Between Safety and the Stars

When I go walking at night, interesting thoughts bubble to the surface, along with the occasional “Oh boy. What a mess.”

I was musing on over-bright headlights and safety lights (one of which has a short, and so it flashes for 30 seconds every time a car passes the house), light pollution, and the idea that if you turn on enough outdoor lights, it protects your home with an impenetrable force field that no thief can ever get through. You just buy this, or illuminate that, and you are safe forever. And the world is so dangerous that it is better to lose darkness and bleach the skies than to risk the slightest chance of, well, anything.

I understand the impulse to safety. I live in a house with locks, and I practice clearing it if something “interesting” happens. I wear seatbelts (I’d like a 5-point harness, but that wasn’t an option.) I pay attention to my surroundings and don’t listen to anything that might keep me from hearing trouble (muggers, dogs, distracted joggers, cars . . .) I have insurance.

I also see the results of too much safety and too much “The world is dangerous and scary and ooooooooo!!” Students with anxiety, adults who are terrified of everything, a society that worries about ritual purity in ways that probably make religious leaders blink and murmur about obsession. Apples with Alar! Lead in the Great Lakes! Pesticides on the rind of my kiwi fruit!* Asbestos in the building on the next block!

How did we ever learn to fly, or to go to the moon? How did we ever cross the oceans to settle the globe, or explore the sea floors? It’s a beautiful planet, but it is not safe.

I wonder, some nights, how much of this is because people in my part of the world don’t have any big survival things to worry about, so the little things take on undue scale. No leopards wait in the trees. We can drink the water. Our children and women don’t die in childbirth on a regular basis. Starvation takes deliberate effort. Suddenly, a burglar, or the ‘flu, or climate change take on unwarranted size and terror. There’s a joke from a while back that the difference between the British and Americans is that Americans think that death is optional. If we get sick or otherwise expire, we did something wrong. In a related manner, if we get in a wreck, or trip on a tree-root, or are bitten by a snake when we stick a hand into a hole, someone else did something wrong and ought to be sued. There’s no longer such a thing as bad luck or “life happening.”

I’m not arguing for a return to “survival of the meanest/strongest/best armed warlord/thug/tribe.” Lights do make night safer and discourage mischief as well as reducing accidents. Instead, I’m arguing that perhaps in our quest for perfect absolute safety we’re doing ourselves a disservice. For one, the anxiety in the air is not good for people over the long term. Look at the end-times movement that has arisen from a mix of environmentalism and politics. For another, as a society we’re not looking outward, to the stars. Some people are, but as a whole? No. I don’t think so. If we were, we’d be cheering on a race between Space X and other outfits, and be looking at more ways to escape the gravity well.

Safety lights make it easier to see obstacles in the road, and to find the toy left in the driveway. Too many destroy night vision and hide the stars. Somehow, we as a culture need to say, “That’s enough safety lights. Let’s re-learn how to deal with the darkness and to appreciate some of its benefits.” There’s a balance point between safety and the stars. How do we regain it?

I just don’t know.

*Um, if you are eating the fur on a kiwi fruit, you are not doing it right. It’s not a peach.


16 thoughts on “Between Safety and the Stars

  1. Thinking of Admiral Spruance at Midway, we take a calculated risk. Balancing multiple factors for the medium or long run is difficult, though, for many people.

  2. There’s also the attitude of sheer bloody-mindedness and independence that says, “If you want a piece of me, you’re going to have to work for it, and earn it the hard way”. Also known as “No, I’m not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with me!” I learned that lesson early in my life, and it’s stuck – and saved my fundamental jujube on more than one occasion.

  3. Astronomers (professional and amateur alike) detest over-lighting. One person noted that all the streetlights make it easier for a burglar to see what he’s doing. Not too many outdoor lights here in the country. I can see sky-glow from the city 25 miles and several ridge lines away, but the ranches and homes with outdoor lights are far enough away to be specks of light across the valley.

