energy environment waste

Saving the dark

I’d heard of nature reserves, marine reserves, and national strategic oil reserves. Dark reserves are a new one to me, but Britain got its second this month. Brecon Beacons National Park, in Wales, has just been declared an international dark sky reserve. It joins Exmoor National Park as the two places in Britain so far where the dark has special protection.

I suspect I’m not the only one that finds it rather surreal that there are conservation agencies dedicated to saving the dark. In this case, it’s the International Dark Sky Association that’s made the award, but there are others.

The issue, of course, is light pollution – excess light. There are lots of sources of it, from streetlights to billboards, parking lots and illuminated buildings and monuments. It manifests itself as a dull glow on the horizon that obscures the natural dark sky, and the stars. It’s a problem that has got worse in many parts of the world over the last few decades. We like lighter cities and we feel safer in them. Aside from the aesthetics of the night sky, is it really a problem?

Excess light does have consequences for wildlife. It’s hard on bats, who can get confused about when it’s time to get up and feed. Birds can get confused over when dawn might be and can miss key feeding times, say the RSPB . Light pollution may one of the many reasons for the decline of small birds such as sparrows in Britain’s towns and cities.dark-europe

A bigger issue is the waste involved. In an age where energy is expensive and budgets are constrained, are we sure we need to be illuminating the sky? It’s a waste of electricity and a drain on the public purse. Britain has 7.5 million street lights. More modern ones direct the light better, but many spill as much as 30% of their light upwards. The Campaign for Dark Skies estimates that this accounts for 830,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, just from the wasted light. Switching some of them off would save council budgets and reduce CO2 emissions.

But how comfortable are we with the dark? Not very, if previous light-saving initiatives are anything to go by, with crime the biggest reason for opposing them. This is unfortunate, since the link between lighting and crime is actually rather more complex than one might assume. Sometimes more light reduces crime, other times it simply displaces it, and in some cases it can even increase crime. Generally speaking, switching off the lights doesn’t make us less safe, but it does make us more scared. That’s the conclusion of government research, which found that “lighting improvements are in general more likely to have a positive effect on the public’s fear of crime than on the incidence of crime itself.”

It’s just as well that switching off the lights doesn’t normally raise crime levels, because it is becoming quite common. A survey last year found that almost three quarters of councils in England had either dimmed or switched off some streetlights, or were planning to do so. Most of us won’t ever reach the specially protected levels of darkness of the Brecon Beacons, but perhaps austerity will do more for the night sky than any of the campaigns have done so far.


  1. Don’t forget that other really rare species: the Homo Astronomicus. Their life and well being also to a significant extend depends on dark skies… Some say that our way to hell began when we first looked at the stars and wondered what they are, which was the beginning of a path leading to nuclear bomb, global pollution and atmospheric change. I think our way to enlightenment began with that very moment, only we still are merely at It’s very beginning whee pre human and human behavior mixes. It goes deeper than aesthetics: we evolved under a starry sky, naturally and culturally. And as Camille Flammarion, original author of “Popular Astronomy” and painter of one of the world’s most famous paintings stated (as spiritually as a humanist could possibly get):

    “What intelligent being, what being capable of responding emotionally to a beautiful sight, can look at the jagged, silvery lunar crescent trembling in the azure sky, even through the weakest of telescopes, and not be struck by it in an intensely pleasurable way, not feel cut off from everyday life here on earth and transported toward that first stop on the celestial journeys? What thoughtful soul could look at brilliant Jupiter with its four attendant satellites, or splendid Saturn encircled by its mysterious ring, or a double star glowing scarlet and sapphire in the infinity of night, and not be filled with a sense of wonder? Yes, indeed, if humankind — from humble farmers in the fields and toiling workers in the cities to teachers, people of independent means, those who have reached the pinnacle of fame or fortune, even the most frivolous of society women — if they knew what profound inner pleasure await those who gaze at the heavens, then France, nay, the whole of Europe, would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets, thereby promoting universal happiness and peace.” — Camille Flammarion, 1880

    1. Yes, you do have to wonder what the psychological effect is of growing up without the night sky. When you can see it, you have a nightly reminder of your own smallness, a view of something transcendental and immense, as well as beautiful. That’s got to have an impact on how we see ourselves and understand our place in the world.

  2. I saw a prime example of how light affects the enjoyment of the night time sky during my December mission trip to Belize. At our bas camp we had the most minimal lights to allow us to cross the compund without running into the vegation or buildings and i was amazed to realize how many stars there actully is in the night sky. Of course another facotr was the considerably warmer climate which mad night viewing so comfortable as to be able to enjoy a prolonged exposure during the prime viewing time.

    1. I remember lying out on the grass as a teenager in Kenya and just feeling lost in the immensity of the sky. I felt like I could just fall forwards into it, it was dizzying. Here in Luton there are about six or seven visible stars for me to show my boy on a clear night. He gets excited about those six or seven though, bless him.

      1. Is it so bad? I have never been in Luton at night time – just ravelled through the airport on my way to London (no stars there) and one time to Wales (quite fine view of the sky up in the hills whenever the clouds allow). In my area (Westfalia) it got much better after environmental regulations kicked in in the 80s and filters for power plants and factories as well as catalysators for cars became mandatory: the aerosols in the air that reflected and scattered the light were drastically reduced (not by market forces, if I may add this here). We can see the milky way, the Pleiades, and spot the 4 large Jupiter moons with small binoculars. So it’s not so bad. Many hundreds of stars to be seen on a clear night. But it’s no comparison to a night in the Cévennes when visiting our relatives there, let alone a night on a remote island mountain or in a desert. Anyone who is not awestruck there must be made of stone.

        I read a novel a few years ago titled “Der Regenplanet” (the rain planet) about a spaceship with settlers that crashed on the wrong planet – a rain planet. Only clouds and mist, no stars, no sunsets, no sunrise, just perpetual moisture and greyness. It was a masterful description of the psychology of a newly forming culture that slowly became ever more locked in, quasi autistic, with no interest in the outside world, no interest in anything not related to solving immediate practical problems. I often see a pair of crows sitting on the power line outside my office window looking at – or at least in the direction of – the sunset. I can imagine without having to stretch my imagination that they, too, can enjoy the sight of the sun painting her rays across the canvas of the sky. In any case seeing something that we cannot explain or cannot reach, control, own certainly has an effect on us. And an important one, I believe. Similar to directly experiencing nature, a forest, the mountains, the sea with your own senses…

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