What is the value of a clear, dark, night sky?
It’s worth considering, because we are losing it. Just a few years ago, humanity crossed a momentous threshold, becoming for the first time a mostly urban species; over half of us live in the crystal lattices of light and pavement we call cities. And few cities are smartly and efficiently lit to allow any of the splendor of the night sky to show through.
Most people born today will never see the Milky Way. It’s just to dim to push through the light pollution. The number of visible stars drops precipitously as our settlements gets thicker and our obsession with “safely” lighting every corner of the nighttime world grows.
Our cities are glorious hives of constructed reality. Add a screen at the end of every human hand, and you have the makings of a reality complete, and completely without any reference to the natural world. Or to the rest of the universe.
Consider this photograph, taken by Dan Duriscoe of the National Park Service, out in Canyonlands National Park.
That bright path over the horizon is the core of the Milky Way galaxy, the gigantic swirling pinwheel of stars where our sun and its entourage of worlds resides. While the camera captures more than the human eye and brain can integrate, this photograph provides us a sense of what we are missing. The night sky at a truly dark spot on earth is a majestic, mind-blowing expanse. You could almost fall into it.
Here’s Mark Twain in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them stream down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
Earth is a raft, in fact, and we’ve inadvertently lit that raft so well that there’s scarcely a corner of it dark enough for Huck and Jim to look up and wonder. And how do you measure that loss? How do you quantify the fact that most people will only ever see the world as a human-made thing, and what limits will that place on our future imaginations?
Good questions to ponder this week. It’s International Dark Sky Week. There’s a lot of work to be done to reclaim the night sky for the future. In some ways it’s an easy win…light pollution is a result of poor design and policy more than anything else. Smart lighting laws and well-designed fixtures (they already exist) make our world safer, more beautiful, and, to boot, a lot cheaper and less wasteful.
It costs a lot to make the stars invisible. So why bother doing it? Turn down the lights and let them shine.