Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Don't Go Toward the Light!

How many hours of sleep do you lose a week because of electric lights and electronic gadgets? Maybe an hour every weeknight? Maybe 3 or 4 hours every weekend?  Maybe more?

Fear not.  The great restorative elixir of our age is coffee.  It has become the worker's little helper, the drug that makes us clear-eyed in the mornings and props us up in the afternoons.  It has evolved from drink to self-medication to  lifestyle, philosophy, and economic juggernaut, all with the underlying mission of off-setting our loss to the bright lights and dancing screens of the night.  Caffeine has turned Dunkin and Starbucks into the great Pavlovian beacons of our age.


I was pondering this while reading the National Geographic article, “The End of Night,” which highlighted another aspect of having too much man-made light on our planet. Author Verlyn Klinkenborg's interesting claim is that we have “engineered night to receive us by filling it with light,” no different from damming a river.

"Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light. . .Nearly all of nighttime Europe is a nebula of light, as is most of the United States and all of Japan.” In the south Atlantic where squid fishermen use halide lamps to attract their prey, the light cast into space is brighter than Buenos Aires."

The consequence is light pollution. In many places on earth, we have lost the stars. Worse yet, “whenever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.”

“Migrating birds collide with brightly lit tall buildings," Klinkenborg writes. "Insects cluster around streetlights, providing artificial hunting-grounds for bats. Birds sing at unnatural hours, breed earlier than they should, and put on fat too early for their migratory cycle. Hatchling sea turtles are confused by artificial lighting on the beach, with losses in the hundreds of thousands."

Then there’s the toll light takes on us. Klinkenborg adds, “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. . .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.”

Imagine living in a country where 200 million adults are habitually tired. Imagine how grumpy people would be in traffic, how difficult they'd be to work with, and what bad listeners they’d all make. Imagine the foolish things that would go on in such a country where everyone gets robbed of an hour of sleep, compensates with caffeine all morning, and sleepwalks all afternoon.

In 1995, Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. In it, he discusses some of the social implications of light, and makes it clear that, while nobody likes to stub his toe in the dark, the adoption of 7-by-24 artificial light has come at a huge cost to Europeans or Americans.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. For thousands of years, the flame remained essentially unchanged as a source of light for human activity. When people wanted more light, they added more flames. In 1688, for example, 24,000 lights—presumably wax candles--were used to illuminate Versailles.

2. Because artificial light was expensive, only royalty used it for extravagant displays like Versailles. “Artificial light was used for work, not for celebrations; it was employed in a rational, economical way. It emancipated the working day from its dependence on natural light, a process that had begun with the introduction of mechanical clocks in the sixteenth century.” Prior to that, Schivelbusch writes, “the medieval community prepared itself for dark like a ship’s crew preparing to face a gathering storm”—retreating indoors, closing the city gates, and bolting doors.”

3. As long as the artificial light required was limited to individual craftsmen, candles and oil lamps were adequate. But, once industrial methods of production were adopted, artificial light was needed for larger spaces and longer periods of time. “In the factories, night was turned to day more consistently than anywhere else.”

4. Schivelbusch says that the wick was as revolutionary in the development of artificial lighting as the wheel was to transport. In fact, people grew so accustomed to wicks that, “in the dazzling brightness of the gaslight, the first thing people wanted to know was what had happened to the wick. ‘Do you mean to tell us it will be possible to have a light without a wick,’ an MP asked the gas engineer William Murdoch at a hearing in the House of Commons in 1810.”

5. Once a house was connected to a central gas supply, it lost its autonomy. “To contemporaries it seemed that industries were expanding, sending out tentacles, octopus-like, into every house. Being connected to them as consumers made people uneasy. They clearly felt a loss of personal freedom.” Many turned off their gas at night, like the medieval city closing its doors. By the mid-1820s most big cities in England had gas; by the late 1840s it had reached many small towns and villages. By 1829, gas was being used for street lighting.

6. There was, of course, a genuinely good reason to fear gas; early gasometers were expected to explode at any minute. And, often they did.

7. The most outstanding feature of gaslight was its brightness. Traditional flames paled in comparison. In fact, the gas flame was so bright people could not look at it directly. Hence, the need arose for shades and frosted glass as ways to dissolve and soften the concentrated light. Worse, though, was that gas used up so much air that it was impossible to stay in gas-lit rooms. People often felt it at the theater, where headaches were common; at home, gas caused headaches and sweating, and could ruin interior decorations. Household guides at the time recommended against gaslights in any of the common living areas.

8. By the mid-nineteenth century, 1,500 police patrolled Paris by day and 3,500 lanterns lit it by night. This lighting was so effective in reducing crime that lantern-smashing became a common crime. In Les Miserables, you might recall, one of the chapters ("A Boy at War With Street-Lamps") describes Gavroche out having his turn at the lanterns. In many cities, the magnificent signboards that decorated the front of shops were removed because they blocked too much light.

9. With signs coming down, shops transitioned to the lighted shop window. This paralleled the ability, about 1850, to make large sheets of glass. Together, these inventions allowed retail shops to extend their hours past sundown.

10. The electric light bulbs shown at the 1881 Paris Electricity Exposition were marketed as superior to gas in every way, shining evenly and steadily irrespective of the season. The bulb demonstrated was, by comparison, a little weaker than today’s 25 watt light bulbs. Unlike gaslight, all doors in the household were open to electric light.

