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Lost Under City Lights

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Lost Under City Lights

Masked by man-made light, the vast treasure trove beyond our skies is slipping out of view. But why should you be concerned?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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As I look up from the front yard of an average suburban U.S. home at about 10:30 p.m. on an overcast night, the cloudy sky radiates an odd shade of pink.

Trucks roar by on an interstate highway a tenth of a mile due north, with an exit ramp visible just to the east.

Sprouting up around this freeway/state route intersection are the typical landmarks of an American Midwest highway exit: several fast-food restaurants, a gas station/convenience store, a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, a big-box retailer and a large home supply center, three banks, a donut shop, two auto parts stores, a paint outlet, a few motels, and an office building.

The lighted signs, parking lots, and interiors of these businesses, particularly the blazingly bright bulbs that flood the gas station’s array of fuel pumps, seem to bounce their electric rays off the cloud cover to create the odd, hazy glow.

From horizon to horizon, the light is more reminiscent of a cheap nightlight than the starry tapestry traditionally called to mind by the phrase “night sky.”

For contrast, I reflect on a trip to northern New Hampshire with my wife some years ago. Taking a break from driving just south of the White Mountains, we stepped out of the car to marvel at countless brilliant points of light, spread across a midnight-blue backdrop like diamonds on a velvet blanket, illuminating a dense, evergreen-dominated forest.

The suburban landscape I now see, bathed in artificial light, almost seems like a different planet.

A Men’s Journal article documented this phenomenon nationwide: “Across the country, as cities sprawl into suburbs and suburbs metastasize into exurbs, with the amount of artificial lighting exploding alongside every new McMansion, strip mall, and superhighway, the night sky, in its purest form, is increasingly becoming an endangered species. If you live in a decent-size metropolitan area, chances are you rarely glimpse any but a handful of the brightest stars and planets. A clear view of the solar system—and that awesome, unmooring, sublime, occasionally terrifying feeling that comes over us when we bear witness to the vastness of the universe and recognize our infinitesimal place in it—had been a routine nocturnal experience for the bulk of human history. Now it’s become rarefied and, for some, unimaginable.”

A freeway exit compared to the North Woods is a poignant illustration of the natural versus the manmade, with one setting far more inspiring than the other. But are pure beauty and aesthetics the end of the story?

Another Form of Pollution

The average 21st-century man or woman spends life taking the convenience of artificial light—present in many forms in virtually any setting—for granted. Only when a power outage abruptly plunges us into darkness might we consider that most generations never saw a single light bulb.

Of course, being able to “create daytime” at all hours can increase productivity, improve safety, and bring other benefits. But there are downsides.

A National Geographic article stated: “[Artificial light’s] benefits come with consequences—called light pollution—whose effects scientists are only now beginning to study. Light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it’s not wanted, instead of focusing it downward, where it is. Ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels—and light rhythms—to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted. Wherever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.”

As with many repercussions of modern technology, light pollution is an unforeseen byproduct. Modern lighting patterns and trends have brought unintended costs.

Men’s Journal continued: “Our indiscriminate overuse of outdoor lighting is the main cause of light pollution. We light our driveways, our porches, our parking lots, our billboards and storefronts, our streets and highways, our parks and public spaces—at times for the purpose of commerce, but often because, on a gut level, it just feels safer to have bright lights around at night. But much of our outdoor lighting is poorly designed, blasting light into the sky rather than onto the sidewalk or city street we’re actually meaning to illuminate.”

“In certain obvious, unfortunate ways, light pollution has simply evolved alongside our lighting technology. As Paul Bogard points out in [his] book The End of Night, a single 75-watt incandescent bulb burns 100 times brighter than a candle. Satellite images of North America at night, with various intensities of light represented by glowing yellows and oranges, are startling, with just about everything east of the Mississippi looking like a graphic representation of a toxic spill. Sky glow has transformed the color of night, for many of us, into perpetually dizzying gradations of pink and blue. A 2001 study co-authored by scientists from Italy and the U.S. found that for 80 percent of the U.S. population and two-thirds of the European Union population, night-sky brightness equaled full-moon conditions all month long.”

Losses and Negative Effects

In most developed nations, the view from the ground is very different from what our ancestors saw. Constellations—planets—meteor showers—shooting stars—the faint blur of the Andromeda Galaxy, which is most easily discerned using peripheral vision—all are now obscured.

The National Geographic article put this loss in perspective: “In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We’ve grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night—dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth—is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost. And yet above the city’s pale ceiling lies the rest of the universe, utterly undiminished by the light we waste—a bright shoal of stars and planets and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness.”

An anecdote from Southern California paints a startling picture: “So foreign are the real night skies to Los Angeles that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake jostled Angelenos awake at 4:31 a.m., the observatory received many calls asking about ‘the strange sky they had seen after the earthquake.’

“‘We finally realized what we were dealing with,’ [Griffith Observatory director Ed] Krupp said. ‘The quake had knocked out most of the power, and people ran outside and they saw the stars. The stars were in fact so unfamiliar; they called us wondering what happened’” (Los Angeles Times).

