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I sometimes try to imagine living in a city before electricity. How quiet pre-electric nights would have been without cars or trucks or taxis, without any internal combustion engines at all. No radios, televisions, or computers. No cellphones, no headphones, nor anything to plug those headphones into if you had them. How deserted the city with most of the population locked inside their homes, the night left to fears of crime, sickness, and immorality, and best avoided if one could. Finally, and most strangely—the biggest difference from that time to ours—not one single, solitary electric light.
How dark it would have been—imagine leaning out your door and, on the darkest nights, not being able to see more than a few feet in any direction. Historian Peter Baldwin describes as “downright perilous” the streets in early American cities, with few paved and then those only with cobblestones. On nights of clouds and no moon, he writes, “travel was obstructed along the sidewalks and street edges by an obstacle course of encroachments: cellar doors, stoops, stacks of cordwood, rubbish heaps, posts for awnings, and piles of construction material. … In 1830 a New York watchman running down a dark street toward the sound of a disturbance was killed when he collided blindly with a post.” What lights did exist were intended only as beacons or guides rather than to illuminate the night. The New York street lanterns burning whale oil were, in 1761, merely “yellow specks engulfed by darkness,” and, even more than 100 years later, its gas lamps were still “faint as a row of invalid glow-worms.”
In Brilliant, Jane Brox tells of how American farm families, after they first got electric light, would turn on all the lamps in their house and drive out a ways just to watch it glow. Who can blame them? To go from the stink and dark and danger of kerosene to the clean well-lighted place brought by electricity—at the speed of light, no less. I would back away to admire the view as well. But soon it will be the rare person in the Western world who hasn’t spent his or her entire life bathed in electric light, and no one will remember what night was like without it.
In the United States, our bright nights began with the first electric streetlight in Cleveland, April 29, 1879. But it was in New York City that the “possibilities of nighttime lighting first entered American consciousness,” writes John A. Jackle in City Lights: Illuminating the American Night. “Once adopted there, its acceptance was assured almost everywhere.” Thomas Edison returned to New York after a trip in 1891 to Europe proclaiming, “Paris impresses me favorably as the city of beautiful prospects, but not as a city of lights. New York is far more impressive at night.” Broadway was always the first, always led the way. It was the city’s first street to be fully lit at night, first with whale oil lamps, then gas (1827), then finally electricity (1880). In a drawing from City Lights of Madison Square in 1881, arc lights on a tall pole shed light on an otherwise dark city scene of strolling couples, a horse-drawn carriage, telegraph poles and wires, and—in this famously windy part of the city—a man in the foreground who seems about to be blown over by the light as he crosses the street, cane in hand. By the 1890s, Broadway from 23rd Street to 34th Street was so brightly illuminated by electric billboards that people began calling it the Great White Way.
These days, walking from lower Manhattan, it’s not until I get to 31st Street that I reach anything close to the bright white streetlights I had expected. Until then I’m in what feels, at least late on a summer Sunday, like a forgotten part of the city. With the theater district and advertising lights moved far up the street, the once bright Way is far more mild than Great, much less White than gray.
But once in Times Square, all that changes. Flashing digital signs, billboards, colored lights—from 42nd to 47th is the brightest—and there is no night sky. I don’t mean I can’t see many stars, or even that I can’t see any stars, I mean there appears to be no sky. Yes, above me, there is a blackish color—but with no points of light or any other indication of being alive. Instead, I feel as though I’m in a domed stadium. The light from the digital billboards simply drowns the white streetlights that lower on Broadway seemed so bright. I can honestly say it feels as bright as day. Maybe a cloudy day, but day nonetheless. Certainly, it no longer feels like night.
And by that I mean it no longer feels dark.
In fact, at least in terms of darkness, “real night” no longer exists in New York City, or in Las Vegas, or in hundreds of cities across the world. According to the World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness, created in 2001 by Italians Pierantonio Cinzano and Fabio Falchi, two-thirds of the world’s population—including 99 percent of people living in the continental United States and Western Europe—no longer experience a truly dark night, a night untouched by artificial electric light. Satellite photographs of the Earth at night show the dramatic spread of electric light over the globe—even without a map to show political boundaries, many cities, rivers, coastlines, and country borders are easily identifiable. But as impressive as these photographs are, they don’t show the true extent of light pollution. Cinzano and Falchi took NASA data from the mid-1990s and, using computer calculations and imaging, showed that while in the photographs many areas outside cities appeared dark, they were actually flooded by pools of light spreading from the cities and towns around them. On the atlas, levels of brightness are indicated by color, with white the brightest, and descending from there: red-orange-yellow-green-purple-gray-black. Like the NASA photographs before it, the World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness has a certain beauty, but in truth it is a tale of pollution.
Light pollution is the reason Rob Lambert and I could see only a handful of stars from the Las Vegas Strip, and the reason I don’t see any stars from Times Square. It’s the reason why in the night skies under which the vast majority of us live, we can often count the stars we see on two hands (in the cities) or four (suburbs), rather than quickly losing count amid the more than 2,500 stars otherwise visible on a clear night. It’s the reason why even from the observatory deck of the Empire State Building we now see 1 percent of the stars those in 1700s-era Manhattan would have seen.
The International Dark-Sky Association defines light pollution as “any adverse effect of artificial light, including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste.” Sky glow—on display nightly over any city of any size—is that pink-orange glow alighting the clouds. It’s tramping through a two-foot snowfall with the whole town bathed in push-pop orange. It’s that dome of light on the horizon ahead though the sign says you’ve still got 50 miles to go. Glare is that bright light shining in your eyes that you raise your hand to block. Trespass is light allowed to cross from one property onto another. It’s your neighbor’s security light shining through your bedroom window. It’s the lights on the brand-new science building that also illuminate the sororities across the street. It’s all over every neighborhood in America, land of the free and the home of property rights. And clutter? A catchword for the confused lighting shining this way and that in any and every modern city.
The bad news? All mean wasted light, energy, and money. The good news? All are caused by poorly designed or installed light fixtures and our using more light than we need, and all could be significantly and—compared to other challenges we face—easily remedied.
When I think of how light pollution keeps us from knowing real darkness, real night, I think of Henry David Thoreau wondering in 1856, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” He was writing about the woods around Walden Pond and how the “nobler” animals such as wolf and moose had been killed or scared away. “I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess,” he explained, “that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars.” Some 150 years later, this is exactly what we have allowed our lights to do. “I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Thoreau concluded.
Every time I read this I think, Me, too.