Seeing stars

Did blotting out the night sky dull our drive to stop climate change?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Our skies are clear. For now. But not at night. Light pollution still blocks out the universe for most of us. If we could see the night sky, would we regain our sense of wonder in our world, and work harder to save it?

Many decades ago I went camping with my family on a wild and lonely beach on the Camargue in the South of France. There was nothing there but sea and sand, bordered by dunes and a reed-lined canal. No cafes or hotels, no facilities, no lights. Nothing. 

On one particularly clear night, my father encouraged us all to float on our backs in the warm sea and look up at the dazzling array of stars in the deep night sky. “What do you think about when you look up there?” he asked us.

My stepmother said she felt overwhelmed at how small and insignificant we are in that vast and endless unknown and how frightening that was. My father, ever the scientist, said he felt amazed at how much humans did already know, and continued to discover, about the universe and how exciting that was.

Today, a depressing “two-thirds of the world’s population — including 99 percent of people living in the continental United States and western Europe — no longer experience a truly dark night, a night untouched by artificial electric light.”

That revelation, among many, is contained in the lyrical and literary non-fiction work, The End of Night. Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. It is written by Paul Bogard, who teaches creative non-fiction writing, a skill reflected in the vivid style of this work, which is no dry text book.

NASA earthrise
Bill Anders’ inconic photo of earthrise taken from Apollo 8. (Photo: NASA)

I was reading the book in search of validation for my pet theory, which I trot out from time to time, and which is usually met with mild nods of faint agreement, but no real enthusiasm: Has the fact that we can no longer see the constellations above us dimmed our desire to preserve our planet? Were we so tardy and negligent in demanding action on climate change — a threat that has been oncoming and known about for decades — at least in part because, as light pollution began to blot the stars from view, we lost touch with our place in the universe and, accordingly, how unique and special our planet is?

Of course there are many very direct reasons, including corporate profit, over-consumption and near-term greed, that caused the climate crisis in the first place. But most of us in the developed world at least, either didn’t see, or refused to recognize, that our behavior made us complicit in a suicide pact.

For the astronauts who saw Earth from space, everything changed. They described “a profound cognitive shift in awareness”, now referred to as the Overview Effect. (The term was coined by Frank White, author of the eponymous book.) It changed things for many of us on Earth, too, after Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders, snapped that first iconic photo of earthrise. The profound impact on astronauts is movingly described in the short film, The Overview Effect:

In his book, The Orbital Perspective, appropriately subtitled “Call to Action,” NASA astronaut Ron Garan writes about his experience as, attached to a robotic arm, he was flung in an arc over the International Space Station: 

“As I approached the top of this arc, it was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But as I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

“In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.

“Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”

That experience turned many astronauts into environmental advocates. But most of us just carried on down on Earth as if nothing was wrong. We stopped looking up. And now, when we do, we see light and haze and the moon, and one or two planets and maybe a sprinkling of stars.

Night Sky Pexels Inactive
Soon a whole generation will be alive on Earth never having seen a dark night sky. (Photo: Pexels)

In his book, Bogard reminds us of Aldo Leopold and his testimonial to the “land ethic” contained in A Sand County Almanac.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land,” Leopold wrote. As Bogard explained it, “Leopold argued  for valuing the whole — that every member of the community is valuable, whether we understand that value or nor — and for acting accordingly.”

Instead we have plundered and drilled and slaughtered with impunity. Until now. Now the punishment is raining down on us as uncontrolled fires, floods, hurricane, eruptions. Now we have a climate crisis.

Stephen Jay Gould warned: “We will not fight for what we do not love.” Do we not love our planet then? Or not enough? And do we not fight for it because we see it not in the awesome cosmic vastness where it sits, but as some little plastic ball that we can mine and burn and trash without consequences?

We have slammed shut a very important door. We no longer see or understand or care about our context. As Sébastien Giguère, education director for Mont-Mégantic National Park and scientific coordinator for ASTROLab, told Bogard in The End of Night: “Closing our only window to the universe appears to me like a great symbol of how we are separating ourselves from nature.”

That separation will soon produce an entire generation who has never seen a truly dark night sky. 

“We’re at a delicate time now where we still have some people that know what they’re missing,” Tyler Nordgren, astronomer and artist and author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, told Bogard. “But if we wait too much longer, everyone will have lost this. No one will realize it anymore. And it won’t occur to anyone to want to preserve it.”

Astronomer Bill Fox told Bogard: “if we never see the Milky Way or feel ourselves staring into the surrounding universe, how can we really know where we are? How will we know our place in the universe?”

I can’t remember the answer I gave my father in the Camargue about my sense then of our place in the universe. But if he were alive today and asked me the same question I’d say I feel an immense sense of urgency and responsibility that the miracle that is planet Earth must be treasured and preserved at all cost. However you believe it got here, it is almost too breathtaking in its complexity to be real. How then can we have mistreated it so wantonly? How can we not stop everything else and work to save it, and by doing so, also save ourselves?

Headline photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan/Unsplash

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