Two new documentaries resonate with me on a personal, political and more deeply philosophical level. The first is “The City Dark” that is now playing at the IFC Center in NY. It examines the phenomenon of “light pollution”, the seemingly benign phenomenon of electric lighting that makes star-gazing in places like New York virtually impossible. As someone who grew up in a tiny village in upstate New York in the 1950s with a breathtaking view of the starry sky, the film made me realize how much I miss this natural work of art that inspired Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting.
Opening on February 3rd at the Quad Cinema in New York, Laura Israel’s “Windfall” is a cautionary tale about wind power, the “green” source of energy almost universally accepted as a sane alternative to fossil fuels. As it turns out, windmills, especially those that are 400 feet tall and financed by Goldman-Sachs using generous tax breaks, are not exactly that benign.
The two films complement each other politically and philosophically since they confront in their own ways the cost of maintaining what passes for “civilization” in an epoch of dwindling natural resources and stresses on the environment and the human body engendered by living on the grid. Viewing them raises the question of our future as a species on the most fundamental level even if the intention of their makers was more narrowly focused on a specific socio-political problem.
Growing up on a farm in rural Maine, Ian Cheney enjoyed the same vista I did in the Catskills. So captivated was he by the night sky as a young man that he built his own telescope and spent hours each evening gazing at the stars. I had the exact experience when I was 12 or 13 years old and begged my parents to buy me a telescope. But nothing prepared me for what I saw in the summer of 1962 when I was at home from my first year at Bard College when a display of northern lights appeared at around 10pm one evening. For about two hours I stood in wonderment on my front lawn at the green lights dancing across the dark sky.
Like me, Cheney ended up in New York City to pursue a career. He fell in love with the city’s dazzling skyline and the neon lights on Broadway even if it meant not being able to see more than a dozen or so stars at night. At one point in the film there is a sage observation that the modern city is an inversion of the natural order. The stars have fallen from the sky, only to appear as the streetlights and neon signs of the boulevards.
The longer Cheney lived in the city, the more he missed the starry skies of his youth. The loss was not just esthetic and spiritual. As he looked deeper into the problem of “light pollution”, the more aware he became of the environmental and health costs of living in an urban environment crowned by supposedly one of civilization’s brightest jewels: electrification.
When I was involved with Tecnica, a volunteer program for revolutionary Nicaragua, we worked closely with a young engineer from Portland named Ben Linder who was killed by contras while working on a small-scale hydroelectric dam that would generate electricity for isolated and impoverished rural villages in the north. There was nothing that better expressed our hopes for a new Nicaragua than the possibility of people being able to have lighted homes in the evening. It was the age-old dream of socialism to make this possible, symbolized by the poster below that includes the slogan “Communism is Power of the Soviets Plus Electrification” beneath a light-bulb.
As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing, including electric lights. Considering the fact that animals, including homo sapiens, have lived for millions of years without artificial lights, it comes as no surprise that mother nature can throw us for a loop. The film shows the toll light pollution takes on animals. Thousands of sea turtles newly hatched on the Florida coast mistakenly head toward the city lights rather than the ocean, which they have been programmed genetically to seek out because of its relative brightness compared to the land. As an endangered species, the idea that their numbers are decreasing at an ever greater rate because of shopping mall lights, etc. makes you reconsider the question of progress.
Since ultimately we are part of the animal kingdom, it might be expected that artificial lights will affect our health and survival as well. Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist interviewed by Cheney, believes that disrupted circadian rhythms can affect one’s health. For example, statistics indicate that night-shift women workers are twice as likely to develop breast cancer. As Sciencenews.org reported:
Exposure to light at night can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin, a brain hormone best known for its daily role in resetting the body’s biological clock. Secreted primarily in the brain, and at night, melatonin triggers a host of biochemical activities, including a nocturnal reduction in the body’s production of estrogen. Some researchers have speculated that chronically decreasing nocturnal melatonin production—as with light—might increase an individual’s risk of developing estrogen-related malignancies, such as breast cancer.
Unlike a film about genetically modified food or climate change, there are no simple solutions to light pollution. You can easily enough keep Frankenfood out of your kid’s cafeteria, for example, but what do we do about millions of people herded together in a metropolis for economic reasons? Nobody would endorse a forced march into the countryside in Khmer Rouge fashion, but “A City Dark” really makes you think about what kind of alternatives are both sustainable and feasible. There are some measures that are obviously worth taking in the short run, like putting lights into public spaces that are appropriate. However, wouldn’t we better off in the long run finding a way to stay in touch with the same thing that captivated our forefathers millenniums ago–the starry night?