11. Still, the electric light took some getting used to. As one observer noted, “There is something that is lost in electric light: objects (seemingly) appear much more clearly, but in reality it flattens them. Electric light imparts too much brightness and thus things lose body, outline, substance—in short, their essence. In candlelight objects cast much more significant shadows, shadows that have the power actually to create forms.”

And, because the electric light “lit” more of the space, and more brightly, it changed the nature of home decorating. “Muted colors are more compatible with the lively lighting in our homes.”

It’s been only about two centuries that humans have been able to control the dark. The unintended consequences of lighting the world are significant, both on ourselves and the creatures around us. New home decorations. Confused turtles. Tired people. Sick people.

Imagine a world without electricity and electronics. But before we do, let’s go get some coffee so we don't fall asleep while we're doing it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gettysburg Redux

Remember when I wrote that “the present always trumps the past”—that is, that the demands of making a living and the inescapable forces of commercialism eventually obscure our history? (As a reminder, see Ruminations on Forgetting. For further evidence, see also the lovely diner above, smack dab in downtown Gettysburg, where our 16th president is fronting a scrambled eggs and hash browns joint.)

Well, it turns out, not only was I wrong, but I was way wrong.

We’ve just returned from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, arguably the most important historical site in America. (Actually, that’s a hard question. I tried to list the top 5: Gettysburg, Lexington/Concord, Pearl Harbor, the first McDonalds in Des Plaines and Disneyland? Something like that.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Christmas in October

Here it is, mid-October, and believe it or not, I’m all set to talk about Christmas. Some of you may think that’s sad, but what’s even sadder is that some others of you reading this post, despite this October warning, will still leave all of your shopping until Christmas Eve.

Here are the facts. On October 2 Wal-Mart announced, based on consumer feedback, that they would be opening Christmas shops inside their stories within ten days. They also began discounting toys immediately. This was being done to help consumers stretch their holiday dollars in the face of rising food and energy prices, the housing slump and a disastrous economic climate.

Meanwhile, reports are that the Sears at the CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge, MA, already has its Christmas tree up and decorated. There may be one up and decorated near you.

In fact, you may have already witnessed a home in your neighborhood with Christmas lights up--and that doesn’t count those @###$@++ lazy neighbors three doors down who never got around to taking down their lights from last Christmas.

Some of you will be mortified by this early start to the holiday season.

Some of you—and I count myself in this group—will be delighted by an early Christmas. In fact, I think we should make it as early as possible. (More below.)

You should at least rest easy in the knowledge that the “battle for Christmas” has been going on for centuries. In fact, Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent 1996 The Battle for Christmas details a clash over the dates and meaning of Christmas that’s been going on for some sixteen centuries.

Here are a few interesting take-aways from Nissenbaum’s book:
1. Most states did not grant legal recognition of Christmas until the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1621, just a year after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, governor William Bradford found some of the colony’s residents trying to take Christmas Day off and ordered them back to work. In 1659 the Massachusetts General court declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense.

2. The Puritans had a serious and practical reason for opposing Christmas: There was no biblical or historical basis for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. In fact, Puritans argued that the weather in Judea was too cold for shepherds to be lounging in the fields with their flocks in late December.

3. Not until the fourth century did the Church decide to celebrate Christmas on December 25, a choice made because it was the approximate arrival of the winter solstice—an event celebrated long before Christianity. The Puritans argued that “Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.” In fact, the selection of the 25th was a deal with the devil; in return for insuring near-universal celebration of Christ’s birth, the Church tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated as it had been. Nissenbaum says “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

4. [Ed. Note: You go, Pagans.]

5. The other reason the Puritans suppressed Christmas was that its celebration was traditionally accompanied by excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging (with threats and the occasional invasion of wealthy homes), and the mockery of established order. This tradition grew from the harvest season, at least in northern agricultural societies: December was the time to eat well from newly-slaughtered animals, drink the recently fermented beer or wine, and take a well earned post-harvest break. It was a “time to let off steam—and to gorge.” Increase Mather referred to December as Mensis Genialis, or the “Voluptuous Month.”

6. It gets wilder. A report from 18th-century England described two especially ominous practices, mumming and the singing of Christmas carols. Mumming involved men and women cross-dressing to make merry with their Neighbors “in disguise.” Hmmm. And Christmas carols? They were usually done in the midst of “Rioting, Chambering, and Wantonness.” (I thought I knew what mumming was but didn’t. You, dear reader, are going to have to look up “chambering” for yourself.) One cleric remarked, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
Suddenly the Puritans seem, well, less puritanical. Almost reasonable. And the outrage of Christmas lights and sales in October seems rather tame in comparison.

I guess, in light of the evidence, I’m mostly against mumming—though wouldn’t have minded being a colonial fly on the wall once or twice just to see how that cross-dressed "disguising" worked exactly. But I’m all for caroling and keeping December “voluptuous.”

In fact, my experience is that during the Christmas season people are just nicer. They smile more. They’re kinder and more polite. They yield at the Yield signs. The put more money in the plate at church. They think about other people. They sing in the car. They watch old movies together. They visit relatives. They bring cookies to work.

That being the case, I wouldn’t mind starting Christmas right after Labor Day. That would be four months of summer followed by four months of Christmas followed by four months of ski season. A very good year. A calendar for the modern American.

Very light on the mumming, of course.