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Blotting out the starry night

An article in a recent New York Times on the issue of light pollution recounts the shock experienced by Northridge residents in the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake – calls came into the emergency response centers expressing concern about the “giant silvery cloud” hovering over the city darkened by the power outages.  It turns out what people were seeing, or actually noticing for the first time, was the Milky Way, more usually blotted out by the artificial lights everywhere.

The so-called Dark Skies movement got its start in Arizona, where the proliferation of research telescopes and observatories gave astronomers a vested interest in working with local officials in Phoenix and Tucson to turn down the city lights and leave the skies unmolested by outdoor security lights, or at least to invest in technologies that minimize the glare and the extent to which is faces skyward.  Tucson is today the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association, and the IDSA has worked hard to spread the word that poorly configured outdoor lighting may be wasting as much as $10 billion in needless energy expenses every year.  And so what began as a pet peeve for astronomers has now gained traction as an energy conservation priority.

Now no one, me included, favors wasting energy, and so the idea that lighting should not simply blind those on the ground or needlessly light the sky above makes sense.  But I wonder if the cultural biases for light over darkness don’t play some role in suppressing the anti-light pollution message even for those naturally inclined to support environmental causes.  My own experience is probably typical:  I naturally gravitate not only to the translucence of the television screen and the stained glass window but also to the brightly lit city skyscape which for me signifies life and vibrancy and energy.  And this is not simply the preference of a city snob; one might argue that human achievement, and civilization itself, was enabled as human beings found technologies able to drive back the darkness.  Lights extend the work day and deter crime and enable safe travel and more.

Perhaps the preference is also theological.  In the Gospels, Jesus is the light, his disciples candles hidden under bushel baskets, believers encouraged to “walk in the light,” and heaven is described as a place “where there will be no more night” (Rev. 22:5 NIV).  Christians are, according to Paul, “sons of light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 NIV) and “sons of day.  We do not belong to the darkness.”  For Paul darkness is a scene for depravity and drunkenness and shamefulness; Jesus is quoted as teaching that “everyone who does evil hates the light… but whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (John 3:20-21) and this is a metaphorical preference that has even infiltrated our free speech jurisprudence – the light of open investigation and a regime of free publication is a “disinfectant” able to send night creatures scurrying.

I am struck by how many of the arguments against light pollution (the very phrase seems to express a contradiction) revert to appeal to a larger aesthetic principle, namely, that the inhabitants of planet earth must not be denied the sublime experience of clearly seeing the night sky.  David Crawford, director of the IDSA, makes the point passingly:  “This excess light in the sky has an adverse impact on the environment and seriously threatens to remove forever one of humanity’s natural wonders – our view of the universe.”  His column making this point is physically juxtaposed with an announcement from the ISAST Space Art Working Group that artists are being invited to partner with the Dark Skies people, presumably to better track the aesthetic centrality of preserving a wondrous nighttime experience.  As Chet Raymo wrote in 1985, reflecting these more abstract sentiments:  “The typical urban or suburban observer might only see a few hundred of the brightest stars, and none of the more elusive objects.  We have abused the darkness.  We have lost the faint lights.”

The environmental costs are real:  most creatures are nocturnal and many are damaged by ongoing exposure to brighter-than-normal skies that disrupt patterns of rest and nourishment and also mating.  In California, glossy snakes seem to be disappearing and night lights seem to be a factor:  in mapping their habitat researchers discovered that populations were healthiest in areas relatively shielded from light by local topography.  Sea turtles are also adversely affected.  As Harder put it in a 2002 Science News article:

When turtle hatchlings emerge at night from their eggs and head for the ocean, lights from hotels and other sources can lead them off course.  Sometimes the hatchlings get killed trekking in the wrong direction as they attempt to cross roads.  If their long night’s journey stretches into day, the turtles often die of exposure or fall victim to hungry predators.

Many more examples are documented in Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Island Press, 2006).

Among the other consequences are those documented by public health experts.  An example of this is the curious but now replicated finding that breast cancer rates are nearly twice as high in areas that are brightly lit.  The explanation appears to lie in the fact that when the sleep cycles of women (in this case) are interrupted (say, by working all night shifts), that fact in turn produced hormonal changes that aggravate the risks of cancer.  (The same phenomenon is at work with men; those who work in environments that interrupt their sleep cycles run a higher risk of prostate cancer).

