’ image of the Earth at night, which bore the subtitle “our planet in Brilliant Darkness.”
By now, the black marble image is nearly as ubiquitous as the famous blue marble image from the 1970s was before it. It shows up in bank advertisements and white papers, on book covers and computer screensavers. Where the blue marble displayed an earth apparently untouched by Man, all blues and greens and white fluffy clouds, then the black marble image is something more sinister, its surface marred by malign-looking clusters whose primary visual echo is the agar plate. If the subtext of the blue marble image was the fragility of earth, then the black marble’s is humankind’s dominance, anthropos creeping like a web of light over the darkened earth. It is a picture of a world in flux, caught in a yet-unfinished process of transformation: each time the satellite does another rotation around the earth, it registers a few more pixels of light.
Light is an incredibly effective visual metaphor for both cultural anxieties about the pace and freneticism of modern life (the erosion of sleep, the elusiveness of rest), and ecological anxieties about the loss of the wild and the planetary scale of human influence. This makes the view of Earth from above at night an almost perfect emblem for the Anthropocene era, which is a cultural moment as much as a geologic one. Eklof, the Swedish biologist, writes “satellite pictures [of the earth at night] show in a very concrete way how the urbanized world spreads out and are perhaps the strongest symbols of the Anthropocene,” while Yong, the Atlantic writer, peering out of a plane window at the illuminated city below, muses that “light travels, metastasizing even into protected places that are otherwise untouched by human influence.”
There are the echoes here of a misanthropic environmentalism: human influence, as symbolized by light, becomes here a kind of cancer, “metastasizing” into darkened, undeveloped corners. The historian of technology Sara B. Pritchard has written extensively about this, pointing out how the black marble images are edited in such a way that the Global North stands out as much brighter than the Global South, reinforcing a colonial ordering of the globe that separates darkened ‘nature’ from illuminated ‘society’. Is it “human influence” we need to be wary of, or is it a particular economic system? As many have pointed out, the dominant narratives we have for the climate crisis are in dire need of revision. That of the “Anthropocene,” for example, tends to implicate us all equally: in thrall to the promises of technology and development, “humankind” is destroying the planet. Similarly, the notion of the “untouched wilderness” reinforces the segregation of humankind from nature, deepening the fallacy that such a separation is possible in the first place, and ignoring the fact that the most pressing threats to ecosystems won’t stop at the gate of a nature sanctuary.
How do we talk about the ways in which certain human practices are destroying worlds without lapsing into the generalizations of Anthropocene thinking? In the case of light pollution, one way forward is to pay very close attention to the varied ways of life that darkness facilitates, and the precise ways in which artificial light disrupts them. Eklof’s work is most compelling when it’s in the weeds of the nocturnal life that awakens when most humans lie down to sleep, from the ghost moths that dance above the grass one night a year in the Swedish springtime, to the giant squid, perceiving with its plate-like eyes clouds of light around its predators in the darkened ocean. This nocturnal world is fascinating not only because of the associations that have coalesced around nighttime (romance and terror, the ghost and the dream) but also because of the deep mystery of recognizing, as Ed Yong points out, that we can never really know what it is like to inhabit the world as these animals do. We are all, at the end of the day, trapped in our own “sensory bubble.”
And yet studying the ecological effects of light pollution does require the researcher to attempt to get inside the mind of a bat, whether through instruments that render new sensory experiences visible, or inferences drawn from studies of behavioral patterns. Accounts of the impact of light pollution on animals are often steeped the language of trickery and artifice, a nature duped by false dawns and false moons, sea turtles lured away from the ocean by the bright lights of the city, birds dazzled and confused by columns of light commemorating the fall of the twin towers. It is worth noting that such language maps quite neatly onto human associations with light as something that deceives, dazzles, and distracts. In the diagnosis of the animal, we can also discern fears about modern man, who—like the moth, or the bat—is overstimulated, seduced by the bright light of the iPhone screen or advertising billboard, tuned out of its natural behaviors and lured toward its death.
In 2009, the legal philosopher John Nagle drew attention to the fact that the primary contemporary meaning of “pollution” as an environmental contaminant was a fairly recent development. Up until the late 1800s, pollution was a word that referred to moral taint. There is an echo of this original meaning in modern environmental understandings of pollution, which continue to suggest in the grit and fog of the urban environment a moral corruption, or between the rural lifestyle and moral innocence (see Raymond Williams’s The City and the Country, for example). In discussions of light pollution, similarly, “darkness” stands in not only for an ecological good, but a moral one, a “cure” for a contemporary humanity who have been corrupted by their addiction to light.
