“The City Dark” Lights Up the Night

by Rachel Kaufman

You are likely not reading this blog from Natural Bridges National Monument, the world’s first international dark-sky park. Nor are you probably reading from Arizona Sky Village, one of the darkest places in the continental U.S.

In fact, statistics say that you’re reading this blog from a city.

And that means you can’t see nearly as many stars as your ancestors could. In fact, in some places the number of stars visible in the night sky is in the single digits.

Filmmaker Ian Cheney (of King Corn fame) grew up spending his summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, where he took pictures of stars with a homemade telescope.

Not so much in New York City, where he now lives.

In an attempt to learn what we might be missing when light pollution erases our starry skies, he’s made a new documentary film called The City Dark, which premiered last week at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.

person holding a star finder in Times Square at night

—Picture copyright Wicked Delicate Films

REVIEW FOR SPACE GEEKS: You probably already know everything in this movie, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is in it. So that’s kind of awesome.

REVIEW FOR EVERYONE ELSE: We’re losing the night. If you think about it, that’s a big loss. Darkness on Earth (i.e., the ability to see what’s Up There) has produced every astronomical discovery ever.

Cheney said that when he realized in 2008 that more people worldwide lived in urban areas than rural areas, that caused him to realize that the lack of a night sky might be a big loss.

“Suddenly there were more of us growing up without the stars,” he told Breaking Orbit.

For Americans, who passed that particular tipping point in the ’50s, the loss may be even more poignant: “I think we felt we’d always have the West, we’d always have the wilderness. And in my mind I think it was, We’ll always have the stars,” Cheney said.

The film touches on astronomy (it’s getting harder to search for dim but possibly devastating near-Earth objects, even from remote Haleakala in Hawaii, where light pollution has increased a hundred-fold in the past 60 years), nature (a scene of disoriented baby sea turtles finally reaching the ocean garnered awwws and applause from the audience), and that childlike sense of wonder we still get when looking up at the night sky.

Cheney says in the film that as a kid in Maine, he invented his own constellations—a scene in the film of Manhattan boy scouts seeing the night sky for the first time, while on a camping trip, was nearly heartbreaking.

A telescope dome and a full moon

—Picture copyright Wicked Delicate Films

A big theme stressed in the film is that yes, we need light to see at night and to keep us safe—or at least make us feel safer—but most of the time, we have far more light than we need.

A metal halide lamp like those found in sports stadiums gives out 15,000 lumens at least. Compare that with your 900-lumen reading lamp. And while lighting ordinances can require lamps to point downward instead of upward, a smart idea anyway because it can save energy, cities have been slow to adopt such rules.

Should darkness be a right, like clean air or water?

“I don’t know how to say it strongly enough,” Cheney told Breaking Orbit.

After the film’s premiere, the audience shuffled out of the Austin Convention Center, where a group of amateur astronomers had set up telescopes on the sidewalk for an impromptu stargazing session.

Amid the bright lights of that not-so-big city, the only thing we could see was the moon.

The City Dark is making the festival circuit right now, but will open in theaters this summer, so stay tuned.

Rachel Kaufman is a freelance writer reporting live from SXSW. One time she counted seven whole stars in the sky outside her Washington, D.C., home.

Human Journey