How many star constellations do you know? And if you know any, can you see them in the city where most of us live? Environment editor Florence Hazrat talks to light-researcher Dr Annette Krop-Benesch on the impending loss of our night sky, and what we can do about it.
Night is the time of fairies, goblins, magic, poetry, and love. Shakespeare knew that when he wrote his Midsummer Night’s Dream that has four Athenian youths stumble through the nightly forest, variously falling in and out of love with each other. Not to forget the Queen of Fairies suddenly smitten with a mortal half-turned ass. At night, proper order is reversed. What seems impossible is suddenly palpably close once the sun has set, and shadows make boundaries disappear. At night, stuff can happen. Things that, ludicrous when considered in the broad light of day, still stretch out their dark tentacles after sunrise, clutching at the sharp illuminated edges of things, identities. The day, this day, is not the same because of last night.
If magic happens when the sun is sleeping, why, then, are we getting rid of the dark hours? Why are we working into the middle of the night under artificial light, extending productivity ad infinitum? Why do skyscrapers keep throwing their glare high into the sky where nobody lives but the stars? What is it that we think we gain by letting cold white light bleed into the depth of darkness?
Most of us nowadays will have been subject to light-pollution one way or another. If you live in an urban area, chances are the light of a street lamp falls into your bedroom window, disturbing your sleep at night. And if you live in the country and actually do get to see some stars, you will probably still have worked into the night at some point, slumped in front of the blue-ish rays of your computer screen, making your eyes dry and painful in the morning.
The wrong kind of light in the wrong places doing the wrong things is pollution. “Light pollution” marks the official term for an over-exposure of light, often with improper spectral composition, that is, the wave-lengths of white or blue light which stings our eyes and distresses our bodies in comparison to the cosy orange-amber of, say, candles. Light researchers distinguish between several kinds of pollution, such as glare (brightness falling into the eye) and upwards-directed light (owing to street lamps with no shielding), uselessly illuminating the ambient air.
Sky-scrapers present extreme forms of upwards-directed light, producing a so called sky glow, a hazy light film over a city visible from miles off. According to the 2016 ‘World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness’, 80% of the world population live under polluted skies, while a staggering 99% of people in Europe and the United States suffer from sky-glow cities. The part of the sky that should be visible to the naked eye such as the Milky Way has disappeared.
But it is not only the stars that we lose. Excessive exposure to light, and light of the wrong wave-length, causes harm to human health and has devastating effects on wildlife, not to speak of the staggering waste of resources: light is on the fourth place of global energy use. How can a technology that is barely 150 years old so profoundly reach into our way of life, and is there something we as individuals and societies can do to acquire a more reasonable handling?
Lucy Writer’s Platform spoke on the importance of night for our emotional and physical well-being to Dr Anette Krop-Benesch, German light-researcher, author, and freelance light-consultant.
Dr Krop-Benesch, you have been working in the field of light pollution for nearly ten years. Can you trace your development as a researcher and public speaker?
“As a student I became interested in circadian rhythms and the different factors influencing activity patterns in animals. For about ten years I researched this in zoo and wild animals. Light pollution hadn’t been a topic for us back then. In 2012, I became the coordinator for public relations at the Loss of the Night research consortium, which later founded the Loss of the Night Network (LoNNe). My job was to bring together research from different disciplines, including ecology, medicine, urban planning, engineering, history and cultural sciences. It was very exciting to see all these different aspects of the night and in addition to the concern I had for the protection of darkness I became fascinated with interdisciplinary work.”
“After parental leave, I decided to become a freelancer communicator on light pollution. I talk about my concerns, but also about the beauty of night and light, as well as our options for smarter dealings with light. Last year my book about light pollution was published, a childhood dream coming true. The book opened doors to many researchers and to the German Lighting Society, where I work with lighting professionals to create better lighting standards.”
What are some of the challenges that we are facing today concerning our treatment of light? Do you feel the topic has had enough attention up to now, and if not, why might that be?
“We have a very positive attitude towards light. It gives us a feeling of safety. Cities feel the need to install more light because they don’t want to be seen as backward. When residents complain about the bright, white light of modern LEDs, their concerns for their health often aren’t taken seriously, sometimes they even get ridiculed. But there is indeed scientific evidence that artificial light at night might harm us: links to drug consumption, sleep disorders, depression, obesity, cardiac diseases, and some forms of cancer are under investigation.”
“Even more problems are known from wildlife. Billions of insects are killed by lights, birds crash into buildings, diurnal animals are active during night time. Light can block the commuting ways of bats or make them abandon their roosts. Fish eggs hatch too late. Sea birds are lured from the open sea to coastal settlements. Light pollution is a bigger threat to them than plastic waste. Even plants have problems, they need dark nights to recover from injuries or rest from photosynthesis. Without darkness, their leaves die faster. They also keep their leaves too long in autumn or bud too early in spring.”
