Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Spreading Darkness

Britain at night as viewed from space

As I write these words on a clear but chill evening in Copenhagen, a violent ‘superstorm’ is lashing much of the eastern half of North America. It’s not clear yet what destruction Sandy will leave in her wake but it’s being reported that around 8 million people are without power and that includes much of New York City.

But awe inspiring as that blackout is, the one that caught my eye the other day is the one that is going on in Britain – the one nobody has noticed. It was being reported on in the Daily Telegraph which, in line with its deep distaste of anything ‘environmental’ was spinning the fact that the country is turning off masses of lighting at night as further evidence of the evil do-gooding greenies under the headline ‘Streetlights turned off in their thousands to meet carbon emissions targets’. The bare facts of the matter are thus:

· 3,080 miles of motorways and trunk roads in England are now completely unlit;

· a further 47 miles of motorway now have no lights between midnight and 5am, including one of Britain’s busiest stretches of the M1, between Luton and Milton Keynes;

· out of 134 councils which responded to a survey, 73% said they had switched off or dimmed some lights or were planning to;

· all of England’s 27 county councils have turned off or dimmed street lamps in their areas.

In fairness, it was the Sunday Times that undertook the survey and the DT was just doing some churnalism, but given that the particular Murdoch organ crouches behind a paywall I doubt many people ever got to read it in the first place.

But far from this mass turn-off being the work of ‘hysterical warmists’ (as the paper insists on calling anyone who suggests that atmospheric chemistry can be altered by adding gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide), it becomes clear that the real reason is money, or the lack of it due to rising energy costs and diminishing public budgets:

Local authorities say the moves helps reduce energy bills, at a time when energy prices are continuing to rise. Several of the big energy companies have unveiled price hikes in recent weeks, including British Gas, npower and EDF Energy - which this week said it was increasing its standard variable prices for gas and electricity customers by 10%.


The Highways Agency said the full-switch off had saved it £400,000 last year, while reducing carbon emissions, and said it planned further blackouts.

Meanwhile 98 councils said they have switched off or dimmed lights, or planned to in the future.

In Shropshire, 12,500 - 70 per cent of the area’s lights - are now switched off between midnight and 5.30am, while Derbyshire County Council plans to turn off 40,000 lights at night. In Lincolnshire, some are turned off from as early as 9pm.

Leicestershire County Council expects to save £800,000 a year in energy bills by adapting one third of the country’s 68,000 street lights so that they can be dimmed or turned off at night.

Caerphilly in Wales no longer lights industrial estates overnight and Bradford dims 1,800 of its 58,000 street lights between 9.30pm and 5.30am. 

People don’t like the dark – it arouses a primeval fear within us; a fear that modern life with its 24/7 strip lighting and permanently-on TV screens was supposed to have banished. 'Keeping the lights on' is the emotional hot button used by the proponents of nuclear power and fracking to induce fear in people and browbeat them into accepting dangerous forms of energy. It's a useful binary: either the lights are on OR we go back to the dark ages and live in caves. That's what they would like us to believe.

And safety bodies are up in arms about the lights being turned off, as are city dwellers who have bought second homes in rural areas. Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

Caroline Cooney, an actress who complained to Hertfordshire County Council when the lights near her home in Bishop’s Stortford were switched off after midnight, said she faced a “black hole” when she returned home from working in the West End of London.

"My street is completely canopied by large tress and I could not see my hand in front of my face,” she said.

Mrs Cooney, who appeared in Gregory’s Girl and who has also appeared in Casualty, said it was putting people in danger and the council was effectively imposing a “midnight curfew on residents who do not want to take the risk of walking home blind”.

“When I came out of the train station it was just like a black hole,” she said.

“I simply cannot risk walking home in what is effectively pitch blackness.”

However the council told her it could not “provide tailored street lighting for each individual’s particular needs”. 

You have to laugh and I bet the council spokesperson had a bit of a giggle preparing that response. Had it been me I might have gone further and suggested a pair of night vision goggles.

But I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.

In Spain, we used to live in the darkest place in Europe. We were high up in the mountains of Andalucía, on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada. At night the stars were so clear that if you lay flat on your back it felt as if you were drifting through deep space, which – hey – you were. I had no idea, until then, that you could see tens of thousands of stars with the naked eye.

I had an astronomer friend living nearby who had a giant telescope on his farm house. As a matter of fact, it was so big it practically was his house. When he wasn’t identifying distant star clusters and taking pictures of them he was running a campaign to banish unnecessary light pollution. He had seen how the skies of Britain had been turned into warm orange fuzz, and didn’t want the same thing to happen to Spain.

Unfortunately Spain had other ideas. They positively loved installing 1000w sodium lights on the side of any building that was more important than, say, a dog kennel, making the night even brighter than the day. At least they did – I’m not sure many of them can afford so much powerful lighting any more.

In any case, my friend thought that when you blot out the stars then you lose something. Kids were growing up having only seen stars on cinema screens. That just wasn’t right, he thought. How can you love the universe you were born into if you can’t even see it?

Peak cheap energy may have its downsides, but being able to see the stars again sure isn’t one of them.


  1. I've always hated light pollution. It's "progress" robbing you even when you sleep. We have a street light just behind our property. It's pretty much in a field of weeds, but there are a couple of trailers back there. God forbid they have to be in the dark when the sun goes down. The boogie man might getum'. I know I had to use my back garage as a shield for the chicken coop to keep my rooster from crowing at 2 in the morning because of that damn light. When I was a young teen I used to delight in shooting out street lights with a pellet gun.

    1. Shooting out lights is considered a sport for bored kids in some parts of rural Britain. Little do they realise they are doing their bit in the fight against light pollution.

  2. “I simply cannot risk walking home in what is effectively pitch blackness.”

