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.