“Sensory pollution is the pollution of disconnection,” writes Yong, concluding that “in making the planet brighter and louder, we have also fragmented it,” He’s talking about animals here, but he might as well be talking about humankind. Eklof, similarly, includes a statistic about teenage smartphone addiction alongside his discussion of moths seduced by streetlamps, suggesting that humans are no more immune to the pull of the light than the common invertebrate. Later in the book, he talks about darkness as a “balm for the soul,” arguing that conversations held in the dark are deeper and different in quality to those held in the day.
Darkness, it seems, can heal the rift that digital light has torn in the fabric of society. If light is emblematic of the disconnection of the internet age, then darkness can facilitate both a morally pure, nearly spiritual interiority and a recovered sense of community that encompasses both human and non-human forms of life. While there is nothing inherently wrong with ascribing these powers to darkness (these narratives would not be so popular if they did not contain a grain of truth), it bears remembering that in the world as it is right now, where everything we value is sold back to us, the scarcity of darkness is an opportunity for profit.
As the “toxic” elements of light become more widely known, darkness becomes increasingly desirable in all facets of life. Digital devices advertise dark modes, which promise to bring technology into closer compatibility with natural rhythms. People now seek out sensory deprivation tanks in which to escape the modern condition of overstimulation; ‘darkness retreats,’ an experience derived from a form of Taoist meditation, tout the deprivation of all light and noise. Finally, National Parks seek to increase visitor numbers over winter by tapping into the rising demand for ‘darkness tourism,’ in which people visit protected Dark Sky areas in order to experience a night under the stars. But darkness is not a commodity; it is a basic condition for life. What does it mean if darkness, with all its healing qualities, becomes something geographically, as well as temporally siloed?
Like most other forms of pollution, exposure to light pollution in energy-stable countries tends to be unevenly distributed, especially along lines of race and class. A 2016 study from the London School of Economics found that social housing estates in London were characterized by “substantial over-illumination in which lighting is a purely engineering solution to technical problems of order, policing and safety,” while more affluent areas enjoyed lower, atmospheric levels of nighttime lighting. In New York, housing projects that are deemed ‘high crime’ are subject to the NYPD’s horrific ‘Project Omnipresence,’ which involves blasting the neighborhood with bright lighting towers, each of which emits a white light equivalent to 200 car headlights. Rolled out in 2014 by then-mayor Bill De Blasio, the lights were supposed to “help the NYPD do its job.” The threat of disproportionate light pollution assists and compounds the greater threat of disproportionate police presence in majority Black and brown neighborhoods.
Even when measures to reduce lighting levels are taken, there’s no guarantee that such measures will take the interests of communities into account. Municipalities in cities like New York and London are rolling out “smart” streetlamps, which can be dimmed and adjusted remotely according to need. Introduced as an energy-saving option as well as a strategy for reducing unwanted light spillage, such lamps often come equipped with inbuilt CCTV cameras and other monitoring devices. They are first and foremost surveillance technologies, ushered in under the guise of an ecological strategy, and grafted onto an object that ordinarily connotes trust and safety: the lamppost (In fact, an EU-wide initiative to introduce smart street lamps with inbuild CCTV is called project “humble lamppost,” reflecting the fact that unlike a camera, lampposts do not tend to be seen as antagonistic.) In San Diego, the deployment of 3,000 such lampposts faced such fierce opposition from community groups that the mayor was eventually forced to suspend the program.
Whether through these means or others, “light will probably be soon as strictly regulated as noise,” muses Eklof. But it is worth asking whose interests such regulations will serve. The comparison to noise pollution is an interesting one, given the often conservative spirit that has underpinned campaigns for quieter urban environments, which have often welcomed the involvement of city police forces. In the 1990s, “Operation Soundtrap” attempted to quieten the streets of New York by deploying squad cars full of police to stop the use of boom boxes and boom cars. “The sound of gentrification is silence,” reflects Xochitl Gonzales, in an essay on noise pollution for The Atlantic.
Without a reflection on light’s role as tool for enforcing the segregation of urban space, the well-intentioned battle against “light pollution” may be easily brought into alignment with the aims of police departments and other violent institutions. If we are going to bring sensory pollution back into public discourse, it needs to be done so with a rigorous wariness of the ways such an idea can be co-opted to naturalize the sensory effluvia of certain groups and actors, and denaturalize that of others. At one point in An Immense World, Yong is walking through a National Park when he reflects on the intrusion of human-made noise: “Two men puncture the tranquility,” he writes. “I can’t see them, but they’re somewhere on the trail below, intent on broadcasting their opinions to all of Colorado. Further away, I can hear vehicles zooming along a highway behind the trees.” While Yong’s book is for the most part nuanced and granular, this passage is typical of a particularly unfortunate strain of contemporary nature writing that the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie has summarized as “the lone enraptured male.” God forbid somebody other than this narrator also visits the park! And God forbid they enjoy themselves and have a conversation! The ecological impact of a loud human voice is not the same as that of a highway. The problem with blanket definitions of sensory pollution is that they force these kinds of false equivalences in their attempt to schematize what does or doesn’t belong in a given environment.