Concretely, the problem looks like this: some species breed seasonally, cueing their reproduction to the change of light levels. Wallabies, for example, synchronize their ovulation to the fading light of late summer, so that the birth of their babies coincides with the peak of food availability for mother and child. This fine-tuned system becomes disrupted when the metabolism of wallabies living close to towns gets confused owing to excessive light exposure. Their ovulation occurs up to four weeks late, when their natural food availability has abated. This disruption forces them to scavenge and enter into even closer contact to cities, exacerbating the problem.
On the other side of the globe, in Florida, baby turtles lose their direction on the way towards the sea: hatching at night, they need the light of the moon over the sea as an indicator on where to crawl. Confused by the light from coastal towns and settlements, they move into the opposite direction, away from the water, and onto roads. If cars do not crush them, the upcoming sun will literally roast them in their shells. This heart-breaking loss becomes all the more urgent if one considers the survival rate into adulthood of turtles that do make it into the sea: 1 in 10,000.
Perhaps because we live during the day, conservationists tend to overlook the night, and the vulnerable eco-systems and animal relationships adapted to darkness. But it is not only the flora and fauna whose delicate rhythms of inter-dependence are disrupted by the perpetual light of modern life: humans (being animals) are just as profoundly affected by light pollution as the world in which they move.
Few of us go to bed when the natural light fades, wrenching our bodies into cycles they are not made for, kept awake through artificial light that stresses out mind and body. Owing to street lights and poor shading of neighbourly windows, bedrooms tend to float in a twilight zone of semi-obscurity rather than the soothing darkness of starlight required for our biological processes. The consequences are profound and wide-ranging: our brains need a considerable amount of time for regeneration in sleep, a sleep whose quality significantly depends on the darkness around us. Our grumpiness after a bad night’s sleep is more than just being a natural morning grouch, but has very real psycho-somatic reasons. Some bio-chemical rhythms are linked to darkness, for example the production of melatonin whose malfunction or deficit causes anxiety, stress, fatigue, and diabetes. Studies have found it is even linked to depression, obesity, heart problems, and cancer, particularly breast cancer. The threats of light pollution to human health and happiness are well documented and frightening. Yet, law-makers and environmental agencies do little for prevention and alleviation.
In fact, big business is claiming our night sky this very moment: Elon Musk has received permission by the US government to shoot 12,000 satellites into low orbit in order to expand internet access (into the developing world, opening up markets for more consumerism). Satellites are illuminated by sunlight even after the sun has set; some of them visible the entire night, irrespective of the slant of the earth. Travelling across the sky, they leave traces visible to the naked eye like an illuminated train, taking around five minutes to journey across the horizon at any one point. Sixty satellites have already been sent into our orbit without much media attention: indeed, we are so little informed that no less than 150 people in the Netherlands phoned in to an alien-spotting website reporting strange sightings in the night that had the satellites sail over their country. Humour apart, what does Musk offer as remedy for his grand-scale light-pollution? Painting the under-side of the satellites black. Is the solution as simple as that?
Dr Krop-Benesch, what do you think of the commodification of the sky, for example by companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX which is shooting thousands of satellites into the earth’s orbit?
“Some weeks ago I saw a train of SpaceX satellites and it was scary. Like an alien invasion. They grow weaker after a couple of days in orbit, but you can still see them. If we have thousands of them, it will be hard to enjoy the night sky, even in the most remote areas. They will also interfere with our ability to see small asteroids. These aren’t found by the big radio telescopes, but by hobby astronomers, and missing one of them could mean the destruction of a city. My biggest concern, however, is what many space experts warn about: soon there will be so many objects in space that collisions will be very likely and might result in a chain reaction, creating a field of debris that makes space travel and probably satellite use impossible. We might be trapped on our little blue dot without GPS, satellite communication, or weather forecasts.”
“The loss of accurate weather forecasts would be disastrous in a world where the climate crisis fundamentally challenges the knowledge our ancestors have pieced together over thousands of years. And if this was not enough, the commodification of the sky is disconcerting on a legal, social, and economical level: SpaceX is only one out of the currently nine companies keen on crowding the sky. Governments may give permission to start from their bases, but the companies are still privately owned. And their orbiting does not stop at borders – has any other country been asked permission to have satellites float over their lands?”
The situation looks bleak. However, the topic gains slow but steady visibility.
Which countries or institutions are at the spearhead of reducing light pollution?
“That’s actually hard to say. France, Slovenia, and Croatia have national laws about light pollution, but they aren’t necessarily enforced. Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have published really good guidelines on outdoor lighting to support communities in their light planning, but there is a trend to increase the light.”
“The biggest organisation about light pollution is the International Dark Sky Association, which for example appoints the Dark Sky Parks. A group of experts is the Loss of the Night Network, where research on light pollution is communicated between different disciplines. However, none of them has as much influence as the big environmental organisations, which do very little about light pollution.”
Can you tell us about an intervention that has been successful?
