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Night Alight: Ramifications Of Using Artificial Illumination

Growing up in northern Minnesota, Paul Bogard grew to love the darkness as he watched the Milky Way at night. Moved by these early experiences and motivated to understand the consequences of artificial light pollution, Bogard explores the human, environmental, and economic consequences of artificially lighting the night sky in his book The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

Paul Bogard
Credit Provided
Paul Bogard

“I think I’m one of those folks who really appreciates the way the world slows down in speed and size at night,” Bogard says. “There’s less noise, and less people, less speed. It gives me a chance to breathe and to recuperate and to refresh.”

A gradual, dramatic increase in the human use of artificial light at night across the globe has potentially harmful ramifications, Bogard says.  He supports the security and increased productivity applications of artificial light consumption, but he’s troubled by other externalities that result from its human use.

“It’s robbing our view of the night sky,” Bogard says. “It’s harming our physical body. I think it’s impacting our spiritual and soulful selves. It’s impacting the ecology.”

Artificial light usage at night disrupts and confuses the circadian rhythms of human beings. It also contributes to sleep disorders, and impedes the production of melatonin, side effects that “are tied now to every major disease that we’re dealing with in Western civilization,” Bogard says.

Animal species that rely on night, dawn, and dusk for their life and consumption patterns has serious repercussions for their lives.

“When we flood [species’] habitats with light at night we are essentially the bulldozer of the night,” Bogard says “It just destroys this habitat.”

end of night book jacket
Credit Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group

The economic cost of irresponsible artificial light consumption is immense, however Bogard says that these energy consumption choices may begin to change as energy pricing changes in accordance with shifting consumption patterns.

“We estimated that the US wastes about $10 billion a year just on outdoor light that’s not going any good,” Bogard says.

Darkness is increasingly viewed as a resource worth protecting in the process of global development. Because of a growing interest to preserve darkness,  the  National Park Service has developed a night sky team to measure the levels of darkness in the national parks.

“When you look at the image of the world at night you can definitely tell the areas that are developed and the areas that aren’t developed,” Bogard says. “What we’re hoping is that we begin to see progress not only with light, but true progress being thoughtful and responsible lighting so the places that are truly developed will look a little less bright from those images from space.”

Until then, Bogard says that individuals should try to sleep in true darkness and learn to appreciate darkness as a resource.

“I love the idea of becoming aware of the value of darkness and beginning to see all of the wasted light around us,” he says.


World Views is a partnership between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies to bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST:  Paul Bogard, welcome to World Views.

PAUL BOGARD: It's great to be here. Thank you. 

GRILLOT: So you bring in the most interesting book - The End of Night. I'm really fascinated by this because we don't spend a lot of time appreciating night, and even really thinking about the fact that night doesn't really exist anymore with all this artificial light. You're focusing on artificial light as the end of night. What motivated you to focus on that? Why? Why this subject?

BOGARD: I have always loved night. I think I’m one of those folks who really appreciates the way that the world slows down in speed and size at night. I feel like there's less noise, and less people, less speed, all that kind of thing. It gives me a chance to breathe, and to recuperate, and refresh, and all those things. And then you combine that with growing up in Minnesota. We had a cabin in the northern part of the state. Every summer for weeks at a time we would go up there and I had that first-hand experience of a real night sky - The Milky Way from one horizon to the next and the woods so dark that you can't see your hands in front of your face and that kind of thing - that sort of, first-hand experience of night. 

GRILLOT: That's such a great story of where these things come from. Your motivation and inspiration made me think about my childhood and my experience of night, because you mentioned that this is a calming time, a time when you slow down. There's less noise - although some places there may be more bugs and crickets and things that go off at night - but why is it that we have so much artificial light? A lot of people might think, “I'm afraid of the dark,” or “I'm afraid of night. We need light because dark is scary,” yet you’re kind of saying the opposite. 

