The sky above Middelburg in the Netherlands on a past 'Night of the Night' Jesse Meliefste/Nacht van de Nacht

Campaigners want government agencies and companies to turn off the lights so citizens can rediscover the beauty of darkness.

AMSTERDAM—As winter creeps across the Northern Hemisphere and daylight hours dwindle, it can be hard to appreciate the long, dark nights. But in the Netherlands, there’s a national campaign to embrace the darkness.

Nacht van de Nacht (Night of the Night) culminates in an annual event—this year, it was on October 26—during which local governments and companies turn off their lights and people gather in towns and woods to savor the absence of artificial light.

Earth Hour, a worldwide event to turn off the lights for one hour in March, is aimed at raising environmental awareness, but the goal of Nacht van de Nacht is to change lighting habits permanently, so that we can see the stars again.

This year, around 45,000 people took part in some 550 activities, including night walks in forests, star viewings, and candlelit dinners. The organization also holds workshops year-round and advises the government, municipalities, and companies to dim or turn off lights, and to adopt a policy of “Dark where possible, light where necessary.”

“What we’re very happy about is, when a company turns its lights off for the night, they start thinking more whether lighting is necessary at all. And we always ask companies to then do it more often—weekly, monthly, even every night,” says Mattheus Bleijenberg, national coordinator at Nacht van de Nacht.

Some companies take that advice to heart. Interbest, one of the country’s major billboard companies, conducted a study and found that only 2 percent of its target group saw its highway advertisements at night. The company began turning off the lights between 1 and 5 a.m. every night.

The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management has also begun turning off lights along sections of highway where fewer than 50 cars pass per hour. And after a century of constantly increasing night lighting, many municipalities are now adopting smarter lighting that is directed downwards, dimmed, and often has a warmer tint. As a result, satellite data from the six years to 2018 shows that several Dutch provinces, including Flevoland and Gelderland, have become darker.

In Middelburg, a town in the south of the Netherlands, the city turns off its streetlights, restaurants resort to candlelight, and stores pull the plug on illuminated ads. This year’s Nacht van de Nacht was overcast, but in past years, residents got a glimpse of the Milky Way.

That’s an increasingly rare sight. Most of the global population lives under light-polluted skies, with the Milky Way invisible to nearly 80 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Europeans. Satellite data has shown that the world’s skies are getting brighter still: The total artificially lit area of Earth grew by 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2016, and continuously lit-up areas, such as cities, became 2.2 percent brighter year on year.

The Netherlands is one of the brightest countries in Europe. Thanks to a high population density and a landscape saturated with highways, industry, and illuminated greenhouses, the country that produced Van Gogh’s Starry Night is now covered in a thick layer of light pollution. Even on the clearest nights, only 10 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from Dutch cities.

Restoring the night sky would not only help repair ecosystems damaged by constant artificial light; it could also re-awaken the awareness that we live on a fragile blue planet. After all, the first picture of Earth from space roused the environmental movement. Could bringing back starry nights invigorate the climate movement in the same way?

Monnik, a Dutch design studio, thinks so. Last year, for Nacht van de Nacht, it treated visitors in Middelburg to a theatrical workshop designed to give earthlings a version of the “overview effect,” a cognitive shift that astronauts experience as they look at Earth from space. This is characterized by deep feelings of awe, a realization that everything is connected, and a sense of renewed responsibility.

“The closest thing to the overview effect on Earth is to see the stars,” says Edwin Gardner, co-founder of Monnik. “With urbanization, we’re surrounded by manmade stuff that makes the city feel like an artificial interior. Light pollution forms a kind of roof above that, severing our last connection with the outdoors and that which lies beyond us.”

Monnik leading a workshop as part of its ongoing “Nightlab” research on dark skies. (Photo by Anna Berkhof/Courtesy of Monnik)

Andre Kuipers, the Netherlands’ best-known astronaut, became an ambassador for Nacht van de Nacht because he believes a cosmic perspective could help us rekindle our sense of stewardship towards the earth.

There is increasing recognition for the necessity of darkness for plants and animals—including ourselves. Trees, plants, and insects need darkness, just like humans, for their growth and repair cycles, which may be one reason urban trees have shorter lives than those in a forest. Thousands of birds a year are killed by bright artificial lighting, and insect numbers and therefore pollination have been found to be affected by street lighting.

Light and its absence regulates our hormones and thereby our circadian rhythms, reproductive capacity, tendency for obesity, and more. The invention of artificial light, particularly blue-tinged light, has shifted our circadian rhythms and altered sleep cycles and alertness because it suppresses melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleep. Studies have also found night lighting increases the incidence of breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Although Dutch municipalities are using less light, and companies including Interbest, IKEA, and Tata Steel take part in the Nacht van de Nacht every October, for the rest of the year light pollution from the private sector is getting worse. “Because LEDs are cheaper, they can leave lights on all night and it costs almost nothing for advertisements. That’s what we’d like to tackle in the coming years,” says Bleijenberg.

Many companies say they need bright lights at night for safety reasons, but Nacht van de Nacht contests that dynamic lighting activated by movement is actually safer than constantly illuminated areas, and would also save security staff from making constant rounds. Dynamic lighting is used on some cycle paths in the Netherlands already.

There are changes afoot: France introduced a new law in January to regulate light pollution at night, and in 2016, the American Medical Association introduced guidelines for LED lighting, which is more blue-tinged than incandescent, to reduce harmful effects to health. Meanwhile, a movement for circadian light settings inside buildings is gaining traction.

“Of course [artificial] light is fantastic,” says Bleijenberg. “But darkness is one of those primal things, along with silence, nature, and oxygen, that people need.”

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