    In the 3rd world this problem is cheaply and easily solved by people carrying their own torches/flashlights.

    We're so decadent in the 1st world and seldom realize it. That'll change soon.

    1. Yes, I have a drawer full of old torches that will no doubt come out of retirement some day.

  3. Excess money produces not only waste but problems, such as crime, which require solutions, such as street lighting.
    Yet another advantage of our post peak cheap energy future is that people will have less money to waste on trinkets that others will covet, thus reducing the need for expensive solutions.
    The next decade or so is going to be a wonderful release from the stresses of 'modern life'. For some at least.

  4. As a kid (up til I was about ten or so) I lived in a time and place that pretty much had no street lighting and virtually no illuminated advertising signs or so-called 'place identifiers'. It was great! We could actually see bezillions of stars at night (when there was no cloud cover; about half the year) and our night vision capability was superb, which I believe has deteriorated in the general population over the years due to strong night illumination and TV watching.

    1. I was amazed myself how powerful my night vision was once I began to practice using it. Just across from our Spanish farmhouse, on the other side of a wide valley, there was a village. The village, like everywhere else in Spain, had had huge floodlights installed in it and glowed like a beacon at night.

      My solution was to stop pruning a particular tree in my garden, thus making the village all but invisible to us. Night vision is ruined even by glancing at artificial light for a few seconds.

  5. I disagree with a big part of this, but then I live in Manhattan. Turn off the streetlights here -and even in New York City there are fewer/ dimmer streetlights than before- and more people get mugged. Yeah, maybe they will appreciate being able to see the stars again before they get mugged.

    There is a larger point. Don't romanticize deindustrialization. I agree that its inevitable -I wouldn't be commenting on a peak oil blog otherwise- but its going to or starting to lead to alot of ruined lives and early deaths.

    1. Ed - I'm sceptical of the claims made that street lighting makes us safer. There have been plenty of studies that suggest the opposite is true. This guy writes a blog about it:


      Still, I wouldn't like to walk around Manhattan in the dark.

      As for romanticising deindustrialization - well, there's plenty to feel romantic about. Reducing our full frontal assault on planet earth isn't all bad news, you know!

  6. BTW - here's a link to the British Astronomical Association's Campaign For Dark Skies.

    There you will find out plenty of information about light pollution and the effect it has on us all.

  7. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting with the leader of the council of our nearest city. They'd just begun to experiment with turning off street lighting in some residential districts, in the face of much public anxiety. However, when the statistics came in from the police some months later, they showed that both crime & traffic accidents had actually reduced significantly in the areas that had been switched off at midnight. Now they want to widen the scope, but other residential districts are still protesting loudly about public safety in the face of their own neighbours' evidence to the contrary.

    Needless to say, our council have just replaced our street lighting at enormous expense, but chose a design that cannot be turned off at any time except dawn... to facilitate any kind of switch-off, which would be wonderful as these new "directional" lights are dazzlingly bright and keeping kids awake as well as blinding drivers, they would have to be changed again. Hey-ho...

    1. Yes, local councils lose all sense of perspective when it comes to street lighting. Still, when they find out how much other councils are saving by turning them off the temptation will be there to do the same.

      "Shall we cut everyone's salaries by 10% this year, or turn off a few street lights?"

      Love you blog, BTW!

  8. Thats a fascinating photo of Britain. Overlay it with the 5m height contour and a 50 miles radius around each nuclear facility and the black bits would be good places to live. Happy to say I already live in one of them.

    Ms Cooney needs a head torch.

    1. That sounds like a good plan Phil. There's a great flood map resource that I use - here it is:


  9. Just discovered your blog, great stuff here, can't wait to read more. On topic, I note also that many American cities are doing the same thing. One, near and dear to my heart, is Detroit, which was built up in the 1950s for a population of 2 million... now it's dwindled to less than 1 million, and the city cannot support the infrastructure on such a diminished tax base (add in the fact of a poor economy and more and more people unemployed or working lower wage jobs...). So they're turning off the streetlights in certain parts of the city as well.

    So yeah, change is in the air.

    1. Thanks Brandon.

      Yep, that's the way things collapse. When the available money (and energy and resouces) starts to dry up, there just isn't enough to service the infrastructure that built during the good times. Detroit is a great example of this - I'd love to visit!

  10. The more I look at the pictures on the New York Times site of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the more I get the eerie feeling that I'm getting a preview of what life will be like when peak oil and global warming really hit home. Look at the situation in New York. They've got:

    -Limited fuel supplies
    -Limited food
    -State, local and federal government unable to meet the demands of the crisis
    -Large areas of blackout
    -Interruptions in communication networks
    -Major damage from rising sea levels and freak storms

    I could go on. But, just scroll through the NY Times' slideshows of the aftermath of the storm and they'll tell the story much more eloquently than I can. Something about the dull light of late fall and the scope of the damage really gives you the feeling you're looking at a post-collapse world already.

    So, yeah, we're looking at less light pollution in the future. I sure hope we can enjoy it once the generators kick in to replace light pollution with noise pollution!

    1. I'm reading the same things. Most people assume that as soon as the storm passed then the 'cleanup' can begin and things will get back to normal. After Sandy though, I suspect there is some more significant damage and not enough resources to repair it all.

      On a related note, my work colleagues in Nairobi told me today that they were also hit by an 'unprecedented' monster storm at the weekend. It took out the electricity grid for two whole days ... but I can't find much mention of it in the international news.

  11. When its dark, be a light unto others.

    A friend of mine got testy once with me earlier this summer when I sent him a heads up email about a massive meteor shower being visible from our hemisphere that night, told me that they couldn't see stars in Atlanta so why would I waste his time with the info.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.