Curiously, it wasn’t until 2002 that the first national action was undertaken to limit light pollution (in June of that year, the Czech Republic implemented legislation).  But awareness of the issue has spread.  Remember those twin beams of light shot into the night sky to memorialize the collapse of the World Trade Centers?  After consulting with the Audubon Society, coordinators at the site agreed to turn the lights off every night at 11:00 so that the migratory patterns of birds would not be interrupted.

SOURCES:  Joe Sharkey, “Helping the Stars Take Back the Night,” New York Times, August 31, 2008, pg. BrightIdeas 4; David L. Crawford, “Astronomy’s Problem with Light Pollution,” Leonardo 22.2 (1989): pgs. 285-286; Ben Harder, “Light All Night:  New Images Quantify a Nocturnal Pollutant,” Science News, 18 March 2006, pgs. 170-172; Harder, “Deprived of Darkness:  The Unnatural Ecology of Artificial Light at Night,” Science News, 20 April 2002, pgs. 248-249; Harder, “Turning Out the Lights,” US News & World Report, 24 March 2008, pgs. 16-18; Kristen Ploetz, “Light Pollution in the United States: An Overview of the Inadequacies of the Common Law and State and Local Regulation,” New England Law Review 36.4 (2002): 985-1039.

Loving the Dark Knight… But why?

I’ve seen the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, in an amazing IMAX theatre in north Atlanta.  The film still has me thinking, although the more I consider the larger themes it suggests, the more deeply disturbing their implications are for me.  But I still think the film brilliant, for right at the moment when I sensed it was about to give way to a final fifty minutes-or-so orgy of gratuitous action!, action!!!, ACTION!!!!!, what appeared instead was a deeply compelling series of awful thought experiments that set my mind reeling and that had me leaving convinced I have seen the best action hero adaptation film ever made.

For those who will understandably stop reading with the spoiler alert coming with the start of the next paragraph, let me simply urge you to see the movie if you haven’t already.  Ignore the ignorance revealed by the critics who didn’t like it because the “fun” is gone from the Batman franchise.  Yes, the picture is dark in every way, from the visual iconography of a Gotham mainly observed in silhouette (or at setting sun), to Heath Ledger’s creepy but finally stupendous and unforgettable last performance, to the existential pessimism that situates every moral choice in a larger fabric of lies where even conscientiously motivated decisions are always denied just outcomes.  But this is all the more reason to go and soak it up, and then to think on it more fully as the Dark Knight’s plot twists and turns provoke your thinking further.  And even if cinematic darkness is not your normal preference, give it this one shot, if only by asking how much fun there really was in that awful Batman/Clooney-and-Robin/O’Donnell-inhale-the-green-vegetable-smoke-from-PoisonIvy/Uma-and-see-the-testosterone-boiling version made ten years ago.

[OK, now:  Spoiler alerts ahead...]

At least two elements of the movie pose important questions about contemporary culture.  The first connects to the plot’s central reliance on a mainly unquestioned but finally indefensible and overweening paternalism.  I think it is true that every major character in the film lies or prevents the wider distribution of essential information in the name of a self-effacing (or, contrarily, sinister) noblesse oblige.  The final twist relies on Batman’s decision to acquiesce in one last agonizing lie, undertaken because he decides on everyone’s behalf that the wider society cannot handle the truth (to evoke an earlier classic, but one where Jack Nicholson was compelling and not a cartoon, er, I mean, joker).  Commissioner Gordon’s last lines in the film enact this lie for public consumption (and this lie follows on a series of other evasions and deeply personal lies Gordon tells, again all defended as a necessary guardianship).  Bruce Wayne speaks at a fundraiser he throws for District Attorney Harvey Dent (paraphrasing Wayne:  once you win over my friends, you’ll never have to raise election funds – again, so much for democracy), and the effusiveness of his endorsement is so fulsome that the person who (apart from Alfred) has known him the longest concludes he has been engaged in ridicule and not praise.

