“The Lorax”, by Dr. Seuss, is a cautionary tale of environmentalism, one in which all resources (truffula trees) are completely consumed to make consumer products (“You Need A Thneed!”). The landscape, devoid of trees, becomes a barren wasteland, no longer suitable for life.
It’s a classic tale, a metaphor for human excess and a call for conservation. In one film adaptation, future generations grow up in a place where trees are nonexistent, a mythological entity in their parents’ stories.
Most of us probably can’t imagine a world without trees – or otherwise so different from the world our parents knew, but dramatic transformations like this do exist. Animal extinctions (e.g. passenger pigeons), changes in plant life due to human cultivation, and other similar events can radically change the world in the span of a human generation.
One of the more dramatic changes is one that affects us all – we’re losing the night.
Artificial light has changed the way humans exist. Lights bring a sense of safety, extend our productive hours, and turn urban centers into cities that never sleep. At the same time, though, light scattering through Earth’s atmosphere creates a veil that makes more and more of our night sky invisible.
Like many natural things, humans have built a world that doesn’t need the night – many of us grow up and live in cities that are perpetually lit, and have no awareness, much less concern, for visible stars and planets. “Light Pollution” has removed the night sky from our consciousness.
I’m fairly lucky. Among the stargazers I interact with, a common litmus test is the Little Dipper, the constellation Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear). I can almost always see this constellation – but in many, even rural, places, only Polaris, the North Star at the end of the dipper’s handle, and the two Guardians of the Pole at the end of its bowl are ever visible. The connecting stars just vanish in the hazy glow of nearby cities and towns.
It’s gotten to the point where we’ve designated specific places (in the US at least), as “Dark Sky Parks”, where implementation of artificial light is limited and regulated. Arches National Park in Utah is one of the latest.
I recently spent a week in the woods of northwest Pennsylvania, and was astounded at the number of extra stars (compared to my view at home) I could see at night. As I write this, I’m on a small boat headed into the Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida Keys, and hoping for some haze-free clear skies to watch the Milky Way arc overhead. I used to lay on a picnic table with my Dad at night, watching. Now, the ability to see stars, the Universe, has become one of my reasons to travel and get outside. A dark sky is a travel destination, in and of itself. (Although, and maybe this is a discussion for another time, an increasing amount of what I see in the night sky is also artificial, at least in the hours after twilight and before dawn).
Our species is not naturally adapted to a nocturnal existence. Darkness brings fear, unease. It’s a time for us to seek shelter and security, to build a fire and keep the night at bay.
But the night is also a time of magic, of awe, the mysterious domain of spirits and myth. Our night sky once inspired legends, meteor showers and comets were omens of change, and movement of planets governed our fates (I wonder how many modern day astrologers have actually observed the planets).
And let’s not forget, it’s simply beautiful.
Sadly, this part of our world, literally half of our existence, is just… disappearing. The global human population has doubled in my lifetime, and as we spread out and give each other elbow room, we eat away, slowly, at the darkness, and put an ever-denser veil between ourselves and the Universe that we’re a part of.
Do your part to put a stop to it. Seek out the night. Turn out the lights. As night settles in, gaze out into the cosmos and appreciate the grandeur of all creation, and recognize your tiny place in the vastness.