Laurie Israel lives in Meredith, New York, a small farming town in Delaware County, New York just to the northwest of Sullivan County, where I grew up. Like Sullivan County, it is an impoverished area marked by the collapse of the dairy industry.
As is so often the case, impoverished areas are susceptible to environmental super-exploitation. A farmer on the edge of bankruptcy might be enticed to sign a contract to allow natural gas fracking on his land even if it results in undrinkable water.
But Meredith was not approached by a natural gas drilling company. Instead it was a company devoted to wind power, an alternative energy source that was on the leading edge of a Green revolution talked about in the press and touted by liberal politicians such as Al Gore crusading against fossil fuels. As it turned out, the windmills were not the sort of thing you would think of when it comes to an “alternative” to corporate malfeasance.
They were in fact part of the same arsenal that energy companies draw upon to make big profits for their shareholders, the public be damned—especially the citizens of Meredith. As Laurie Israel put it in the press notes:
The first proposal in Meredith called for forty 400-foot tall turbines, sited 1,000 feet from people’s homes. These were not the friendly windmills I first pictured, nor would they be far off in the distance, like ones I’ve seen in the desert. Mountains would have to be clear-cut, and turbines embedded in tons of concrete to keep them standing. Roads would be widened to accommodate the huge blades, which can be up to 180 feet long. I found out about the potential for problems in homes close to turbines, such as low frequency sound and shadow flicker when the sun gets behind the moving blades. I started to question the scale of this type of development for the area, which is both rural and residential. I talked to others in the community, and found I was not alone in questioning the proposed development. In fact, many neighbors had gone through the same transition I had – initial excitement about helping to save the world quickly changing into concern for protecting the health and wellbeing of residents and the future of their community.
As the community began to doubt whether the windmills were appropriate for their community, your first reaction might be to link them with the wealthy denizens of Cape Cod who rejected them as a blight on the landscape—something that the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world never tire of denouncing as an example of rich, liberal “not in my backyard” hypocrisy.
But it was not just a question of esthetics. Studies of industrial windmills of the sort that would be imposed on Meredith reveal that there are health hazards that are nearly as costly as the night shift work discussed in “The City Dark”. Studies reveal that the low frequency sound is not just unpleasant to the ears; it is also linked to sleeplessness, headaches and nausea. While one can put up with relatively minor ailments such as this from time to time, the thought of suffering from them on a nearly daily basis would be enough to force one to sell one’s property at a loss. For many of the people living in Meredith for generations, this would be a devastating hardship.
The town divided along fairly predictable lines. Those who stood the most to gain were large land-owners who would profit by having windmills on their land, especially land-owners whose dairy farms were not producing the income they did decades ago. But for many, especially those who treasured the natural beauty of the rolling hills and green pastures whether they had lived in Meredith for generations or were new arrivals like Laurie Israel, the money was not worth it.
As is also the case with fracking (a burning issue in my home county and one facing Delaware County as well), neighbors grew alienated from each other based on how they stood on the windmill question. The film describes the genuine pain the townspeople felt over their estrangement from one another. The costs of forced industrial penetration are felt in many ways, both in the pocketbook and in ones’ hearts.
Like “The City Dark”, “Windfall” raises fundamental questions about life on earth as conditioned by “civilization”. Keeping in mind that the root of this word is derived from the Latin for city, we must acknowledge that any political solution to our problems (war, poverty, etc.) must eventually penetrate to the very core of social relations and our relationship to nature in order to enjoy the Good Life. Our energy crisis is related very much to the demands put on the economy in order to support cities of millions of people enjoying all the amenities that electricity can support. To keep your computer powered and to provide the light necessary to look at the illuminated pixels, a steady source of electricity is necessary. That in turn can lead to a town like Meredith being swamped by 400 foot windmills that look like they stepped out of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds”. And even if the electricity keeps flowing, there remains the problem of urban life itself which is at odds with nature in ways both known and unknown. The notion of birds bouncing off lighted buildings to their death is eerily similar to the images in apocalyptic films such as “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter”.
The only thing we can be sure of is that any solution to such intractable contradictions can only result from a society in which the wealthy no longer have the power to dictate the outcome. As was the case in Meredith, where an aroused citizenry rose up to challenge industrial windmills, a global democracy—based on political and social equality—will ultimately be the only power capable of creating a new kind of civilization that overcomes alienation between people and between people and nature.