The End of Night

MAYBE WE WOULD never have turned our backs on the night had we not come to define darkness as an absence—as a lack, a deficiency, an aching void calling out to be filled. But that is among our acts of original sin, and so—fiat lux—our modern world is awash in what the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (back in 1933) called “senseless and extravagant” light: the salmon-colored haze of sodium-vapor streetlights, the glaring white slap that illuminates countless commercial establishments from gas stations to Walmarts to the corner grocery, the endlessly multiplying blue glow of our myriad personal screens. If the human impact on our planet is something that many of us perceive as an ever-increasing weight, one of its most obvious manifestations is lighter than air: the flood of artificial light that wastes energy, fails to accomplish its basic goals of safety and security, and gravely sunders us from one of the most fundamental ties we have to the universe, the grand vista of the star-speckled night sky.

So, anyway, goes Paul Bogard’s argument in his stellar new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Even though I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, an astronomically besotted city that seldom fails to trumpet its position as the world’s first International Dark Sky City—yes, that’s a real title, bestowed by the International Dark Sky Association—I would scarcely have known of Junichiro Tanizaki’s prescient assessment in the absence of Bogard’s erudite yet lyrical book (the thirty-five pages of notes must be the most readable since David Foster Wallace). Nor would I have known of the growing number of insults to human health that doctors link to our epidemic of artificial light, or about the remarkable subtlety that outdoor lighting designers can bring to their craft when the public and politicians allow, or about the Bortle scale, which is an index of night-sky darkness devised at the beginning of this millennium by the astronomer John Bortle.

The scale declines from 9 (think downtown Las Vegas) to 1 (think the heart of Death Valley) and gives Bogard the opportunity to cleverly number his chapters down from 9 to 1, Letterman-style, as he pursues the increasingly chimerical goal of finding a truly dark place in the lower 48. But it also provides a framework for thinking about the numerous ways in which the modern quest to light everything, everywhere, all the time, has altered age-old ways of perceiving the dark—mainly to our detriment.

It’s true that before the age of artificial lighting, cities could be dangerous places by night. Early lighting, such as the gaslights of the nineteenth century, was nothing short of revolutionary, converting the haunt of the highwayman into seductive boulevards suited to promenading and people-watching. But in Bogard’s exhaustively researched telling, improving technology has almost always led to a vicious cycle of overkill and sensory dulling:


As our surroundings grow brighter, we grow used to that level of brightness, and so anything dimmer seems extraordinarily dim, even dark. . . . The once glorious oil lamps became dim and disgusting with the advent of wonderful gas lighting, which then became smelly and awful and unbearably dim the moment we saw electric light. In other words, once our eyes get used to seeing brighter lights, we must have brighter lights.

What gets lost, Bogard argues, is not only the opportunity that darkness provides for a range of valuable light-phobic activities, such as introspection, spiritual questing, sex, and melancholy, but also the overwhelming sensory experience that he finally finds in the Great Basin Desert (Bortle Class 1), where “the wild land and the wild sky” merge into a single endless vista of deep time. There, Bogard writes, “thoughts instinctively turn to one’s place in the world, and the world’s place in the universe. This feeling, of tilting your head back until you feel enveloped by stars, of wonder and wondering, feels . . . primal . . . [like] that sensation of being thrown from the edge of the world.”

There’s a term for this sensation—“celestial vaulting”—and a cadre of people seek to preserve the kind of night sky it requires, both in the wilds and in more peopled places. They’ve had some successes, albeit scattered, and one of the book’s pleasures lies in learning how people in such far-flung places as Flagstaff, Paris, Quebec, and the Channel Island of Sark have voluntarily dimmed the lights and found, under an improved view of the heavens, a richer quality of life on the ground.

Those positive results are an antidote to the frustration this book raises, for even more so than most environmental insults, night’s wash of glaring light is so very shortsighted, so demonstrably careless. Maybe, Bogard suggests, if we learn to turn the lights down, we can also learn to do what else it takes to ensure that our planet remains a place of natural awe and wonder—and not only at night.

Peter Friederici is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes about science, nature, and the environment from his home in Arizona. His articles, essays, and books tell stories of people, places, and the links between them.