Embracing the Dark Side: In our haste to embrace a 24/7 lifestyle, nocturnal hours once reserved for sociability, reflection and rest have been usurped

July 26, 2013, 5:19 p.m. ET

Embracing the Dark Side

In our haste to embrace a 24/7 lifestyle, nocturnal hours once reserved for sociability, reflection and rest have been usurped.



For more than 300 years, nocturnal darkness—Shakespeare’s “vast sin-concealing chaos”—has fought a rear-guard battle to fend off the forces of light. By the early 18th century, most European metropolises, from London to Vienna, had installed streetlights in response to mounting fears over crime. “The reign of the night is finally going to end,” a Parisian pamphleteer exulted in 1746. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by gas and then electric lighting, evening was open for pleasure as well as for business. Artificial illumination, by pushing back ages of primordial darkness, became the mightiest symbol of modern progress.A small chorus of voices, in recent years, has risen in dissent. No latter-day Luddites, “dark-sky” activists include astronomers, ecologists and architects determined to restrict a technology of incalculable benefit—one, in fact, that is coveted by millions still bereft of electricity in the developing world. No less threatening to the environment, they stress, than strip mining or offshore drilling is “light pollution.” Produced by the diffusion of artificial illumination into the atmosphere, it has blighted the grandeur of the night sky. As Paul Bogard laments in “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” most of us are unable to glimpse more than a handful of stars on clear evenings, in contrast to the two to three thousand stars whose brilliance captivated our ancestors. The Milky Way is visible today only in remote areas.

The End of Night

By Paul Bogard
Little, Brown, 325 pages, $27

Mr. Bogard’s absorbing book begins in Las Vegas, “the brightest pixel in the world” when viewed in NASA photographs. It ends fewer than 300 miles to the north in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, a mountainous region so benighted that the neighboring galaxy Andromeda can be spied with the naked eye. Along the way, he crisscrosses North America and Western Europe, experiencing nighttime in varying degrees of darkness. An engaging storyteller, Mr. Bogard calls up boyhood memories of summer evenings in northern Minnesota. He punctuates his narrative with musings on such topics as the Victorian appeal of gas lamps and the role of darkness in Judeo-Christian literature.

Light pollution, he argues, can be as costly and wasteful as it is unsightly. Among the worst offenders are service stations and shopping-center parking lots that rely on excessive glare to attract customers. Harmful too is the impact of light pollution on wildlife (not least by confusing the orientation of nocturnal species) as well as on our own health. Studies have linked exposure to light at night to poor sleep and to the possibility of breast cancer.

To combat light pollution, Mr. Bogard proposes a range of remedies, including the use of motion detectors to activate exterior lighting on unoccupied buildings. A more dubious step, one recently taken by debt-ridden communities to cut costs, has been to switch off large numbers of streetlamps. The author even contends that lighting, rather than affording a deterrent, frequently facilitates wrongdoing by illuminating targets for criminals. Historical experience, not to mention criminological research, emphatically argues just the opposite. It is telling that municipal officials in Highland Park, Mich., in electing to eliminate two-thirds of the city’s streetlights, ripped the metal posts from the ground due, in part, to the threat of theft. Even the prevalence of lampposts on college campuses is questioned. Their value, Mr. Bogard suggests, has been exaggerated; and they instill needless fear among students, who are less apt, in turn, to “become more appreciative of night’s beauty and informed about the value of darkness.”

In truth, most people today, among them undergraduates fresh from fraternity parties, are poorly equipped to navigate nighttime in the absence of adequate lighting. Within preindustrial communities, rural folk, when venturing “abroad” after sunset, drew on a deep reservoir of popular lore as well as on an intimate awareness of their natural surroundings. Exhibiting a rough-hewn resourcefulness, they blazed trees, donned light-colored garments, traveled by moonlight and, in southern England, formed mounds of chalky soil known as “down-lanterns.” On the blackest nights, hearing, touch and smell took the place of sight.

A broader perspective would have enhanced Mr. Bogard’s analysis. Light pollution is but the most obvious symptom of a larger cultural problem, which he mentions only peripherally. In our haste to embrace a 24/7 lifestyle that makes increasing demands on our time, nocturnal hours once reserved for sociability, reflection and rest have been usurped. “What art thou good for . . . but only for love and fornication?” the character “Night” is asked in John Dryden’s comedy “Amphitryon” (1690).

Today, not only is one-fifth of the labor force employed in shift work, but many day-to-day tasks (grocery shopping, for instance) are performed after dark. Silence and solitude fall prey to around-the-clock television and the allure of the Internet. Texting teenagers take their iPhones to bed. Burning the candle at both ends, we struggle to streamline sleep with the aid of plush pillows and prescription drugs and, in the process, impair our age-old ability to dream, a wellspring of ideas as inspiring as a starlit sky.

“The End of Night” delivers a forceful, if incomplete, critique of our overexposed world. We can only hope that night maintains its reign—even though the stars, those we yet spot, portend otherwise.

—Mr. Ekirch, who teaches at Virginia Tech, is the author of “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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