Darkness Manifesto: How light pollution threatens the ancient rhythms of life, by Johan Eklöf

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Translated by Elizabeth DeNoma

Review by Peter Reason

I leave my front door late one evening and walk along the driveway we share with our neighbours towards the narrow unlit footpath that leads to our orchard. Security lights flick on, one after another. Each encloses me in a circle of light, surrounded by a deeper dark. If I’m careful, I can navigate a path beyond the range of the sensors, and so walk in relative darkness. But I cannot avoid the final dazzle that bursts over me at the end of the drive, and so, when I enter the dark narrow footpath that leads past the walled gardens to the orchard, my eyes are tuned to brightness, unready for the dark. I am stubborn, I will not use a torch, so stumble a bit in the darkness between the high walls and the hedge. But I know my way, and am quite quickly rewarded as my night vision is somewhat established; soon, I can find my way about, although it will take a full thirty minutes before the light-sensitive protein rhodopsin opens the full dark capabilities of my eyes.  

What am I doing, out and about in the dark? I learned the importance and delight of night vision relatively late in life, when on a twenty-four-hour passage across the English Channel in a small yacht. The skipper went through the ship’s rules for sailing after sundown, emphasising, “No lights on deck!” As the necklace of brightness along the French coastline dwindled behind us, we sailed northward into the dark with only navigation lights, the glow from the compass, and a well-shaded light over the navigation table. Soon, I realized why the skipper had been so adamant: in the absence of lights, I discovered a capacity for subtle vision I never knew existed: I could see more and more widely than a torch would enable. Not only could I see enough to find myself around the deck and work the sails, above me the Milky Way swept magnificently across the sky. About mid-Channel, my darkness-attuned eyes were drawn to the ghostly loom of the lighthouse high on Start Point in Devon, and then to the triple flash as the light itself rose over the horizon. Ever since then, I have loved the dark for its own sake, I seek it out – as in my walk to the Orchard in the night-time.

The Darkness Manifesto is written in short, elegantly written chapters (we must appreciate the excellent translation) in four sections: Light Pollution, The Night as Ecological Niche, Humanity and the Cosmic Light, and In Praise of Shadows. It is an account, even a lament, for how our night is disappearing and the consequences of this disappearance. Our obsession with bright lights, and maybe in particular since the arrival of the LED, has resulted in an explosion of brightness across the globe. This can be seen from the satellite pictures provided by NASA and others: the blue night-time glow of the atmosphere is studded with artificial light. Bright clusters cover much of North America, Europe, and Japan as well as big chunks of India and China. The more isolated cities such as Johannesburg, Rio, Sydney, Lagos stand out from darker patches. The whole of the Nile valley and delta is picked out in a ribbon of light, as is the Indus snaking through Pakistan.

Beneath the illuminated sky in the illuminated cities we have created, we can no longer see any stars, and many of us don’t remember what the Milky Way looks like. We are missing out on one of nature’s grandest treasures.

Not only have we lost the mysterious beauty of the world in darkness, but we are also directly damaging the cycle of darkness on which the living ecology of the planet depends. We learn that bats, that frequented the belfries of Swedish churches for centuries, do so no longer, now the belfries are floodlit to show off their architecture. We learn how bright lights confuse the navigation of moths and other insects, so they circle round and round until exhausted. But more than this, light pollution goes to the very root of the ecological niche that is the night, upsetting all aspects of the living process. From understanding the physiology of the eye, we learn why many animals are active in the dark, particularly at twilight. And excess light impacts on humans too, disturbing out melatonin rhythm, upsetting our sleep, our appetite and weight, our overall well-being. There is so much in this book, detailed information that might be tedious in the hands of a less skilled writer. It is engaging, even entertaining, while still informative, serious, and indeed worrying. 

In the last section In Praise of Shadows (drawing on the classic of that name by the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki), Eklöf wonders to himself why a book about darkness has been so much about light. He admits he has at times fallen into the trap of seeing darkness as simply the absence of light, rather than a phenomenon in its own right, ‘yet it still seems infinitely more difficult to define than light’. And so he reflects on darkness as a ‘balm for the soul’, on the balance of light and dark in traditional Chinese philosophy, and on positive experiences of darkness. And he turns briefly to practical solutions to excess lighting – ways in which we can more effectively balance light and dark in our cityscapes, and to the value of darkness tourism. He ends the book literally with a Darkness Manifesto, urging us to become aware of darkness, to protect and preserve it, to find our own inner rhythm, to discover nocturnal life.

I thought I had completed my review, until by chance I opened the New Yorker magazine and found one by Adam Gopnik, Is Artificial Light Poisoning our Planet? His is a thorough review, Gopnik and I have clearly read the same book. But how differently we take it! While I find myself thoroughly in sympathy with Eklöf’s perspective, Gopnik writes ‘For all the poetic appeal of his examples, Eklöf has come to us from Sweden… bearing a noirish moral’, with a ‘good-humored if slightly puritanical melancholy that one thinks of as distinctly Swedish’. I think this is to seriously miss the point, to rather flippantly dismiss the serious message that we human creatures of the daylight are imposing our preference on the entire global ecosystem, yet another attempt to control our ‘environment’ rather than to walk in tune with the wider world. This misplaced control is leading, inevitably, to breakdown of the patterns of life.

In contrast, I simply love this book; love it for its celebration of darkness, for the facts I learned through reading, for the sheer elegance of the writing. For while detailing the environmental damage our addiction to bright lights causes, he also appeals at a deeper level:

The night is quite simply our friend – we rest in darkness, in its stillness and subtle beauty. We draw inspiration from the night, beyond the Milky Way and the distant lights. There’s still life in the darkness of night so let us take back the night let us seize it.

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Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world?  His most recent publications include Voicing Rivers Through Ontopoetics (with Jacqueline Kurio; and (with artist Sarah Gillespie) On Presence and On SentienceHis online presence is at peterreason.net and Twitter @peterreason.

Johan Eklöf, The Darkness Manifesto (Bodley Head, 2022). 978-1847927156, 224 pp., hardback.

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