“There are many simple things that work. In Toronto, many tall buildings switch off their lights during bird migration, which led to a decrease in bird fatalities. Similar actions take place all over the world. Many beach communities switched to low-level orange light, so less sea turtle hatchlings or young seabirds get attracted to the settlements. A growing number of regions want to become Dark Sky Parks because they realise that the combination of good lighting practises and darkness is valuable, attracts tourists, and increases life quality.”
“The lighting industry has reacted too. There are shields for LED streetlights to make sure that no light shines into houses and optics are developed to bring the light to the street only and avoid glare. By now, there are also LEDs with warmer light and less blue content. Ministries in Europe start to realise that sustainability does not solely mean energy-efficient, but also less impact on organisms. At the same time, adaptive light which is only switched on when people are around is an option to reduce the waste of energy and light. But we are still at the beginning of this process, these things aren’t used very often so far, and a big problem now is decorative and commercial lights.”
For Annette, the story does not end with issues of environment and human health. Experiencing an unadulterated night sky is a right that we should not take away from our children, she defends. Electric light is a shockingly young invention, and we are still grappling with how to handle it properly, much in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years that our ancestors have gazed up into the sky, trying to read their past and future in the starry vault above, learning how to use fixed points for navigation, calculating harvest time, telling stories, finding artistic inspiration, and philosophical illumination: looking up means looking into the depth of time in awe and wonder. We intuit our place in the universe, both unique and infinitely small at the same time. Star-gazing is the discovery and loss of self.
What is your personal relationship to the night and the night sky?
“I remember driving through the night with my mum. I would stare into the pitch black and dream. There was so much mystery out there! Night is a time for dreams and for writing. I was mobbed a lot as a teenager, but at night I felt safe. Later I often worked at night and I loved the quiet hours. I’m fascinated by nocturnal animals. I also love the stars in a dark place. It’s one of the most beautiful things. I would love to share that with my children, but in Berlin we can see only a handful of stars. My children have never experienced natural darkness yet and they feel uncomfortable out there. That makes me sad.”
“I’ve talked to many people who feel a deep connection to mankind and nature through the stars. It’s something that brings together all cultures. In the darkness, it doesn’t matter if you are pretty or rich, educated or famous. You are just a human being. That is a chance for all people to come together. Astronauts from different nations can meet in space and shake hands. We all share the dream of exploring space. But we are losing this dream when we are losing our view of the night sky. It is one of the most ancient and valuable things we inherited from our ancestors. We should not give that up for some flashy lights. Instead, we should embrace darkness for a few hours every night to find ourselves and wake up on the next day, reborn and ready to explore this wonderful world.”
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, two lovers watch the sky together while listening to solemn music. ‘Look,’ Lorenzo enjoins Jessica, ‘how the floor of heaven/ Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold’. Stars scatter across the sky like gleaming coins. Lorenzo continues to muse on the music of the spheres, an old conception of the universe as seven spheres set within one another, and earth at their centre. The spheres swirl around their own axis, making the most wonderful crystalline sound as their interlocking points grate on each other’s silvery edges. This music expresses the perfect harmony, literally and figuratively, of the model of the universe where everything fits – only that we cannot hear it, we humans, whose body, that ‘muddy vesture of decay’ clogs up our ears with our mortality. The stuff that death is made of. And yet. When we look up at time stretching away and over us, we can be eternal, we can be ‘moonshine revellers’, just like those fairies and Athenian youths. But we have to look up, and listen.
Ten Easy Ways of Improving Your Light Habits
- Turn off your electronic devices an hour before going to sleep so that your body can wind down, and prepare for sleep.
- Do not open bathroom lights when you go to the toilet at night as it disrupts your rhythm.
- Close the blinds at night in order to prevent light flooding outside.
- Get some heavy dark curtains to block out all light from outside when you are sleeping.
- Go to sleep earlier, and get up earlier! Research found a link between greater exposure to natural, rather than artificial, light and a decrease in cases of breast cancer.
- Keep old light bulbs, but if you buy new bulbs, choose range LEDs with orange-wave length.
- Use dimmers inside, gradually preparing you for sleep.
- Keep lighting on the front lawn or garden close to the ground, pointing downwards and on a low level.
- Install motion-sensitive light outside. Studies have found that crime does not increase in areas where the council has installed dimmed orange light that is motion-sensitive.
- Go out and enjoy the stars whenever you can!
About Anette Krop-Benesch
Dr Anette Krop-Benesch is an internationally-acknowledged expert on the influence of light on bio-rhythms of humans and animals, and the effect of light pollution. She is giving talks and workshops on the topics world-wide, runs a website on sustainable lighting, and has recently published a book for the general public (currently only available in German). She can be contacted via Twitter @KropBenesch or Facebook @NightLightDarkness.
About Florence Hazrat
Dr Florence Hazrat is the Environment and Postgraduate editor, for the Lucy Writers’ Platform. She has a BA and MPhil in English Literature from Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and a PhD from St Andrews. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Sheffield, working on brackets in Renaissance romance. She has published on early modern literature, and recently punctuation. For more information on her academic and creative work, see florencehazrat.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com, or via twitter @FlorenceHazrat
This feature was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.