Engaged in an explicit iron triangle of do-goodism, a captain of industry (Wayne), the city’s commander of military might (Gordon), and its key political leader (Dent) conspire to impose their own individual though shared visions of the good onto the rest of Gotham, democracy be damned.  Even as, in the films climactic Batman/Joker encounter (where the relationship is physically enacted in a setting where Joker speaks upside down and Batman right side up and where, suspended from a wire, the Joker is literally Batman’s counterweight), Batman evokes the capacity of the People to Do the Right Thing even as he speeds off to betray the sentiment at the film’s close.

And this implies for me a second large question with resonance for our post-911 national mentality, namely, a consideration of the final far limits of state power when enabled by a climate of fear.  In an period where President Bush’s too-energetic manipulation of the levers of executive power have produced an electorate deeply skeptical of and hostile to his leadership (lowest ever approval numbers again released just today), the world of Dark Knight (a double entendre, of course, explicitly evoked by Dent’s evocation of the cliche about light coming after the darkest night) is here to evoke something more sinister, namely, how extravagantly resourced state power can too easily operate without limit.  The key moment illustrating this in the film is actually not high tech or specially effected, but the simple and brutal moment when the über-clean Commissioner Gordon clears out the interrogation area so that Batman can physically brutalize the Joker.  It’s the classic Jack Bauer torture-the-suspect-who-knows-where-the-time-bomb-is-ticking moment, except in this case the Batman is making it personal:  the motivation for his savagery is not that he wants to save the city, but more modestly to save his girlfriend.

Obviously in the film all this is enacted in hyper-exaggerated form.  George Bush has his subordinates use computers to listen in on a few selected voice transcribed conversations, while thanks to Wayne Enterprises’ technowizardry (explicitly reminiscent of Q’s manipulation of technology for James Bond in the service of British Empire, a comparison explicitly evoked by Alfred’s recollection of British imperialists and the challenges they faced in taming the African continent), Batman is able to rely on the accumulated information from every single conversation in the city (and more, he can see everything imaginable).  Batman is able to get past fortress-like security on the ground floor by (somehow) getting onto the 200th story rooftop and then flying into any window he has identified as shielding evildoers.  Crime in Gotham is not random vandalism, but even the most modest markers of apparent street crime are coordinated centrally by a unified if not agreeable syndicate that rivals Sherlock Holmes’ paranoid (but all the more startling when we discover it is true) realization that all Victorian-era crime was orchestrated by Moriarty’s evil genius.

But the make believe world of Dark Knight bespeaks a wider social context where, in the name of making everyone secure, governments and corporate security firms and their complicit corporate partners take too many licenses with liberty.  Such a statement sounds extreme, or perhaps paranoid, but as I read an essay by Dahlia Lithwick this week I am led to wonder how far off the mark it is.  As she wrote in the August 4 Newsweek just out:

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer or counterinsurgency expert.  Reading both Jane Mayer’s stunning The Dark Side and Philippe Sands’ Torture Team, it quickly becomes plain that the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the start of Fox television’s “24,” Jack Bauer.  This fictional counterterrorism agent – a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode – has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy.  As Sands and Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.

The Dark Knight finally articulates an ethos of guardianship over one of heroism, but this of course disturbingly upends the central commitments of democratic government.  This is so because guardians do their work in private, whereas heroes are judged in public.  The apparently alternative reality of Gotham renders all acts of public service suspect or false, valorizing a secret billionaire world of lies done to protect a citizenry too easily manipulated by jokers and common psychopaths, a world where even people sworn to protect the public good are too easily turned toward avarice (blackmailed for their commitment to sick relatives, or made finally cynical by worldly caprice).

But of course the brilliance of the film is that even as one offers such totalizing claims, one is reminded of other elements of the world we see that problematize grand theories.  Or do they?  Consider again the Joker’s arguably cruelest and most savagely constructed impossible choice, enacted on two harbor ferries.  We are surprised that the boat’s occupants rise above their desperation and native instincts at self-survival, an outcome that one might say is a triumphant vindication of the will of the people and the basic decency of even deeply corrupted polities.  [I admit I loved the twist that the right decisions are made by a criminal and a self-doubting narcissist.]  But, and this is I think significant, the lesson Batman takes from this outcome is not a deeper commitment to democratic truth telling, but the opposite.  The moral of the incident for Batman is that his own lying (all for the good, of course) has been justified – the people have not let him down, and so their goodness vindicates his paternalism – rather than a perhaps more obvious conclusion that he need not pull the wool over their eyes forever more.

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