Light pollution is killing insects and birds – and an ancient human connection with the heavenly bodies
Severe light pollution in Britain appears to have fallen, according to the CPRE, the countryside charity. Across a week in February, the charity asked volunteers to look up and count the stars they could see. The results suggest that 51% of participants were experiencing severe light pollution, compared to 61% the previous year – an effect, the charity concluded, of darker town and city centres, owing to lockdown. Sadly, though, the overall trend is worrying: human illumination of the planet is growing by 2% a year. This has serious consequences: there is mounting evidence that light pollution is a serious contributing factor to what has been called the “insect apocalypse”. Disoriented by light, birds also die as they migrate over cities: a distressing 100,000 a year succumb over New York City, confused by the illumination of the skyscrapers. The solution is simple and obvious: to turn unnecessary lights off – also saving energy – and to shade those required at street level.
Light pollution also has the effect of deracinating humans in densely populated areas from what was once a vivid, intense, and often deeply generative relationship with the night sky. In ancient Babylonia, astronomy was inextricably linked with the development of branches of mathematics, with cosmology and divination, and with the establishment of calendars. Early Greek philosophers and mathematicians were also concerned with the arrangement of the heavenly bodies, borrowing heavily from their eastern forebears to try to understand the universe and the human place within it. Stars, of course, have been used since time immemorial to help human beings move around the planet: Polynesians used a range of methods, including star navigation, to travel prodigious distances across the Pacific.