|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.