The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms that Sustain Life by Johan Eklöf (translated by Elizabeth DeNoma)
The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms that Sustain Life by Johan Eklöf (translated by Elizabeth DeNoma) is a solidly informative book that raises some serious questions and challenges us to think differently about how we might live our lives, though it suffers somewhat from its structure.
Eklöf is an ecologist who specializes in bats, so one can see where he might get his fondness for the darkness of night. The thrust of his book, supported by a myriad of examples from the natural world and our own human experiences, is that the constant illumination of our lives is disrupting the circadian rhythm of all creatures, including ourselves, and that these disruptions are not only harmful to the beings themselves but have cascading effects that harm entire ecological systems and our own ability to sustain our existence, let alone that of those creatures so unlucky as to share this planet with us.
Insects, for instance, are facing a stunning drop in populations and while much of that can be attributed to climate change, habitat destruction, monocultural agriculture, and pesticide use (more on this btw can be found in the excellent if depressing The Insect Crisis by Oliver Milman), we’ve all seen how insects react to light, making it clear that our full-time illumination is also a contributing factor, not only making them easier prey for predators (like Eklöf’s bats) who hang out around street lights for the night’s buffet, but also making it more difficult for them to navigate and to reproduce. As moths are major pollinators (yes, moths), this is a problem that ripples beyond the moth population.
Birds as well are facing their own population decline, and like insects, they too are being harmed by how we light up the nighttime sky, causing them to crash into window, fly in circles amidst the light until they literally drop out of the sky from exhaustion, and making it more difficult if not impossible for them to navigate their way along their migratory paths.
Meanwhile, the host of problems constant light bombardment causes humans is well documented and include, but are not limited to, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, and obesity. And while the shift to LED bulbs has been of great benefit to our energy efficiency, as Eklöf points out, that savings has often been plowed back into more lighting, so the energy savings are pretty much a wash while we blast the sky with ever more lights.
While Eklöf specializes in bats, one can see from the above examples he ranges widely across the animal kingdom, covering lights effects on insects, birds, baby turtles, coral reefs and more, crossing multiple disciplines to explore human eyesight, explaining how our nighttime vision compares to other animals and why even the smallest moment of light can so fully disrupt that vision once our eyes, as they’re meant to adapt to lower light levels. He also dips into evolutionary biology, fitting the development of eyes into the “arms race” of the Cambrian Explosion and showing how modern-day creatures are changing their behavior to adapt to the newly lit world they now move in.
Eklöf’s prose (with a nod to the translator of course) is always clear and smooth, with an occasional dip into the lyrical, though less often than one might perhaps expect given the topic. And rather than acting as a detached observer or an aloof conveyor of facts, his use of personal experience combined with his clear passion on the topic makes him a personable tour guide to the night,
The one issue I had with the book is its structure. Rather than being a seamless non-fiction narrative, Eklöf presents us with a series of quite brief mini-essays. On the one hand, if you’re the sort who likes to dip in and out of a non-fiction work, taking a week or more to read it, than this might be to your liking. If, like me, you prefer to become immersed in the information and the speaker’s voice, the structure may strike you as more than a little choppy (it did me). And more than once I felt like the essays either ended abruptly or introduced a subject or raised some questions without fully delving into them, leaving me feeling better informed but also a bit disappointed. I would have preferred either a different structure or longer essays, but that’s really my only complaint here (a relatively minor one), making The Darkness Manifesto an easy recommendation.