Light pollution: towards a right to darkness?

For ten years, the subject of light pollution has been more and more discussed. Researchers argue for a right to darkness, both to rediscover the starry sky, and to protect ecosystems and human beings, who see lighting as a security symbol. Light pollution or nuisance, involves several associated problems: light nuisance (the unwelcome intrusion of light from nearby premises, especially into bedrooms), sky-glow (damage to the night sky environment above), and glare, which causes discomfort and may be a hazard to road users and pedestrians.

Tempted by a tourist trip to discover for the first time in your life the splendour of the starry sky? If the suggestion has a taste of dystopia, it is now one of the tourist destinations proposed in Singapore: light pollution has become so intense that travel agencies now offer to escape the time of a trip. “Light pollution is the proven effect caused by the disturbance following our use of artificial lights, natural light regimes, and if by this disturbance are observed effects on the fauna, on the flora, on our health, or again on the vision of the starry sky, we are going to have a light pollution, since we see proven effects”.

Appeared in the 1980s, the concept of light pollution, designating a brightness too high after dark, became particularly well known in 2001, when the World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness appeared. This study has highlighted the extent of the impact of artificial lighting. Updated every year, it recalled that in 2017, in Europe and North America, more than sixty percent of the inhabitants could not admire the Milky Way from their place of life. While researchers defend a “right to darkness”, the Day of Night, which takes place in France in October each year, aims to raise awareness about light pollution, the protection of night biodiversity and the starry sky.

Lighting: from aesthetics to security

But when was the beginning of light pollution? Could the brightness of a campfire be considered a primary source of pollution? “It’s the notion of excess that shifts into the idea that we are lighting up too much. When we resume the work of the humanities and social sciences, we realise that we speak of a gradient, there is a continuum in the artificiality of things”. In Le Journal de l’Histoire, Anaïs Kien recalled that in Paris, urban lighting began with the hanging of a lantern at the Tour de Nesle, at the entrance of the city, reinforced by a candle placed at the exit of the city in Châtelet, in 1318, after the assault of a judge.

First introduced for security reasons, artificial light quickly takes on an aesthetic dimension. “There was security but also urban aesthetics. There were the royal illuminations at the beginning, with a very strong prominence of the aestheticism and the symbol of the king, then of the absolutist state. Soon, the question of security arrived, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before falling for nearly two centuries. It re-emerged in the 1980s in France, following the emergence, in Great Britain, of a new framework of urbanistic thought; that is to say, to reduce the opportunities for people to go to crime, we will play on the environment and we will make environments secure by the way they are designed. And there is artificial light”.

From the fifteenth century onward, urban lighting mainly reflects the arrival of urban art, embellishment and a logic of scheduling. We must actually reach the eighteenth century before considering light as a security perspective: the Parisian police, rather than multiply the night rounds with “torchbearers”, responsible for seeing the perpetrators to challenge them, finally favours the use of lanterns and street lamps.

In this logic of perfecting the exercise of power. It becomes the main tool of social control, within the framework of the principles of panoptic stated at the end of the eighteenth century. Hence the efforts of the authorities to stimulate technical developments towards improving the brightness of lighting sources, their brilliant power, signifying to each the potential for continuous monitoring. It is in the context of a competition organised by the chief of the Parisian police that the reflector lantern is thus developed in the mid-1750s”.

Light pollution against fear of the dark

But after several centuries of artificial brightness to protect us from our fear of the dark, it is difficult to consider a return to the darkness of the night. Because of the long history of the lighting-security couple and the reinterpretations that have been made, the belief that lighting and security go hand in hand is today firmly anchored in public opinion. The idea is widespread that urban lighting has a potential effect on both actual crime and fear of crime. If lighting can actually bring real improvements in terms of effective crime in specific areas, it has above all a beneficial effect on the “feeling of insecurity”.

After the stars, new claims

We attract a lot of butterflies and other insects with lighting. We have bats that come to feed and take advantage of this light. But digging a little deeper, we realise that we still have strong behavioural disturbances with individuals who are not serene. Under a lamppost, as many as four thousand butterflies can be put, as many bats cannot be put on. This is not possible because bats are at the top of the food chain. We are on predators that are insectivorous and there is a real competition in the airspace: there is no room for everyone. As much as we attract all the insects of a given landscape under a light source. So we concentrate the food, which has an impact: the rest of the bats who avoid light will find themselves with landscapes impoverished in quantities of food resources”.

Also, not only with insects or mammals, there is lighting, what happens in our interiors and especially these new LED-lit screens that we bring into our beds. It is a form of light pollution. We know that it disrupts very strongly our internal biological clock, with delays in falling asleep, with stress, with risks of increased obesity if one exposes oneself at night before sleeping in artificial light”. The stakes are therefore also sanitary, both for domestic lighting and urban lighting, which comes in the home.

Towards a right to darkness?

If light hygiene is not yet considered a problem of public environmental policy, France, with its Act of December 27, 2018 on the prevention, reduction and limitation of light pollution, has become one of the most advanced countries on the issue in terms of legislation. The law of lighting has therefore evolved considerably in a short time, so that in terms of lighting law, the specialists of the subject have passed to the next level and now claim a right to darkness. “When we legislate on the lighting technique, thresholds, levels, or colour temperatures, it gives us a right of lighting. From the legal point of view, it is possibly a right of darkness”.

Let’s also note, continuing on a right to darkness, that the 2005 British Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act now makes light nuisance subject to the same criminal law as noise and smells.