Review of ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ by Johan Eklöf

It would be difficult to write a review of ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ while trying to avoid the lyric of ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’, so let me get this out of the way at the start. Thankfully, Eklöf also acknowledges this familiar relationship, when he writes, ‘The night is quite simply our friend- we rest in darkness, in its stillness and subtle beauty. There’s still life in the darkness of night, so let us take back the night, let us seize it. Carpe noctem’

‘The Darkness Manifesto’ is a thorough examination of the dangerous impact that light pollution is having on eco-systems and biodiversity around the world and is a call to arms, or ‘a stirring manifesto for natural darkness.’ Eklöf defines light pollution as ‘a collective term used for light that can be regarded as superfluous but still has a great impact on our lives and ecosystems.’ And argues that humans have blurred the boundary between night and day with their spreading glow of artificial light to such an extent that nature is being confounded and disorientated.

Eklöf argues that darkness should not be regarded simply as an absence of light, but that ‘it is my absolute view that darkness has an independent worth.’ That there is a balanced interplay between these two states, ‘Because without light, no darkness, and without darkness, no light.’

At the same time, however, he acknowledges the emotional attachments that we have to darkness and comments that, ‘To be afraid of the dark lies in our genetic, as well as our cultural heritage.’ He argues that light has always represented safety to humans, as we navigate a darkness that is not our natural world, but rather one in which we are simply visitors.

‘All the light we cannot see’

With the ever-spreading ‘skyglow’ from cities, humans are creating a world where artificial light blocks out the natural wonder of the stars. Eklöf explores the Bortle scale- a scale which assesses how much a night sky is affected by light pollution. He states that, ‘In the very best of night skies, rated as a stage one or two on the Bortle scale, up to six thousand stars or other objects can be seen with the naked eye.’ Despite this majesty, he also identifies that we see but a fraction of the night sky. ‘Only one out of five people in Europe can see the Milky Way on a daily basis, and in North America and Europe, nearly everyone, 99 per cent, lives under a sky affected by artificial light. Few people know real darkness or what a starry sky looks like.’ It is therefore not an accident that astro-tourism is increasing as a hobby and people are actively seeking out the darkness to connect to areas where artificial light does not block out the sky. ‘Dark Sky’ parks and remote areas, far from the urban sprawl are more popular and are increasing in their number. Could it be that we have recognised- on some level at least- that we have lost our connection to our place in the skies and are aiming to restore this marvel, wonder and awe? ‘Out of all the stars we humans ought to be able to see with the naked eye, for most of us only a fragment, half a per cent, remains. The rest have been absorbed by artificial light, disappeared behind a smokescreen of human activity. They are there, but not for us to see.’

Impact on the natural world

The spread of light pollution has not only inhibited our view of the stars, but has had a catastrophic impact on biodiversity and marine life. In recent years, we have had repeated messages of the massive decline of insect life and Eklöf does not shy away from blaming humans. ‘Today, about 40 per cent of all insect species are threatened with extinction …shows that we’re moving towards the earth’s sixth mass extinction. And humanity is the cause.’ He does accept though that there could be a multitude of reasons for the huge decline in biodiversity, but aims to raise awareness of the impact of artificial, or human created, light. ‘The number of insects is decreasing. The reasons for insect death are many, from urbanisation and global warming to insecticides, large-scale farming, monoculture and disappearing forests. Probably all these factors play a role. But to everyone who’s ever seen an insect react to light, it is obvious that light pollution is a major cause.’ With half of the insects on the planet being nocturnal, Eklöf urges that there needs to be a re-balancing of priorities between species and that human wishes should not be paramount. ‘The more attention on the impact of light in ecological systems and our own well-being, the closer we’ll get to reconciling society’s need for light with nature’s need for darkness.’ As animals and insects feel safe in the darkness and seek its protection, it seems that humans are attempting to drown it out entirely in light, as we feel safe in the light instead. Eklöf draws attention to our religious mythology that light triumphed over darkness where chaos and uncertainty reigned and uses the Christian origin story in Genesis as an example of the historical and cultural acceptance and need that darkness must be conquered. ‘Human beings have extended their day, and at the same time have forced out the night’s inhabitants.’ We have done this to such an extent that we have changed our planet’s appearance from space- an understanding that we only recognised in the late 20th century. ‘Humanity’s desire to illuminate the world makes the earth, viewed from space, glow in the night.’