BOGARD: Well, for sure. I'm always quick to say that I'm not here to talk about "let's have no light." I'm a big fan of light at night. I think it's a wonderful miracle. We all like it. We're going to have it. What I'm really concerned about is how we're using it. We're using too much of it and we're using it in ways that are harmful to us. It's robbing our view of the night sky. It's harming our physical body. I think it's impacting our spiritual and soulful selves. It's impacting the ecology. So for all of these reasons I just really want to draw our attention to the way that we're using this miracle of artificial light. I do think that, in general, the growth of light around us, of artificial light, has happened very rapidly. If you look back just fifty years ago, this was a very different country, a much darker country. It's happened just slowly enough that it's hard to notice. I'll give you good examples of that, which are gas stations and parking lights. These are so bright these days – ten times as bright as they were just twenty years ago, which isn't very long ago. Why is that? Well, lots of reasons. One reason, as you mentioned, is that we're afraid of the dark. I think that fear of the dark is reflected in our use of artificial light, the way we try to push away darkness with artificial light. Again, I think that we can have artificial light at night. We can have all the light we need for safety and security and still use light in responsible, thoughtful ways that do not send light into the sky, into our eyes, or into our neighbor's bedroom. 

GRILLOT: But this is clearly a universal thing, right? Around the world you look at these images in your book of different parts of the world and the light they project that have been taken in space. This is something that's really kind of human nature that we want to light up our world at night.  Perhaps there are reasons for productivity, to pack a lot of life into your life, your 24 hours. But as you said there are health consequences, ecological consequences. Can you tell us a little about that? 

BOGARD: Sure. What they're finding with the human health consequences of artificial light at night are primarily three main things. The first is that it's disrupting our sleep and contributing to sleep disorders, which are tied now to every major disease that we're dealing with in Western civilization. Light at night is also confusing our circadian rhythms, those twenty-four hour internal rhythms that orchestrate our bodies’ internal functioning. And finally, light at night is impeding the production of the hormone melatonin. What folks have found is that a lack of melatonin in the blood stream leads to an increased risk of developing breast cancer or prostate cancer. So some really serious issues when it comes to the effect of light at night on human health. And then when you think about life on earth in general, which, including human beings, have evolved with bright days. We need light, there's no doubt about that, but we also need dark nights. We really need darkness for our physical, our spiritual, and our soulful health. In the last fifty years or so we've flooded the night with this artificial light, and we and other life on earth has had no time to evolve, to adjust to that. And so you have, for example when it comes to species at night, we have so many nocturnal species, so many crepuscular species - species that rely on dawn and dusk for all their living - and when we flood their habitat with light at night we are essentially the bulldozer of the night. That's what I call artificial light at night. It just destroys this habitat. So light at night has real implications for human health and also for all life on earth. 

GRILLOT: And this doesn't even get into the financial and environmental consequences, right? The cost of lighting up our night and the energy that's required...

BOGARD: That's really true. When you see the photographs of the earth from space they're really quite beautiful and stunning photographs, but they're also photographs of waste. You’re seeing lights that are just shining right up into the sky in all directions - into our eyes, into our neighbor’s bedrooms - and that's wasted energy. It's wasted money. We estimated that the US wastes about 10 billion dollars a year just on outdoor light that's not doing us any good. And I think what you're going to see - and what's in some ways a hopeful sign - is that as we begin to, say plug-in our cars at night, as our energy use changes you're going to see electricity priced differently. Then people are going to start to think twice about all the electricity that they are wasting at night with these lights that are using so much more light than we need. 

GRILLOT: So I thought it was interesting that connecting your work with some of the recent research that I just happened to be reading one day - I think it was the New York Times - about the disruptive nature of light in terms of our sleep and that we actually used to have first and second sleep, right? We used to actually have a break in our sleeping patterns. We would have a time when we'd get through a good REM, come awake, get up and socialize, do things, read, whatever - and then you'd have a second sleep, and light has changed the way in which we know say we have to get 8 hours of sleep although most of us don't. Light has really changed the way we've lived in so many ways. And yet there are so many reasons to do it. So to the skeptic out there that says "What are you talking about? We need to have light. We need to have light at all times of the day, or whatever."

BOGARD: Well, sure. And once again, I'm not saying that we shouldn't have light at night. I'm just saying that we should use light at night responsibly, thoughtfully, while thinking about our neighbors. One of the aspects of light pollution that we deal with quite a bit is something called 'light trespass,' which is light from one property that bleeds over to another property. So I sometimes ask folks to think about the fact that "yeah, it's okay if you want to light up your house 24/7. That's one thing, but what happens is that when you light up your house 24/7 you're also lighting up your neighbors house and the sky and the streets." We're not good at keeping our light on our property and what we do affects everyone around us. Those security lights, barn lights, pole lights all across the country are out shining in the middle of the country light and lighting not just that one farm or that one ranch, but for miles and miles around. If your neighbors are not that excited about it they don't really have any recourse. We have not become responsible with our use of light at night. 

