It turns out there’s such a thing as too much light.
Light pollution is the feature of modern industrial life that means that 33% of the planet doesn’t see the same skies as our ancestors did. Thousands upon thousands of stars would be visible to the naked eye were it not for street lights, lit billboards, traffic lights, home lighting systems, and miscellaneous haze. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80% of people who live in the US don’t see the Milky Way at all.
Photographer Daniel Kordan recently took some remarkable photographs of the Milky Way from the high plains of Bolivia.1 The photo below is so clear, so bright. And the glorious swathe of light in it shows us what’s perceptible when we’re not faked out by clouds of artificial illumination.
In the U.S., some of our national parks are just about the last refuge of darkness –- places like Yellowstone and the desert southwest,’ said co-author Dan Duriscoe of the National Park Service. ‘We’re lucky to have a lot of public land that provides a buffer from large cities.’
Light pollution does more than rob humans of the opportunity to ponder the night sky. Unnatural light can confuse or expose wildlife like insects, birds and sea turtles, often with fatal consequences.”
We live in a time with incalculable quantities of data and information. Commentators explain how the exobyte data storm overwhelms us cognitively: our brains don’t have the capacity to manage such a swamp of input.
So we use artificial constructs, frameworks, models, and increasingly powerful computing systems to help us manage the grandeur of the natural and social worlds. Our mental frameworks aren’t objectively real, but the tools and structures we build with them are, and all of them have real consequences. With these constructs, we can navigate our world in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
At the same time, there’s much we don’t get to perceive because our pre-perceptual frameworks create a fog between us and the rest of the cosmos. There’s so much we aren’t aware of and can’t grasp with our current thinking. And the little we can discern is distorted by common fluorescence.
“Look through the telescope,” we say Galileo said (though it probably didn’t happen quite like that). And in the film Enough Room at the Table, I talk about those who because of their models and beliefs cannot or will not shift to an Observe-First, Expel-Later approach to life and difference.
But it’s not quite that simple. Conflicts aren’t resolved simply because we “shift to observation.” We still use our artificial but functional constructs to perceive and interpret the observed world.
Some, meeting a Black man with locked hair, perceive a world-class musician and potential national hero. Others, encountering a man just like him, perceive an Other whose presence in their family merits theological explanation.
Sometimes it’s good to head to a metaphorical national park, to switch off our artificial lights and put our preconceptions on hold. There is a world beyond our notions, we are part of it, and we so easily forget.
It’s worth it to remember.