    The only downside is that if I *must* go the 600′ from the house to the shop at night, I carry a flashlight and a .45. OTOH, I did that before the neighbors got rid of the big mercury light on their property. We do have a 100 pound cougar that goes after the local deer, and coyotes roam around. Motion detector lights might make it easier for the deer to see as they head to the river, but they’ve never asked.

  4. When I was young, I had excellent night vision, and hated the lights.
    That’s changed over the years.
    Of course, forgetting to turn on my lights because I can see just fine without them, remains a bit of a constant. Moonlight or streetlight booth fill the role.
    (And what frelling IDIOT decided that having your dash lights automatically come on in the dark, but the actual exterior lights must be manually activated, was a *safety feature*?)

    • The same person who thinks that super-bright halogen headlights are perfect – and has never been blinded by them as either a driver or a pedestrian. Or who decided that making the side airbags on a pickup hypersensitive was a great idea. Until the photos and curses started flooding Toyota from people who, you know, drive the trucks into the brush and have the branch of a shrub trigger the bag. Or a cow brushing against the parked but running vehicle triggers the bag . . . They now come with override switches.

      • …or the super-bright brake lights and turn signals. Some late-model cars are so bright they blow away my night vision. WTF?! Someone thought blinding trailing drivers was a “safety” feature…

        My area also has some new street lights which are aimable to specific areas. The city has them pointed, not at the road immediately underneath, but the road fifty yards or more away. Which means you have an eleventy zillion candlepower spotlight trying to burn through your sun visors at 11 PM…

  5. Humans need both security and excitement. Often, the most exciting excitement has risk attached. That’s why dentists go helicopter skiing and get wiped out by avalanche.

  6. “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”


    “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they ‘ this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that man might hope again in wretched darkness.”

    (both quotes from Walter Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz

  7. Depends on your definition of ‘excitement’… Very few people ever know TRUE darkness. You have to be on the ocean on a dark night to truly appreciate how DARK it is, and how many stars one can see. And how truly insignificant we puny human beings are… Funny how people buy the McMansions and two years later are moving back to town because it’s ‘too dark’ out in the country… LOL

    • Yellowstone National Park, October, the first year it was open in the fall. We drove out to the paint-pots, well away from the lodge and any lights. There were so many stars it was scary at first.

      • I had a flat tire in the Panhandle, between Dumas and Dalhart, about 0300. I came to a stop on the shoulder, took off my gloves and helmet, and reached forward to switch off the ignition. All the lights went off, and at first I thought I’d gone blind. Then I noticed the whole sky was lit up…

        The only time we see much in the way of stars in Arkansas is when it’s well below zero, otherwise it’s just haze.

  8. For over 40 yrs I lived in a rural area in an orange grove. We did not have security lights on the farm (we had dogs), so if we had to go outside at night, half the time we didn’t even bother with flashlights. The night sky was wonderful, in the older sense of the word, to look up at.. Seeing the Milky Way as a broad ribbon, looking at Orion and being able to see the bottom star as a fuzzy blob and knowing you were looking at a galaxy, and being able to estimate the time of the night by where the constellations were, was a special joy.
    Many times when we were returning from a trip, I would just stand next to the truck and look at the sky and reorient myself to the land and the grove’s presence. I now live in a city and it is almost impossible to see anything but the glow from all the lights

    • Over the past twenty years, the stars above RedQuarters have faded because of parking-lot lights and development, as well as the enormous numbers of new house lights. I miss what once was. But I’m Odd that way.

  9. Your blog post reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, except that in our modern case, folks who have fulfilled their first four levels of needs, instead of “Self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, they instead become busy-bodies and intrude in everyone else’s life. I reckon if those busy-bodies were worried about starvation, or about being eaten by wild animals, they might have a different outlook on life.

    • Indeed. In my less charitable moments, I’ve entertained visions of a sudden outbreak of predation upon the willfully oblivious and obnoxiously curious.

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