GRILLOT: So just like any other type of externality there are additional costs to your personal of light like second hand smoke or pollution of any kind. We're talking here about light pollution. Is this what, more or less, you're suggesting?

BOGARD: Absolutely. And a number of the folks that I’ve talked to who are actively working in this field say that 20 or 25 years ago they were giving talks to people who had never heard the words light and pollution together. They feel good about the fact that now a lot of people have at least heard of the concept of light pollution. But I talk to people all the time, who, although they may have heard that term, are so used to the way that we're using light and we've grown up, many of us, just surrounded by light, that we don't see it. So i sometimes apologize to people because I say "Once I point it out to you you're going to start seeing it everywhere."

GRILLOT: I'm going to see lights from now on. Let's say that if you were to go search for darkness, where would you go? Where in the world can you find significant darkness?

BOGARD: Well, I would say that in many cases you can find it anywhere in some senses. There certainly are areas around the world that still have that natural, primordial darkness that the earth has always had. I'm talking about out in the ocean, or in the Amazon, in the Outback of Australia, in the desert. But what I was really concerned with in the book was the night and the darkness that most of us experience or could experience. So I focused my journey on the lower 48 [states] and Western Europe and the places that I found, if you're really interested in darkness, go west. Go out to, especially the national parks of the Southwest. I found just wonderful darkness. And I actually found the National Parks service now with a dedicated night sky team that's going around and measuring the levels of darkness, and a park service that's dedicated to preserving the resource of darkness. They see darkness as an actual resource that they're trying to protect. And have really made the parks a place where Americans can come to from wherever they live and experience a real night and take that experience back tot he cities and the suburbs where they live and talk about things like safety and security and maybe having a lighting ordinance in their town that reduces some of this pollution.

GRILLOT: So looking at the maps in your book I noticed that Greece is actually a place where you might find quite a bit of darkness if you're going to look at Europe as a place where you can find darkness. The image seemed to be Greece was the place to go. And i wonder if there's a connection here between light and development. You do see that in heavily developed parts of the world - not that Greece isn't - but it's a part of Europe that, in some ways, has developed in a different way. 

BOGARD: Sure. Absolutely. And when you look at that image of the world at night and you see it all lit up you can definitely tell the areas that are developed and the areas that aren't developed. Artificial light that is electric light, and increasingly electronic light, tends to follow development. Wherever we go we bring our lights with us. What we're hoping is that we begin to see progress not only just with light, but true progress being thoughtful and responsible lighting. So the places that are truly developed will look a little less bright from those images from space. 

GRILLOT: So just one last thing. i have to ask because I think it's so interesting how you pointed out darkness as a resource, indicating that, like light, it's something that we consume and that we should consume. I guess that you're saying we should consume more darkness and less light. Give us some advice. How should we experience the dark? What would you suggest? 

BOGARD: I love the idea of becoming aware of the value of darkness and beginning to see all of the wasted light around us and doing whatever you can to get out to a local area that's a little bit darker, even if it's just a city park or at the edge of town. Or taking a longer trip to a truly dark place and beginning to experience first-hand that darkness that has always been an experience of being a human being. And if you have kids, to take kids with you, to introduce them to that part of being alive. And begin to pass on that heritage of experiencing real darkness and real night. We live in a country where the estimates are that 8 of 10 kids born in the US today will never live where they can see the Milky Way. So if we're going to give our kids that opportunity, we're going to have to make the effort on our own to go to those places. And within your own house I would say that one of the most effective things you can do is to sleep in the dark. When I talk to the researchers they all say we don't know exactly what's happening. We can't exactly tell you what's going to happen to your body if you're exposed to light, but we can tell that if it's possible sleep in the dark.

GRILLOT: Such a fascinating topic. Paul, thank you so much for being with us and I am sure that many of us will see light in a very different way from now on.

BOGARD: Thank you very much for having me. 


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