Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Their dark materials

A recent article by David Owen in The New Yorker about the dark- sky movement in the US got me to thinking about the kinds of impositions socio- economically elite people feel they should be free to impose upon everyone else. The International Dark- Sky Association lobbies for darker night skies in towns and cities, not only as an aid to astronomers but also for the gratification of those romantics who pine for the days when the Milky Way was not only visible, but cast its own shadow.

At least one part of the IDA's agenda is quite reasonable: energy- efficient lighting should be installed by municipalities wherever possible, if only because of the savings to the taxpayer that are involved. But the writer, whose sympathies lie with the IDA, goes so far as to endorse government restrictions on certain kinds of lighting on private property as well. He even enthusiastically relates an anecdote about a town which "periodically" shuts off all its electricity -- not just its lighting -- for a few hours just so that the astronomers can have a fun night out. And in what progressive country does this happen, you ask? Why, in Iran. Living in a theocratic police state apparently has some advantages, one of which being that you can get everyone else's lives to grind to a screeching halt so that you can better indulge your favourite hobby. It's a geek's fantasy come to life.

Any kind of progress or technological development in our society involves the concomitant loss of something; this fact has been known and deplored ever since Socrates complained that the invention of writing was likely to dilute the use of memory and the dialectical method. Emerson (or possibly Thoreau, I forget) put it well enough when he said that progress was about taking two steps forward and one step backward; there is a net gain, but inevitably we have to sacrifice something. I live in a comparatively remote part of North America and am pleased to be able to see the Milky Way on a cloudless, moonless night, but if it were a choice between having that and having electricity, I'd opt for the latter anytime. Nighttime lighting is both a feature and a symbol of a civilized society, i.e. one which is not governed by the rhythms of nature... and if any more proof of that is needed, you can see it for yourself here.

No comments: