Should an Unpolluted Night Sky Be an Inalienable Right?

The night sky and our relationship to it. This is what Paul Bogard explores in his book The End of Night. Part travelogue, part treatise with a dash of philosophy, Bogard advocates for the night sky in the postmodern age of electric light.

In chapter three of the book, Bogard contemplates the UNESCO declaration that states: An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right of humankind equivalent to all other environmental, social, and cultural rights.

Discussing the chapter with a friend, we considered this idea, that an unpolluted night sky was an inalienable right. We Americans are weaned on the idea of inalienable rights; it’s written in our DNA, so when an organization drops that two-word combination, the ears perk up a bit and we’re ready to defend whatever with a don’t tread on me attitude. But is an unpolluted night sky something we’re willing to fight for, something that we would bestow the world “right” upon?

The book makes the case on many levels (physiological, mental, spiritual, philosophical, and even economical) that an unpolluted night sky is something we as the human race should advocate for; that there is something essential about that aspect of nature that accesses and even feeds our very soul.

In the developed world, a great percentage of the population lives in urban/suburban areas disconnected from nature, to which you might ask, what’s so wrong with that? Nature grounds us and connects us to an aspect of ourselves difficult to tap in urban/suburban areas. It is the connection to something alive, something primal, and reminds us that we too are a part of that same great, living, organic thing. In the concrete jungles of urban and suburban sprawls, we are disconnected from this nature despite well-intentioned, beautifully maintained city parks and other municipal endeavors, assuming one does not live in a part of town that would be classified as low income; these places do not enjoy even half-hearted attempts of such things.

And so to experience nature one must go outside of the city on perhaps a drive through the countryside or to one of our country’s many wonderful state and national parks, preserves, forests, and monuments. Here in these places is where nature is felt. What do I mean by that?

I have seen and read about people who have very rarely ever been outside of their urban existence and weep at the sight of something like the Grand Canyon, fall down in wonderment at the grandeur of soaring mountain ranges, or feel incredibly small standing on the open plains or in the empty desert, overwhelmed by the immensity of the universe. Just go to some of these places and watch for a minute. Look past the tour buses full of swarming shutterbugs and watch for that one person who has wonder written across their face, that one person who has in an instant been thrust into an entirely different understanding of themselves in relation to the world.

But the places I am talking about are places a person must go to. We are not all so privileged. To go to these places takes the monetary means to do so, and not all have this, which brings me back to rights.

When we talk about rights, we are talking about something that everyone should have and dismantling systems that might prevent them from having it. We are talking about equal access. In the 21st century, the natural world must be protected and traveled to if one wants to experience it. I live outside of Houston, Texas, one of the biggest cities in North America. There are teenagers who have never left the city, never even left Harris county. How much more impoverished is their human experience for never knowing nature in its fullness; the same nature that they are a part of?

To have an inkling of who or what God might be, to have the slightest notion of experiencing wonder, grandeur, immensity; we find these experiences out in nature. It is especially easy to access standing before the Grand Canyon, or Delicate Arch, or El Capitan, but the one natural wonder that everyone has access to every single night is right above our heads.

I’ve only seen a full sky of stars on a few occasions, though I hear it was much easier to see when I was growing up in the 1970s. In an urban city today, the light pollution is so severe that a person might see 10 to 15 stars, the brightest ones. Just outside of the city, in near rural areas, maybe 30 to 50 and the occasional falling star. This all seems wonderful until you realize on an average night with moderate or even very little light pollution, a person could easily see a sky of 2500 stars, and on a particularly dark night without a bright moon, the Milky Way.

At the end of chapter three, Bogard is in Florence, Italy, home to Michelangelo, Dante, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and of course Galileo. Astronomer Tyler Nordgren commented, “Four hundred years ago, everyone in Florence could see the stars, but only Galileo had a telescope. Now everyone has a telescope but no one can see the stars.”

The super moon rising over the hills of Florence

I could not help but think of my brief time in Florence in 2013. It was the first time I ever heard the term “super moon”. After a late dinner with my darling K, we walked back through the old town, past the Duomo, then along the Arno River. I remember being struck by how lit up with artificial light the Duomo and surrounding square was and how much more beautiful and enchanting the cathedral would have been in the soft but sharp silver light of that magnificent super moon with hundreds of stars providing a backdrop.

The Duomo at night

It’s there, the night sky, all the time. It never goes away. Its access is denied by our own hands. We are picking our own pockets and are all the poorer for it.

I’m not suggesting we get rid of lights, obviously. But the regulation of them, perhaps we could more carefully consider that, because the one natural wonder we all share is literally above our heads.

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