Goodbye, Darkness: Light Pollution Is Making Us Forget the Night Sky

Did you know that eight of every ten kids born today won’t experience a night sky dark enough to see the Milky Way? We’re living in an age when light pollution is making stars a rarity—and not just in cities. Paul Bogard, the author of a new book on darkness, even goes so far as to describe it as a natural resource.

In a fascinating interview with Gizmodo’s incoming Editor in Chief Geoff Manaugh and partner Nicola Twilley, Bogard discusses how true darkness is dwindling, and why we've done so little about it. Among the revelations:

  • There’s a tool called the Bortle Scale that gauges true darkness. “We think night is dark — full stop, end of story. But, on the Bortle scale, cities would be a Class 9 — the brightest. Most of us spend our nights in what he would call a 5 at best, or more likely a 6 or 7. We rarely, if ever, get any darker than that.”
  • Historically, light equates to state power. “Illumination was conflated with the power of the state, going back to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who decreed that candles should be hung in the streets, to demonstrate his might by banishing dark. In the years before the French Revolution, for many Parisians, public street lighting stood for tyranny. Oil-lamp smashing was a regular thing.”
  • All that light pollution may be changing our eyes. “My guess is that, if we keep going down the path of more and more artificial lighting, we would eventually lose scotopic vision — that's the technical term for low-light vision using the eye's rod cells.”
  • Light also seems to associate itself with economic status, often inversely, in the case of prisoners, night shift workers, and people living in public housing. “There's this former convict, Ken Lamberton, who wrote about his time in prison and the way he was forced to be in the light — he wasn't even allowed to cover his face with a blanket at night. It's as if being constantly illuminated was actually part of his punishment.”

It's a great read in full, but we're left wondering: With so many arguments to the contrary, will politicians ever lobby for laws against light pollution? Or, as Manaugh suggests, could concerned parties construct their own light-free zone, à la the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia?

Bogard's book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, comes out this month. [Venue via The Atlantic]