Why We Shouldn’t Root for Light to Overcome Darkness

By Madronna Holden

You don’t need a script to identify the hero in classic Western movies. He is the man on the white horse wearing a white hat.  The villain, by contrast, is a shadowy character dressed in black–associated in every other way with darkness, as well.

Though in other cultures, black is the color of fertility–the soil, after all is dark—and the richest soil is the darkest. But banishing the dark has come to be a metaphor for the triumph of knowledge over ignorance—as well as goodness over– in certain societies and religions.  In such worldviews, transformation of darkness into the “light” is the metaphor for righting one’s spirit.

It is not incidental that many such religions also value transcendence from earthly life and control through intellect or will– rather than mystery.

There are other destructive consequences of this view.  In many cultures who believe in the triumph of light over dark,  dark skin in humans is also the ground for racism. And those with the lightest skin are given the most social privilege.

But the actual triumph of light over dark would lead to the collapse of the physical universe. Physicists have discovered that “dark matter” makes up most of the matter in that universe, echoing the words of a native Plains Indian elder decades ago that it is empty space between things that allow humans to make their choices. It seems the universe may operate on the same principle, with dark matter being the birth home of the stars and planets.

The balance of light and dark, in my Parabola essay, “Light who Loves her Sister Darkness, not the overcoming of dark with light, is the way of the way of the natural world and its of seasons and days here on earth. Peasants who worked the soil understood this in the European Middle Ages, where folk religion held up the Black Madonna as an icon in art and worship.

But in industrial society, we are losing the balance of light and dark, in both perception and pragmatics. Since the invention of the light bulb, we have designed more and more effective lighting.  In modern cities humans light up the skies for twenty-four hours, extending work days and not incidentally, announcing to the natural world as a whole that humans are present.

So what is wrong with that?

For one thing, there are substantial savings in energy costs in cutting back on over-lighting and misdirected lighting.

A number of municipalities have initiated “dark skies initiatives” which both save on energy and cut light pollution that obscures the stars and confuses migrating animals as well as playing havoc with human biorhythms.  Such initiatives encourage the directing of light downward, onto the surfaces where it is needed, rather than up into the skies, where it scatters on dust participles to become light bubbles that obscure the night sky for hundreds of miles beyond major cities.

In New York City, for instance, a park was recently designed using lighting directed entirely downward where it would be of the most use to humans using that park at night.  And from above, the night still looks like the night.

Some believe that night lighting is a matter of safety and the brighter the better. Perhaps this harkens back to the safety of the fire ring in ancient human camps. But though light has arguably deterred crime in certain urban areas, there is some debate over this issue.   I spoke with a local policeman in Eugene, Oregon who believed the opposite:  he observed that bright lighting may light the way for a potential thief, who may well be daunted by an area that is mysterious to him or her.

In any event, as a recent New York City park proves, there is another way to light things up.

But setting aside the issues of energy saving and safety for the moment, why should we try to protect the darkness? For one thing, it is a kindness to other species that use the light of the stars (or the starlight reflected on the ocean) to navigate by. Millions (yes, that’s right) of birds die each year in collisions with lighted buildings at night, misdirected by the light that historically guided their migrations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council did an experiment in which they left half their office building in New York City unlit—and found fifty per cent fewer birds were killed in collisions with that building as a result.  A sad parallel tale is that of turtles who hatch on the sands of South Florida and migrate to the sea.  They have only a short time to get their heading and find their way into the water before they are caught by predators.  Their life and death flight was cued by starlight on the ocean.  But today they head in the opposite direction– straightaway for city lighting which obscures the more subtle starlight on the water.

It is a kindness to ourselves as well if we more often allow the natural cycles of light and dark to guide our body rhythms.  Researchers intrigued by the fact that breast cancer rates were higher among those who worked night shifts put cancer cells in a petri dish and found that those exposed to artificial light grew faster than those exposed to the regular day/night cycles.

Without darkness, our bodies cannot produce and replenish key hormones that keep up healthy.

The words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson give us something to ponder: “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”

When our lights blot out the stars, we lose perspective on our place in the cosmos. We easily become egocentric as well as anthropocentric when we dwell only in the bubbles of light we have created, rather than in the  nature’s vast universe of proportion and mystery.

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I highly recommend the award-winning documentary, The City Dark, which makes many of the concrete points above. For a wealth of  information on health issues flowing from over-lighting, criteria for proper lighting and the energy savings that follow—as well as model “dark skies initiatives”–see the International Dark Sky Association website.