Less Power to Us — or, Why Dark is the New Black by William Chapman Sharpe

Keep your flashlights handy.  Last month’s Earth Hour, which saw cities  dim their lights across the globe, may be the harbinger of darker times ahead.  And this is a good thing.

In New York, Earth Hour participants included such iconic night-sights as the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, and the United Nations.  Although the savings were more symbolic than significant–about $102 for the UN–they helped cast a figurative spotlight on a positive trend.  For ecological and economic reasons, the current recession is prompting businesses and individuals to turn down the wattage and pump up the publicity on their “green” accomplishments.  As The Times has reported (“Efficiency’s Mark: City Glitters a Little Less,” November 2008), more “blank” spaces are sprouting in the skyline, and fewer office towers blaze in boastful disregard for the cost.  Darkness is in.

Still, the thought of New York losing its sparkle can be distressing, for reasons that range from worries over personal safety to fears that Tinsel Town will become a tarnished shadow of its former glittering self.

Human beings have always associated darkness with danger.  From the earliest uses of fire, a major goal of lighting has been to keep the saber-toothed tiger at bay.  Another log on the fire, another lantern on the street, pushed back the menacing darkness.  “Thieves hate light, and thugs despise it,“ wrote the Jacksonville Times-Union in 1895, while “a light is as good as a policeman” ran the popular saying in London a century ago.  Since the advent of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century, the twin aims of making the night streets safer and more profitable have gone hand in hand:  “Trade follows light,” Victorian advertisers discovered.

So we have demanded ever-increasing levels of lighting.  Each new technology raises the bar: while the first gas lights radiated about twelve candlepower, today we are barely satisfied with streetlights 300 times as powerful.

By 1915, the outlandish brilliance of the “Great White Way” had established a new threshold of lighting for a vibrant downtown. When the United States Fuel Administration mandated during World War I that electric signs on Broadway be turned off as an economy measure, the outcry from an anxious public was so great that the order had to be revoked.

Thus even during the Great Depression the city scintillated.  Times Square and the brand-new Chrysler and Empire State Buildings blazed in the night–a light-based stimulus package to lift both spirits and spending.  Berenice Abbot’s classic photo New York at Night (c1935) looks down at the city as if onto a blanket of stars.

Manhattan’s intermittent “brown outs” during World War II, staged to foil enemy bombers, brought back a vanished intimacy.  James W. Kerr’s painting Times Square Dim-Out (1944) shows that when the ceiling of light descends to human level, facial signs become more important than neon ones.  A similar dimout aura pervades one of New York’s most indelible images, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), the product of long walks the painter took through the somber city in the early 1940s.

Like global air wardens, the supporters of Earth Hour aim not to save pocket money but the life of the planet.  The energy that lights the world warms it.  In Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Survive (2005), Jared Diamond uses a satellite photo of earth at night to illustrate through blotches of light the sites of the greatest drain on the earth’s resources.  If global warming continues at current rates, the coastal cities that browned out may soon find themselves washed out.

Rather than simply pulling the plug, we are headed for an era of selective brightness. Companies for whom visibility means viability are cutting power consumption without cutting light, thanks to cost-effective LED technology.  Even so, an awareness of light pollution’s wastefulness now accompanies the electric bill: thirty percent of artificial outdoor light misses its target, costing an estimated $3.5 billion in the U.S. each year.

Instead of lighting a whole building as a symbol of power, corporations are realizing they can use “crown lighting,” emulating the skyscraper top that inspired Georgia O’ Keeffe’s luminous Radiator Building, Night, New York (1927).  It was a much dimmer city, 100- to 1000- fold less bright, that animated the shimmering canvases of Joseph Stella or the poetic prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who called Manhattan “a miracle of foamy light suspended by the stars.”

To monitor the future of that miracle, simply look up.  As with the world’s oceans, the tide of light is rising to flood level.  Two-thirds of the American population can no longer see the Milky Way.  In cities like New York–”the city of dreadful light,” poet Adrienne Rich has called it–ninety-nine percent of the stars are invisible.  If, in a few months, we can glimpse something in the heavens other than the moon and a few planets, the tide has turned.  Although the gifts of darkness currently seem as elusive as the stars, penny-pinching may yet lure us into contemplation of something larger than ourselves.

William Chapman Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of New York Nocturne and Unreal Cities and the coeditor of Visions of the Modern City.