Jesus taught that “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). As an anthropological and ethical statement, this is unequivocally true. But do we need physical darkness?
In a National Geographic article entitled “Our Vanishing Night,” Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about our biological need for darkness.
Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives––one of our circadian rhythms––is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.
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 new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.
In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony––the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way––the edge of our galaxy––arching overhead.
Spiritually we need the darkness “to reflect upon the great operations of nature”––an unappreciated act of worship for human beings who are spellbound by the great operations of technology. Alexandra Bergson, the enterprising farmer in O Pioneers!, inspired me recently to flee the light pollution of the city and drive to the mountains with friends in order to witness the providential governance of the universe in the night sky:
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it.
From National Geographic:
- Jim Richardson, “Our Vanishing Night” (photo gallery).
- Brad Scriber, “Light Pollution.”
- Howard Schneider, Backyard Guide to the Night Sky