Published in The Edge newspaper, January 2019.
At the stroke of midnight on 31st December 2018, my wife and I, as well as a couple of friends, were staring out from a window in our home towards the night sky. Like many others around the world, we were trying to catch the fireworks display that accompanied the turn of the calendar from 31st December to January 1st. The fireworks on show were great, but a thought struck me, “Are fireworks the only reason that Malaysians, particularly those in the Klang Valley, look to the night sky?”
The thought of city residents staring at the night sky brought to mind a book I had read recently called, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” by Paul Bogard, a lecturer at James Madison University. In it, Bogard writes very persuasively on the slow but steady decline in ‘darkness’ around the world, describing not just what we have lost, but what we have left and what we might yet hope to regain. Artificial lighting, particularly electrical lighting that took off in the 20th century, has done much for the GDP machine and for our productivity, but Bogard raised a question that I, admittedly, have never thought about before – what do we sacrifice when we sacrifice natural darkness?
There is a growing body of evidence detailing the consequences of light pollution. For one, energy waste is a costly issue. The International Dark Sky Association, an organisation dedicated to preserve and protect the night time environment and the heritage of dark skies, estimates that in the United States, at least 30% of all night-time outdoor lighting is wasted, costing approximately USD3.3 billion a year and releasing approximately 21 million tons of carbon dioxide (the equivalent of 875 million trees).
Another direct consequence of increased light pollution is on human health. As a species, we have undergone nearly 200,000 years of existence in which our bodies have evolved towards optimising sleep during the dark. In the dark, our bodies produce the hormone melatonin which induces sleep, boosts our immune system, lowers cholesterol, and helps the functioning of several important body organs. Artificial light suppresses melatonin production and there are some preliminary research findings that links the suppression of melatonin production to various cancers. This is particularly harmful to workers who work night shifts – typically those from lower-income backgrounds – whose bodies will always know some light, be it artificial light while working at night, or natural light while trying to sleep during the day.
To be clear, artificial light at night is not all bad. It does make the streets safer from a visibility point of view – visibility even during the 1800s when oil lamps were used in Paris and London was not great; people were always at risk of being mowed down by horse carriages at night. And, streetlights do make us feel safer though there are research studies that dispute that notion, questioning whether artificial lighting increases street safety, or just the perception of safety.
But where I think the biggest negative consequence of the dying of the dark is slightly more abstract, which is losing our sense of wonder and awe from our night sky. For pretty much all of human history, our entire species has collectively gazed at the night sky in deep wonder. It is perhaps no coincidence that astronomy is the oldest science.
As a disclaimer, I am biased. If I were given a chance to reset my life, I wouldn’t study Economics; I would study Astronomy. Some of my deepest memories have come from watching the night sky – seeing the Northern Lights and the Milky Way for the first time with my wife in Norway, sitting under the heavens with thousands of stars with a couple of friends in Glacier National Park. It really is quite something to know that our ancestors were looking up at the exact (or close to exact) same night sky as we were – from the earliest Homo Sapiens to the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks to Galileo and Newton and finally, to us in the present day. It is awe-inspiring.
There are, in addition, practical consequences of ‘awe’ as well. For one, researchers from the University of California-Irvine put it as follows, “…feeling diminished in the presence of something greater than oneself…awe shifts our focus away from our own individual needs and towards the greater good.” The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley states that, “Research suggests that awe can make you happier, healthier, more humble, and more connected to the people around you.”
But, in my view, ‘awe’, in and of itself, is enough. And we need to preserve a sense of ‘awe’ as part of our well-being. To be clear, awe can come from several sources – religion, art, music – as well, but I do think we lose something in our humanity when we lose our night sky. Fortunately, there are efforts all around the world towards reducing light pollution. France, for instance, recently passed a national law cracking down on light pollution, with steps like restricting the hours of storefront lighting. In the United States, the best-known example is Los Angeles, which is replacing its old bulbous street lamps that scattered light in every direction with newer, more efficient LEDs that only send light downward. The cities of London and Paris actually have street light consultants who support the cities in their public lighting.
Outside of the cities, there is now also a growing movement to preserve “dark-sky places.” In 2001, the International Dark Sky Association established the International Dark Sky Places Programme with more than 100 parks, reserves and communities having received the International Dark Sky Place designation. The belief is that, just as we seek to preserve our historical and cultural heritage, so too should we preserve a natural heritage like our night sky. At present, there are no places in Southeast Asia that have received the International Dark Sky Place designation; perhaps Malaysia could break the mould.
In a recent study, an international team of researchers created the most detailed atlas thus far of global light pollution, estimating that the Milky Way is no longer visible to one-third of humanity – including 60% of Europeans and 80% of Americans. Artificial light from cities has created a permanent "skyglow" at night, obscuring our view of the stars. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find skies untouched by artificial light.
I don’t know what the number is for Malaysia. But I do know that we will lose an important part of our human heritage if we aren’t careful. And, with that, we will lose an important sense of ‘awe’, a feeling that, in the words of musician Bon Iver, “At once, I knew I was not magnificent.” And it’s true. We are not magnificent and the more we recognise that – in our personal lives, in our economy, in business, and, perhaps most of all, in politics, the better our societies can be. As we strive to move more and more towards the metaphorical light in this new year and beyond, we should perhaps consider doing it by moving more and more towards the literal dark.