Light pollution threatens body and soul

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It was late. Late in the year and long after nightfall. I was standing on a tall hill a few miles from home. It was dark, but the darkness was more than acceptable; it was essential. If your plan is to get pelted by the glory of the Leonid meteor shower on a chilly November night – if you insist on paying that price – you find the darkest sky in the county.

Above, Leonids skittered across the pond of the cosmos like water bugs, some flaring out so brightly they made me blink. Below, in the moonless dark, the world was heard more than seen. I went quietly. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to hear them before they heard me. I didn’t use a flashlight. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to see them before they saw me.

One set of lights, however, was hard to ignore: a galaxy. A galaxy not above, but below. Spread beneath the horizon from northwest to northeast were the lights of East Contra Costa – miniature points of white and orange punctuated by blue and red, glittering like the stars of a spiral galaxy seen edge-on.

Brentwood formed the galaxy’s bright nucleus. Northeast beyond Brentwood glowed Oakley. Far northwest flowed Antioch’s river of lights against the backdrop of San Joaquin’s dark bank. A ripple of white marked the galaxy’s eastern hinterland: Discovery Bay.

If the lights inspired a celestial metaphor, they also inspired dismay. The glare of human habitation bleached the black sky to a blue-grey that erased the dimmer meteors and stars. High overhead, in the darkest sector of sky, the sapphire pendant of the Pleiades was barely visible. Those primal lights blossoming in the meadow of darkness above were no match for the phony photons of humanity below.

We have fought the darkness from the beginning, illuminated caves and continents, resisted night as we resist mortality itself. Step out into your back yard tonight and look up. On a clear, dark evening you should be able to spot about 2,700 stars. If you live near the center of an East County city, you’ll be lucky to spot a hundred.

Astronomy buffs aren’t the only ones to suffer from humanity’s assault on darkness. Our inefficient artificial light wastes energy, scrambles the life patterns of wildlife and disrupts human biorhythms.

The light pollution that washes out all but the brightest stars is due mainly to poor design, which directs artificial light not only downward, where it’s needed, but upward and outward, where it’s wasted. But poor design is the tip of the iceberg. Light – for billions of years expressed mainly as sunlight and moonlight – exerts its power on all the world’s creatures.

The artificial light that makes days unnaturally long and nights unnaturally short alters the feeding patterns, breeding patterns and migration schedules of birds. Some arrive at their nesting sites too early in the season. Ocean-based gas flares on oil platforms and land-based searchlights attract seabirds and songbirds like magnets, causing them to circle the lights till they drop from exhaustion. Birds on their night migrations crash into brightly lit skyscrapers.

Ponds and marshes, once far from civilization and now flooded by the light of highways, no longer provide frogs and toads the illumination signals evolved over eons – signals that govern their nocturnal breeding habits.

The loss of darkness collides with sea turtles’ preference for dark beaches on which to nest. The reflective sea horizon no longer shines brighter than the artificially lit land behind the beach, confounding turtle hatchlings. In droves they head away from the water and die.

The skyline of Hong Kong. Photo by shirophoto/iStock/Getty Images

Light pollution is also hazardous to human health. Our biological clock depends on darkness as much as light. Increased artificial light at night from lamps, TVs and electronic gizmos disrupts our circadian rhythms and contributes to sleep disorders. And it gets worse: evidence gathered over the last decade is persuasive enough to have prompted the AMA in 2012 to support continued research into the connection between excessive artificial light at night and the incidence of breast cancer. In 2007, the World Health Organization’s cancer research division classified night-shift work as a “probable carcinogen.”

Were light pollution perfectly harmless to our physical health, it would remain harmful to our spiritual health. When we lose an appreciation for darkness we lose an essential component of human consciousness. The lights cast across the cosmos were not turned on by a switch thrown by human hands. We internalize that fact through awe and wonder: the direct experience of the night sky. The vast and cold emptiness between stars is the rule throughout our universe, not the exception. When we internalize that fact, we’ll treasure the warmth of our relationships more than ever. As darkness makes light sweeter, emptiness makes interconnectedness sweeter.

As I stood on the hill that night and followed the shining slashes above, I felt a connection to humankind more powerfully than if I’d stood smack in the center of the city. Far from the fluorescent tubes of the grocery store and prismatic acrylic refractor globes of downtown, I felt what my ancestors felt when they stood beneath the dome of darkness strewn with stars, planets and the gossamer river of the Milky Way: I felt the immediacy and ancientry, the greatness and smallness of my place in the cosmos.

My meteor stint was an all-nighter. By 5:45, as the faintest rumor of dawn betrayed the Sierra’s sawtooth silhouette, the local coyote pack had regathered and launched into its pre-dawn chorus, sharing tales of the evening hunt. A single voice – the pack leader’s – suddenly penetrated the shrieks, howls and rapid-fire yaps. The chorus fell silent. The leader took a few moments to speak his piece, and the pack erupted in another cataract of noise. The leader’s chant silenced them again. And again they answered.

The call-and-response ritual continued for a minute beneath a paling sky flecked by the final stars. And I wondered if any coyotes had remarked on the streaks in the sky or the two-legged creature atop the distant hill. The pack and I had pursued a different quest that night but had shared the darkness.

I wove my way back down the hill, guided by the immeasurably slow swelling of dawn, looking forward to reunion with the other creatures connected to me.