Artificial light as a disruptor

The impact of human created light sources on marine and terrestrial life is one which is thankfully the area of more academic study. Recent studies by the University of Plymouth have focused on the impact of artificial light sources and how they are a danger for marine ecosystems. The journal Science Direct, has been blunter in their assessment and concluded that ‘Light pollution is a global threat to biodiversity.’ Eklöf recounts in his book the dangers encountered by turtles which were confused and disorientated by man-made light and instead of heading directly to the ocean, began to make their way towards human habitation instead, as they ‘trusted their instinct to follow the light.’ As a result, their natural instinct was destroyed by the light from humans, ‘It can displace 200 million years of instinct in an instant.’ Eklöf also highlights the plight of wallabies being born up to a month later owing to artificial light from a naval base and commented that ‘Nature was again disrupted by man-made light.’

Eklöf argues in ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ that we are far from understanding marine life and that the darkness of the oceans is an alien world for humans. ‘Ocean life is several hundred million years older than terrestrial life and still not fully explored.’ He celebrates the darkness of the ocean, ‘The dark and unknown deep ocean is a world completely different from our own, and there, darkness is the norm and light only comes for short visits.’ He also highlights marine animals that use echo-location, such as sperm whales, ‘whose clicking sounds are sent through the oceans at an incredible 230 decibels’- levels which are life threatening for humans. (A rocket launch has been measured at 180 decibels) He outlines that military forces such as the US navy are keen to understand more about bio-luminescence and how potentially this natural bio-light could be used to track unknown vessels in the ocean. There is much to learn from the ocean, but if we continue to pollute it through artificial light, this learning could be lost. Eklöf concludes this section of the book by commenting, ‘We are a long way from thoroughly understanding the chemistry created by darkness in the creatures of the natural world.’

Away from the water, we have all seen examples of nature flowering at ‘the wrong time’ and Eklöf suggests that artificial light plays an important role in causing this. He also warns of the domino impact on the food chain when late flowerings or no flowerings occur. ‘At the start of spring, artificial light can accelerate the awakening of the trees, making the buds open prematurely.’

‘Normally they [bird’s foot trefoil] attract large numbers of aphids, but a late flowering or the absence of flowering can decimate entire populations of aphids, which in turn affects green lacewings, damselflies, ladybirds, hoverflies…the domino effect begins, and the ecosystem is disrupted.’

‘The easiest environmental problem to solve’

With humans increasingly suffering from sleeping issues as their circadian rhythms move to an unnatural alignment, Eklöf concludes that there is much that we could do to solve the impact of human sources of light pollution. ‘Light pollution is really the easiest of all the environmental problems to solve, at least technically.’ He acknowledges that the public may find it difficult at first to accept increased darkness, but welcomes moves by councils such as in Germany, where landmarks are no longer lit in darkness. ‘Light and illuminated environments mean safety for many people, so it may be difficult to accept the increased presence of darkness.’

With the growing popularity of the annual ‘Earth Hour’, where individuals, communities and businesses are encouraged to turn off non-essential lights for one hour, Eklöf hopes that our attitudes towards the darkness may turn to one of welcome and for health benefits.Perception of time changes in the dark; the clock seems to slow down and disappear. There’s long been talk of light therapy for us northerners in the winter. But the fact is that even dark therapy is starting to become a concept.’

Eklöf concludes his book, both with a warning that time is running out, but also with a list of easy steps to begin to change our cultural relationship with darkness. ‘The question is how much time we have to act. Many of the animals that live under the protection of darkness are on the verge of extinction and with them their invaluable services: pollinating insects, pest-hunting bats. Meanwhile, we humans have ever-worsening sleep and plants are ageing prematurely.’

‘The lights don’t always have to be on; there is more to be found in the dark than we think.’


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