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#16: A fence in the middle of the road

I recently woke up at night. It happens once in a while.

I feel like I need to use the toilet, so with the confident steps of habit, I lumber into the bathroom without turning on the lights. I sit down in the dark and for the first time consciously put my finger on the feeling I’ve had since waking up: Something is different.

It takes me a moment to figure it out. The switch to my left is missing the red status light that turns green when the light is on.

There’s a blackout in the whole town!

Now I also notice the silence. I’m sure I woke up from it, from the silence. Every home has a multitude of subliminal sounds. There’s bubbling, hissing, murmuring and humming. Ventilation, water pipes, central heating, refrigerator: I don’t notice them in everyday life. But now the silence is deafening.

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline, a group of scientists travels to the Middle Ages. The first thing that strikes them is the absence of all “technical” sounds. Can you imagine such a world?

I hope you’ve been to a relatively quiet place – in the forest, by the sea, in the mountains. Now imagine: the murmur of traffic in the distance, the lumberjacks at the other end of the forest, the planes at the edge of the stratosphere above you – all gone!

The mastery of the electric current has no doubt brought a great deal of progress. We can keep our food from spoiling for a long time in the fridge. Modern central heating lets us to keep the house warm with little effort and nearly zero maintenance. With electric light, we can walk at night safely without falling and injuring ourselves.

But how much of this progress is actually beneficial? A large part of technological achievements makes life seemingly more comfortable and at the same time has a dark side. More and more technology takes away our personal responsibility and makes us dependent.

How would you heat your house if the power went out for a longer period of time? Where would you get food? How would you preserve it?

The easiest question to answer is probably what you’d do without electric lights. You would live like people did just 150 years ago. The first ancestors of the modern lightbulb are that recent.

For 150 years, we have seen a rapid and dramatic increase in nighttime light and almost no one thinks about its effects.

The gain in security is negligible and – depending on which study you consult – even negative. There is no discernible correlation (let alone causality) between light and crime, but there is very clear evidence of harm to our health all the way from insomnia to cancer.

But for me, the worst effect of light at night is the loss of a thousand-year-old cultural heritage, the night sky.

Chesterton’s Fence, a principle of the English writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton, describes a fence erected seemingly without reason across a road. Anyone who doesn’t see its purpose will want to tear it down quickly. But a farsighted person will say: If you don’t see the reason for it, leave it. Think about it. When you understand what the fence is for, then feel free to destroy it (from G.K. Chesterton: The Drift from Domesticity).

Reform or change should not be implemented until the reasons for the existing conditions are understood. Similarly, the precautionary principle urges caution, pause and review before embracing innovations that may have disastrous consequences.

Current examples are mRNA therapies, the increasing saturation of our environment with high-frequency radio waves, the ubiquity of screens and nocturnal light. At best they are harmless, at worst a health crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Many negative effects of light at night are now known, but are hardly discussed in public. Our world is getting brighter every year. Despite the “energy crisis” we light up the night as if we wanted to banish it forever.

When was the last time you went for a walk only by the light of the moon? It works surprisingly well if you give your eyes some time to adjust to the low light. In the absence of the moon, lighting of comparable strength should be sufficient. So why did we turn night into day?

I wish that one day you can see a starry sky completely untouched by human light. Maybe you will fall in love with its magic as I have and realize how terrible the loss of the night is.

Why, to me, the night sky in particular stands for freedom, is a story I will tell you in a future Freedom Letter.


Yours, Ulrich

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