These urbanites were seeing the Milky Way—the galaxy in which they live—for the first time!

But light pollution’s effects are more than just emotional, psychological or philosophical. There are tangible, measurable physical repercussions as well.

National Geographic continued: “Light is a powerful biological force, and on many species it acts as a magnet…The effect is so powerful that scientists speak of songbirds and seabirds being ‘captured’ by searchlights on land or by the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, circling and circling in the thousands until they drop. Migrating at night, birds are apt to collide with brightly lit tall buildings; immature birds on their first journey suffer disproportionately.”

But does this modern problem affect only birds and other lesser species? What about you?

Human beings do respond to light!

“For the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one [2009] study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods” (ibid.).

Another form of light pollution makes its way indoors: the ever-present glow of electronic screens—computers, tablets, phones, televisions and the like. These can have effects on the human brain even after they have been switched off.

Studies have documented “the effects of LED backlit screens and their emission of a certain blue-light wavelength on melatonin levels, an essential hormone that makes you drowsy and kicks in your sleep cycle. Melatonin is released naturally at the onset of darkness, preparing your body for rest, and then continuously throughout the night as part of your natural circadian rhythm—your body’s daily biological clock. However, melatonin can be partially curbed by exposure to light, and the abnormally bright glow of backlit computer screens seems to be especially disruptive to its release. Suppression of melatonin then has the opposite effects, increasing alertness and arousal, and even altering REM sleep patterns when you finally do nod off,” the journal Nature reported.

Modern man’s reliance on electric lighting, with most unable to function without the power grid, puts him in an incredibly precarious position.

During a speech at Hillsdale College’s Allen P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship (which was adapted and published in the college’s monthly bulletin Imprimis), author and national security expert Brian T. Kennedy stated: “America’s electrical grid is vulnerable…to an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack—a nuclear explosion in the high atmosphere, creating an electro-magnetic pulse that destroys electrical wiring and hardware across the affected area. Such an explosion placed over the center of the U.S. could destroy the infrastructure that distributes electricity to consumers and industrial users in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.”

“What we know from work performed in the 1990s by a Congressionally-mandated EMP Commission is that without electricity, the U.S. has the industrial infrastructure to provide for only 30 million of its over 300 million citizens. If an EMP attack occurred right now, the lights in this room would go off and most of us would be walking home, since many cars and gas pumps would be disabled. Our cell phones and iPads are likely to turn on, but not our computers and laptops—and in any case, cellular networks and the Internet will have likely been destroyed. Those of us able to reach home would have no lights or refrigeration. Most water is pumped electronically as well. So we would have only the food and bottled water we have stored in our houses—normally about three days’ worth.”

Considering all of this, we must ask: how advanced are we, really?

Two Possibilities

Our dependence on electric light is firmly entrenched, and studies regarding its effects are usually unheeded. Nevertheless, one fact is indisputable: blotting out the stars with incandescent and fluorescent bulbs robs us of some of the most stunning vistas and mind-expanding sights found in the human experience.

Why does a clear night’s sky—unobstructed by pollution—have such an effect on us?

If the universe is, as many believe, simply a huge, ancient accident—born of laws of physics and chemistry that are themselves an even more ancient and improbable accident—then we could conclude that in the long run, it does not matter whether we can see beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

But if the Earth, human beings, and all that exists are the Creation of a Creator, everything changes!

If the universe is here by design, why is it so vast? With no other signs of physical life having been found beyond Earth, what is the purpose of billions of galaxies holding trillions of stars? Why did the Creator make a portion of it visible to us at night and give us the creative capacity to build telescopes to peer many light-years into it?

The Bible makes plain that the Creator—God—is the Author of the universe. Many proofs confirm that this Book is not just ancient literature but rather God’s inspired Word.

In it, God makes clear how He feels about mankind destroying the Earth (Rev. 11:18).

Light pollution is one more way in which humankind has degraded its environment. And just as this form of pollution takes a physical toll, it has a spiritual effect as well. It pushes us further into an artificial, tech-saturated cocoon, insulating us from reality, making our world smaller, and diminishing our ability to see God’s Creation—which testifies to His existence: “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Rom. 1:20).

Consider the words of the biblical and historical King David, and picture him looking up at a pristine Middle Eastern sky: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them has He set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof” (Psa. 19:1-6).

Elsewhere, David was inspired to write, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man, that You are mindful of him? And the son of man, that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor. You made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet” (8:3-6).

Some translations render “all things” as “the universe.” The context goes on to show that this has not yet taken place—mankind has not at this time been given rule over the entire universe.

But this will happen!

This is where the vastness of outer space crosses paths with your future and the reason you were born. Since God does not create in vain (Isa. 45:18), we can be assured that the universe is not destined to remain an uninhabited, lifeless place.

To see how the purpose of Creation is directly connected to your purpose, order your free copy of Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack’s book The Awesome Potential of Man. It will forever change your view of the universe—and your place in it! 

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