Sunday, December 31, 2017

On the Dying of the Darkness

In Chicago, on a summer's night, the sky at 2am glows with a dull grey orange. If modernity has a colour, it is this. The orange is the city, reflected back off the night clouds. The colour of streets illuminated to make it safer to walk in. The colour of houses with merriment and offices with productive work, extending the day long past the sun's descent over the horizon. The colour of man beating back nature. The colour of progress, in its old and apolitical sense of sheer advancement, of doing things that were once not possible.

And yet, few things in this universe are truly free. Wrestling with the full implications of opportunity cost, both in terms of battling it where possible and making peace with it as best you can otherwise, is a large part of the human condition. This concept has been studied by poets and economists alike. As I wrote about in the very first entry of this periodical, the best summary of opportunity cost, in my opinion, still comes from Bob Dylan.

The light dispels the darkness. Even reactionaries, no matter how committed, would hesitate mightily before wishing away this development.

But to choose openly does not mean one cannot regret the tradeoff. So what, thereby, is lost?

Chief among the costs is the splendour of the night sky.

In a capital city in Australia, where I grew up, you can still see the stars at night. Not the full panoply of the Milky Way, but enough to sense the enormity of the heavens.

For immediately conveying the sheer punyness of man on a cosmic scale, there is no substitute for the stars on a cloudless night, surrounded by pitch black. It is a scene which requires almost no explanation. Mere scale is enough to make one's own problems, and indeed one's very existence, seem picayune.

And nothing else quite has the same effect. Not the fury of the ocean in a storm, not the solitude of a silent forest, not the desolation of a wilderness far from other people. A wilderness can be traversed, a forest explored, an ocean sailed. Even when they threaten you, they can all be interacted with. But the stars can only be watched, and one's place in the universe pondered.

And increasingly, we don't see them. I suspect that a child growing up in New York City might go months without seeing the stars. Even as adults, the full visual of the Milky Way has mostly become something we see when on holiday in somewhere remote. Exteranally-prompted contemplation of one's place in the universe becomes similarly irregular.

Modernity is the era of light pollution.

Modernity is also the era of atheism, and (though less remarked), the era of narcissism.

I suspect these aspects are not entirely a coincidence.

Without the stars, one only sees the lights of the city. Without the heavenly panorama, one is less drawn to look at the night sky in the first place. And the same light that drowns out the stars attracts our attention downward, towards televisions, phones and computers.

The stars speak the irrefutable message that there are measures greater than man. Take that away, and man has no measure other than himself and his physical surroundings. The latter is atheism. The former is narcissism.

There are no simple causes of social phenomena, and it would be trite to ascribe great social changes to such Rube Goldberg-like developments as streetlights.

And yet, each restraint that gets eroded adds momentum to the changes already underway.

And this was known long before light pollution was even a concept. As Isaac Asimov noted, quoting Emerson:
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?'

1 comment:

  1. Ten years ago I took my then new wife up to a holiday house on the lake - about 2hrs out of Melbourne. The first night she went outside for a cigarette and came inside quite excited. I couldn't imagine what the cause might be. Turns out she had never really seen the stars and had NO IDEA the milky way looked like that. It had such an effect that she still tells people of the event today.

    Another similar case I often think about is our inability to see a horizon. The urban environment has not only blotted out the night sky but enclosed us in a box. All you have to do is visit a beach or sit atop a mountain to feel the profundity of witnessing a grand expanse and your relation to it. Perhaps it imparts the same message that you describe.