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Solimar Research

The Dark Side of Environmental Quality

Josh Stephens on
Sep 14, 2014

You think this is going to be another piece about the shortcomings and backfires of the California Environmental Quality Act. It's not.

End of NightThe most affecting moment in Paul Bogard's book The End of Night describes a Cherokee ritual called "opening the night." Participants sit in a quiet place -- forest, desert, front lawn, mountaintop -- and listen to the sounds within an armspan. Then the radius doubles. It doubles again. It keeps doubling until the listener has beheld the entire spectrum of perceptible sounds, taking in the landscape with an intimacy that those of us in busy, bright places can only imagine.

The marriage of silence and darkness is an utterly appropriate bit of synesthesia: they are two sides of the same globe. Both are in woefully short supply in California.

Under the Dome

Almost everyone reading CP&DR spends half his or her life in a crepuscular third space created by artificial light. Without it, we would see brilliant darkness, unknown stars, meteors, the ballet of the heavens, and a Milky Way true to its name. Bogard, a professor of creative writing at James Madison University, describes the sublimity of the true night sky first and foremost in aesthetic terms. It is a beauty that all people deserve to enjoy. He explains why van Gogh's "Starry Night" might have been more the product of observation than of madness. Crazy or not, that's what a real night is supposed to look like.  

The trillions of points of light in the true night sky are no match for the mere billions on the ground. You know the culprits: streetlights; parking lots; gas stations; billboards; preening McMansions; "security" lighting; athletic fields; headlights....and on and on. Parking lots alone can account for up to 50% of a city's outdoor lighting. It all piles up in icteritious "domes" that hover above every urban area in the country.

Just as Americans in the 1950s gleefully inhaled smog in the name of progress, Americans now surrender the night for much the same reason. Tablets and smart phones are today's cigarettes, enabling us to further disrupt our eyesight, hormone production, and circadian rhythms. Nocturnal animals don't fare so well either. Bogard is particularly protective of bats, which, he writes, consume insects, rarely carry disease, and are way too good at flying to get tangled in anyone's hair.

The Bortle Scale measures the night sky on a scale from 9 (Times Square, the Vegas Strip) to 1 (antediluvian void). If you're reading this at night, a Bortle 9 is probably seeping through your curtains this very moment. Bogard numbers his chapters backwards, from 9 to 1, in a march through time and space that begins with the spotlight atop the Luxor Hotel and ends in an empty Moroccan desert. Under a Bortle 1 sky, he writes, even your first glance is revelatory. Then give your eyes an hour or two to adjust. Then you'll see what's really going on up there. 

California features prominently in The End of Night. Los Angeles' light pollution is described as second only to that of Las Vegas. At the same time, one of Bogard's many lyrical descriptions of a real night sky (they never get tedious, I promise) -- of which there is little in the western United States and next to none in the east -- comes from the still backroads of Death Valley. It's amazing to think that California was once so dark that some of the world's most important telescopes were here. (They're still here, of course. They're just not important any more.)

It's worth reading End of Night just to reach his most inspiring quotation, from the gonzo naturalist Edward Abbey. Referring to nowhere in particular: "this is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places." Unlike so many other environmental ravages, light pollution's effects are not necessarily permanent. The depths of Vernon wears the same crown as does Half Dome. The stars are all up there, waiting like cut diamonds to be disinterred. 

Planning for Darkness

The End of Night is not a book of urban planning, but the role that planners can play is clear as, well, day. 

A few cities around the world, primarily in Europe, are already trying to get their light under control. Flagstaff, Ariz., is the only U.S. city that has implemented a comprehensive program to combat light pollution. It has been a modest success. Even Walmart and Target conform to the city's regulations without, apparently, going out of business. Bogard reports that between 2000 and 2010, the city's brightness increased only 17 percent, with a 25 percent increase in population. He isn't thrilled with achieving merely a lower rate of increase, but it's better than nothing. 

Ordinances regulating light pollution could be integrated into a general plan, replete with Bortle ratings to set goals and track progress. The International Dark-Sky Association, an admittedly quirky organization to which Bogard makes repeated reference, has model programs that can help cities reconnect their citizens to the sublime. It invites cities to joint its International Dark Skies Communities, taking a vow if not of darkness than of less brightness. A few cities in California have taken this vow (see CP&DR July 2003). But, in my many years of discussing environmental issues with planners, the topic has never come up. It's nowhere on the agenda at the California APA conference, going on right now.

Of course, the dimming of lights could be an invitation for mayhem. But maybe not. Bogard notes that dark places do not necessarily have more crime than bright places do. As in architecture so in public safety: well lit doesn't have to mean brightly lit. Without lights, the would-be burglars can't see either. Shadows give assailants places in which to lurk. Someone who has adjusted to the darkness is more keen than someone assaulted by glare. Eyes on the stars can also be eyes on the street.

It takes generations to construct a build environment. It could take months to retrofit a neighborhood with more sensible lighting, especially in the age of sensors and LED's. Cities could transfer the funds to policing, to calm the paranoid. And, yes, there's an argument to be made that atmospheric light pollution should be covered under the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA does refer to light pollution, but that typically refers to nuisances in an immediate area (like this). The entire skyscape might be a tough one for public officials to regulate: it is either immutable or, at a few light years' remove, too far out of their jurisdiction. But surely the health risks of artificial light to 39 million people might justify action?  

Why, ultimately, should cities put try to something as amorphous as darkness into their finely tuned plans? Bogard's finest chapter is Chapter 4, midway between light and dark on the Bortle scale and a far piece into the human psyche. In it, he addresses not just literal darkness but metaphorical darkness. He cities English professor Eric Wilson who, in his book In Praise of Melancholy, insists that sorrow, darkness, and contemplation are all crucial elements of, if not happiness per se, then at least of satisfaction -- of the fullness of being human. This ethos runs contrary to the superficial happiness that is ascribed to Californians. And yet, to banish, ignore, or devalue darkness is to lose authenticity, forsake ambiguity, and stunt our souls.

But we can get it back. We just have to extend an arm, and flip the switch.

The End of Night
Paul Bogard
Back Bay Books
$16.00 (paperback)