The End of Night

Paul Bogard laments the loss of the beauty of the stars and the night sky.

“Walking out of your door and seeing the Milky Way for ever was one of the most common human experiences, and now it’s become one of the most rare human experiences,” said Bogard, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. “Estimates are now that eight of 10 kids born in the United States will never live where they can see the Milky Way” because of light pollution.

“There’s been a real switch and, I think, with great cost,” Bogard said during a talk this week at Town Hall Seattle.

Paul Bogard

Author Paul Bogard spoke about The End of Night at Town Hall Seattle on Oct. 8, 2013. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Bogard, an English professor at James Madison University, first got interested in the stars as a kid. He grew up in Minneapolis and his family had a lake cabin in Northern Minnesota, where he spent summer nights looking up.

“Year after year of seeing that night sky in the summer made a lasting impact on me,” he said.

Even more impressive was a post-college backpacking trip in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where he described a night sky so dark it was like a dream; the millions of stars looked like a snowstorm.

“I felt open to everything, as though I was made of clay and the world was imprinting upon me its breathtaking beauty,” Bogard read from the book. “Standing nearly naked under that Moroccan sky, skin against the air, the dark, the stars, the night pressed its impression and my life-long connection was sealed.”

Much of The End of Night relates Bogard’s experiences visiting the brightest and the darkest places we can get to, sometimes within hours of each other, such as the time he drove from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the pitch dark of Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada.

During the talk Bogard shared the familiar photo of the Earth at night, and observed that it’s a beautiful image, but that he doesn’t like what it depicts.

“What we’re seeing here is waste,” he said. “Nearly all of the light we see here is shining up in to the sky, it’s wasted, it’s not doing anybody any good.”

The End of Night

While the loss of the splendor of the night sky is terrible, Bogard noted that the other effects of light pollution may be more compelling reasons to do something, from a public policy standpoint. Poor lighting can actually reduce safety and security, and it harms wildlife. He also said there’s growing evidence of light pollution’s health effects on humans. Our sleep is disrupted and our circadian rhythms confused, and bright nights impede our production of melatonin, which could lead to breast and prostate cancer. In fact, Bogard noted that the World Health Organization now considers working the night shift to be a possible carcinogen.

He praised the work of the International Dark-sky Association; the chair of its local chapter, David Ingram, was part of the audience at the talk. Bogard hopes The End of Night inspires a better approach to night lighting.

“What I was trying to do with the book is to raise awareness about the issue,” he said. “Once people become aware of the beauty that we’re talking about, what we’re losing, the threats of light pollution, I think most people will realize that we can do a better job of lighting the night or leaving some of it dark.”

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