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.