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Shining a Light on Light Pollution

Film Review: The City Dark

Many years ago, in one of those trashy romance novels I used to gobble at the rate of three a day as a teenager, I learned about a beautiful Japanese festival – Tsukimi, or moon-viewing festival. A celebration of the full moon in autumn, it involves gathering outdoors at night and quietly enjoying the beauty of the full moon. In the novel, a semi-urban Western family – a dad and his two kids – celebrate their own version of tsukimi, full moon or no full moon. Dad lights a lamp and they all troop outdoors, sit in a circle around the lamp, and gaze up at the starlit sky in silence.

photo of a lighted night skyPhoto courtesy Wicked Delicate Films LLCLightning and light pollution along the Florida coast.

I recall nothing else about the novel. But the image of a family gathered together looking up at the stars – somehow that stuck. For who can deny the magic of a star-studded night sky? To look up and be reminded of the sheer scale of the universe and our place in it is somehow both humbling and sublime, isn’t it?

But what happens when the shimmering lights of our ever-expanding cities and suburbs fade the stars out of our sight? What happens when we look up and nothing twinkles back at us? What do we lose when we lose the night?

Filmmaker Ian Cheney explores this last, rather profound, question in The City Dark, a short personal narrative-style documentary that looks into the impact of artificial illumination, what astronomers term “light pollution,” on the night sky and our environment.

Cheney, a Maine native and amateur star-gazer, moved to New York City from his rural home (where the night had more stars than he could count) to find that his beloved stars had suddenly gone missing (standing on a city street he manages to spot only about 12). “To live in New York these days, is to live under a kind of illuminated tent; a dome of light,” he muses. A Staten Island astronomy professor, Irving Robbins, tells Cheney that he’s been able to see the Milky Way only twice in his lifetime, during city-wide blackouts.

Curious about what we may be losing in the glare of city lights, Cheney embarks on a journey across America, much like he did in the 2007 film King Corn, posing the question to astronomers, historians, medical researchers and ecologists. Along the way he unravels the complex, and worrying, repercussions of an artificially illuminated world – higher breast cancer risk in night-shift workers, astronomers’ increasing difficulty in detecting potentially dangerous asteroids, and the death of countless disoriented migratory birds and hatchling sea turtles.

Beyond that, the film also examines how light pollution affects our souls.

“I worry that our lack of contact with the sky is doing something to us that’s very subtle,” says one of the talking heads at the beginning of the film who isn’t identified (maybe I missed it, but I did scroll through the DVD twice looking to ID her).

When Cheney mourns the loss of the night sky and it’s hard not to mourn with him. But The City Dark isn’t a polemic against city living or modern civilization. Cheney, who wrote, directed and produced the film, himself admits to a growing affection to city lights. And the movie’s loving shots of nighttime cityscapes capture the undeniable aesthetic appeal of electric lights. At one point, gazing through an airplane window at a glittering city below, Cheney says it’s, “like someone has taken the night sky and flipped it upside down so that flying between the stars and the cities you can understand how, if only for a moment, you might forget which was which.”

The film also takes time to point out why we need lights in the first place – nightlights help keep crime down, among other things. And it offers some solutions to minimizing light pollution, like using full cutoff lights that point only downwards (the film notes that as much as half of the light we see from space is wasted energy since it points up towards the sky instead of illuminating the street below).

As an “introduction to the science of the dark and an exploration of our relationship to the stars,” as the film’s website says it is, The City Dark serves well. The key word here is “introduction.” Little is still known yet about light pollution and its impacts, but Cheney does a pretty decent job of mapping some of it and presenting us with yet another example of the dilemma of human progress.

Style-wise, it perhaps relies overmuch on line drawings to explain certain ideas and concepts and probably has one too many starry-nights shots, but that’s mere quibbling. Because those time-lapse shots of the shimmering universe above and of the Milky Way rising and setting are, honestly, pretty awesome. Besides, they show us that there are still places left on Earth where we can view the splendor of the night sky.

The City Dark is well worth the time. But please don’t stay up late to watch it as I did. It’ll upset your body’s circadian rhythm. Organize a star-viewing party instead.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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