Later in the same chapter, Yong invokes William Cronon’s work on “the trouble with wilderness,” a still-powerful text from 1990 in which the author warns against an environmentalism that is predicated upon the preservation of “wilderness,” a colonial idea that true nature is best enjoyed in solitude, and precludes the presence of other people. The use of Cronon rang false for me, because what Cronon demands of us is something that the literature on light pollution has not yet learned to do, which is to really consider the power struggles that happen on the line where the natural is separated from the artificial, the human from the non-human, the necessary from the toxic.
A key contribution of Cronon’s work to ecological theory was the idea that the National Park model—the strategy of focusing the majority of environmental resources on remote sanctuaries that become “showrooms” for the kind of nature that is deemed worth preserving—might not be the best way to guarantee the long-term co-existence of diverse human and non-human worlds. Currently, the main strategy for reducing light pollution’s impact on the environment is the creation of ‘Dark Sky Parks,’ areas that strictly regulate lighting in order to gain accreditation from the International Dark Sky Association. Because high concentrations of light tend to accompany high concentrations of people, these Dark Sky Parks often fall within the borders of existing National Parks or wildlife sanctuaries.
A year or so ago, I spoke to advocacy officer David Smith from Buglife, a UK-based charity that aims to protect insect and other invertebrate populations. Given the vulnerability of invertebrates to ALAN, light pollution is high on Buglife’s agenda. But Smith stressed to me that only protecting siloed Dark Sky sanctuaries wasn’t really a viable long-term ecological strategy. “These siloed dark sky places might work for things such as astronomy,” he said. “But if we’re effectively trapping species within those dark sky places without the ability to move, then other threats might come into it— things like climate change, for example, might compress those spaces down.” Smith explained that the primary problem was the fragmentation of dark space, which led to species being immobile and vulnerable, confined to “only the darkest corners of our world.” This is the risk that comes with darkness being made a geographically specific quality.
Johan Eklof’s work is most compelling where he emphasizes that our ways of understanding the relationship of light to darkness tend to be overly binaristic. He points out that there are, in fact, three phases of twilight, each marked by a shift of six degrees between the sun and the horizon, as the sun continues its revolution and day turns to night. Each of these phases is marked by its own color-world, and serves a discrete function to the various species whose sensory organs are far more attuned to these shifts than our own. He points out, too, that the distinction between light and dark doesn’t always map neatly onto the urban/rural divide: an unobstructed night sky can be chaotic, dazzling and overwhelming in its light show, while a city alleyway can be profound in its gloom. Darkness is, as Eklof rightly notes , not merely the absence of light (or of noise, of stimulation, of humanity). Darkness has its own variety of textures, habits and moods. Sometimes it comes down thickly and violently, sometimes it falls softly as snow. Sometimes it brings terror, and sometimes it brings rest. It means something different for all the many species who depend on it. Having a single word for all these experiences is deceptive.
“Protecting the darkness” or “saving the night” from the encroaching threat of light pollution, then, is not as simple a task as it may first seem. In some ways, that Simpsons episode from 2003 does as good a job as any subsequent text of capturing the complexity of the human relationship to light, which colors so many lines of demarcation—between the natural and the artificial, the rural and the urban, leisure and labor. As both a metaphor and a technology, illumination performs all kinds of boundary work for us without our really noticing, because its ubiquity as a metaphor hides it from view.
At the beginning of Eklof’s book, there is a beautiful passage in which he finds himself in a darkened Swedish church where a population of bats roosts. Inside the church there is a painting of a demon with bat wings. “The creature of darkness is dying,” Eklof writes, describing the light that radiates from its mouth as though “it has tried to swallow the light but can no longer contain its power.” Though light pollution remains—let’s be honest—a fringe environmental concern, it is one with profound philosophical stakes. In the Christian imagination, the light/dark binary has long stood in for the battle between good and evil, form and formlessness. We must be careful how we move through this terrain, because a flipped binary is still a binary, and all binaries produce segregation.
Lauren Collee is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Baffler, Real Life Magazine, The Rumpus, Another Gaze, The Chicago Review, and elsewhere.
Featured image: Edwin Austin Abbey. Study for The Hours, House of Representatives Chamber, Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg, 1904-1911. Yale University Art Gallery, Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery. CC0 public domain, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed February 13, 2023.
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