Light Pollution, Climate Grief and the “Loss of Part of Our Humanity”
by Patrick Sommer, a North Dakota, USA-based Climate Knight & volunteer delegate for DarkSky International
Our world continues to teeter on the edge of an abyss, with civilization itself poised to plunge off the cliffs of history. It has been a long, hard month around the globe already:
The U.S. political system – one of the two major parties, at any rate – is imploding and threatening to take U.S. democracy with it.
Major climate and other natural disasters continue around the world at a frightening pace, from earthquakes to floods to continued heat and fires.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for more than a year and a half.
And then, over the weekend, Hamas, a labeled terror group and a dominant political force in the Gaza Strip – home to two million Palestinians – launched a devastating surprise attack on Israel. Thousands are now dead, and the worst may be yet to come as Israel is in the early stages of a retaliatory campaign that will lay siege to Hamas and innocent Palestinians alike.
On top of all that, a resurgence of personal climate grief over the past few weeks, grief that I had thought I had processed years ago, but has stormed back during some recent master’s degree courses I am enrolled in. It’s exacerbated by growing noctalgia.
Light Pollution is Killing a Key Avenue to Awe
Refuge from the constant battering of headlines, relief from the environmental and wartime destruction at the hands of fellow humans, can be hard to find.
What we need, right now (in addition to confronting our problems), is someplace we can find a momentary escape. Someplace where we can experience a communal sense of wonder, of awe, shared equally by all of us.
In his 2023 book, “Awe: The New Science of Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life,” Dr. Dacher Keltner explores how sensing awe and wonder impact us. Those effects are, well, wonderous. It is different from joy; we make different sounds and facial expressions, and awe activates vagal nerves, clusters in the spine which help to slow our heart rate, relieve digestion and deepen breathing. It also can lower bodily inflammation, which, since the COVID pandemic started, I have become aware is a major issue for our overall health.
Yet perhaps that feeling of dread, the inability to fall asleep, my stomach issues, and more, which I know are connected to the knowledge of what is going on in the world, might have some method of relief after all.
The problem is that many of the places, sights and experiences that people have sought out for centuries are simply no more. They’ve been plowed under, cut down, diverted, or perhaps fenced off and economically too difficult for the majority of us to get to.
How many of us have the means to escape to see the Grand Canyon, or Alaska, or Hawaii, much less to foreign lands containing wonders of the world, on a whim? Environmental concerns for their local ecosystems, along with the welfare of their local populations, raise other questions, including whether we should even try to see them.
But awe, that desperately needed feeling of amazement, calls us, and tugs on our psyches.
“Cultures around the world and throughout history have used the sky as a springboard for the imagination, painting heroes, monsters, and myths in the constellations.”
Astrophysicist Paul Sutter
There once was a way to experience this feeling available to virtually all of us. It was, and still is, called the “night sky.” If you have been someplace with a truly dark sky, free of human created artificial light at night, you understand what I speak of. Travelling from the urban environment we are used to, where we can see 50 to a few hundred stars, galaxies and nebula with the naked eye, to a dark-sky place, where our eyes can pick up 3,000 to 6,000 on average, can be a worldview-changing event. We were once able to see this sort of sky from our backyards, before electric lights became the norm. Now, with advanced technology of LED fixtures, daytime-bright lights are being installed on our streets and in our homes. Light pollution from outdoor sources has been growing exponentially over the past decade, up to 10 percent per year. Per DarkSky International(formerly the International Dark-Sky Association), 99 percent of the population of North America and Europe live under polluted nighttime skies, with over 80 percent of North America unable to see even the Milky Way. Some urban dwellers may have never seen this staple of our nighttime environment. This is a global problem, with over 80 percent of all residents on Planet Earth also dealing with some sort of light pollution.
Loss of the Night Sky, Loss of Humanity
There are numerous health and ecological/environmental problems associated with this growing form of pollution and loss of night that threatens one of our great global commons. They would require another, longer discussion to adequately address. Additionally, there are cultural and historical aspects of this loss of night that come into play.
A recent article on the website, Space.com, had this to say:
“The loss of the night sky has several tangible and cultural impacts. We are losing a rich tradition of human cultural knowledge; cultures around the world and throughout history have used the sky as a springboard for the imagination, painting heroes, monsters, and myths in the constellations. Nowadays, city dwellers are lucky to see even the brightest stars in the sky, let alone the faintest sketch of a familiar constellation.
“These millennia-old sky traditions aren’t just random stories meant to entertain around the fire; they are often cornerstones of entire cultures and societies. We all share the same sky, and anyone from the same culture can identify the same constellations night after night. The loss of that access and heritage is a loss of part of our humanity.”
The feeling of loss can permeate us when denied access to places of cultural connection, and when we become stripped of our ability to feel awe and wonder. Recently in a letter to the journal “Science,” Dr. John Barentine and his colleague, Aparna Venkatesan, developed a term for this sense of loss: noctalgia, or sky grief.
For me personally, the effect is very real. It is a significant component of the even greater climate grief that has reinserted itself into my life. Nights where I have slept the best are often those after I have been outside in dark-sky locations. A sense of clarity and focus returns to my mind. And, if I am with others, connections can form, relationships centered on a shared experience of something truly special, with deep-seated memories from far back in our evolutionary paths forging links to those with whom we connect.
I circle back to that last part in the Space.com piece, the part referencing the “…loss of part of our humanity.” That statement can be connected to so much of the current problem sets we now face as a global society. As we eradicate the night sky with ever-increasing levels of light pollution, we erase a common set of stories that, while sometimes having different words, often share a great deal of iconography and sentiment. In a society already so far removed from regular access to stories, histories and places that generate awe and wonder, what more do we risk by erasing that common background of our nights?
Would it not be a better worldif we looked up, and instead of seeing tracers and the flares of rockets and missiles streaking through a night sky, we instead saw the glories of the cosmos?
I for one believe the loss of the latter, and the communal bonds we once shared under those images of the cosmos, may be helping contribute to the rise of the former. Fortunately, this form of pollution has a solution, and we will talk about that next.
About the Author
Patrick Sommer is a Knight of the Climate Covenant and a North Dakota, USA-based volunteer delegate for DarkSky International, the world’s foremost organization dedicated to mitigating light pollution and restoring darkness. He is available to present and discuss the subject to community and school groups and can be contacted at NDDarkSkies@gmail.com, or on social media – Facebook and Instagram.
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