The End of Night by Paul Bogard: Are naturally dark skies really an inalienable human right?

Bogard's tirade against the loss of natural darkness to synthetic light is ultimately irrelevant. Unesco can whine all they want about light as "an inalienable human right" - but who is going to turn out their lights?

Night time in New York.
Lights out: night time by the Manhattan Bridge, New York City. Photograph: Jonathan Smith.

The End of Night
Paul Bogard
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £16.99

Some people, like many creatures, are drawn by the night. They are sure-footed in the dark, unfazed by what is hidden, at ease with the particular sounds and scents and sudden movements. There are anglers who like the dark. They haunt the banks of lakes and meres and flooded mines in pursuit of carp (or even eels) or wade inky-black pools on swift rivers to cast flies for sea trout.

I have tried to be such an angler and I have failed. When I was a lad, my brothers and I went night-fishing for carp, made a great deal of noise stumbling around and falling over things and never caught anything. Much later, I went after sea trout on the Towy in southern Wales, where – allegedly – the prime time is between 1am and 4am. Once, I fell down a steep bank and wrenched my shoulder so badly that I had to have an operation. On my last attempt, I became so disorientated that I couldn’t work out which direction the water was flowing.

I love to fish for trout at dusk, when the first bats dart and flit and the last gleam of the dying sun lightens the surface just enough for me to make out the rings made by feeding fish. After that, I go to bed. I do not have a special affinity for being out in the dark.

Nor, on the evidence of this book, does Paul Bogard. He admits as much: “I am still, especially on windy nights or nights of thunder and lightning, afraid of the dark,” he writes, disarmingly. He is not, therefore, the man to communicate the particular magic of nighttime, which is something of a handicap when his purpose is to explore how we can – in the words of one of his many interviewees – “restore the sacredness of night”.

Nevertheless, the case he makes, which is that we are unnecessarily and damagingly profligate in our use of lighting, is unarguable. The reason that is always cited to justify having more intense lighting in streets and around buildings is that more light results in better security. Bogard demolishes this effortlessly. Most lighting, he demonstrates, serves to increase glare and diminish contrast, thereby reducing visibility and assisting the villains. In his words, it “allows criminals to choose their victims, locate escape routes and see their surroundings”.

His inquiry begins in Las Vegas, “the brightest city on earth”, where the beam from the Luxor casino is the equivalent of 40 billion candles and attracts an uncountable number of insects and moths for birds and bats to feast on. It takes him to London, where he spends time with British Gas operatives responsible for the capital’s 1,600 gas lanterns; and to Paris, the so-called City of Light, where Louis XIV started the rot by ordering lamps to be hung so that Parisians could find their way around. “Street lighting,” Bogard writes, “marked a dramatic change in human interaction with the night.”

This is all very interesting. Unfortunately, Bogard then somewhat loses his way, embarking on an extended ramble around the familiar subject of working at night. Having spent more than 20 years doing horrendous rotating shifts at the BBC, I am well aware of its debilitating effects. But tendentious speculation about possible links with various cancers is unhelpful. At one point, Bogard asks himself, pointlessly and irritatingly, “Are we endangering ourselves even in our houses? . . . Does merely sleeping with artificial light coming through the window or seeping under the door spell trouble?” Where does that get us? As Bogard concedes, working in artificial light is not going to go away. Unesco can waffle on about an unpolluted night sky being “an inalienable human right” but who is going to start dimming the switches?

Bogard pitches up on Sark in the Channel Islands, recognised in 2011 as the first “International Dark-Sky Island” (by the International Dark-Sky Association). “What is so compelling about Sark,” he writes, “is that people actually live there.” Quite so – but are we expected to take Sark, which has no cars, no useful work and no poor people, as an example to be followed? Then there’s North Korea, another dark place but for different reasons. Pondering the contrast between the blackness in North Korea and the blaze of light in South Korea, Bogard decides, “No one would wish the lives North Koreans endure on anyone.” But at least they have darkness.

One of Bogard’s last stops is Flagstaff, Arizona, which is the world’s first “Dark-Sky City” and has had regulations in force to restrict lighting since 1958. The local International Dark-Sky Association activist Chris Luginbuhl reveals that Flagstaff is getting brighter all the time – not as fast as a lot of other towns but brighter, nonetheless.

Whatever Bogard and the well-meaning dark-sky enthusiasts may hope and say, that is the way of the world. The lesson is that if you want a sky that’s full of stars, go somewhere where there aren’t any people.

Tom Fort is the author of “The A303: Highway to the Sun” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)