The Night is Half the Story
Updated: Mar 5
Joshua Muñoz Salazar, National Autonomous University of Mexico
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this text belongs to the author and they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México neither the International Dark-Sky Association nor its members.
The strong contrast between the conceptions around the worldwide event Earth Hour can give us some light on the paradigms that we have regarding the night and its importance for urban sustainability. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature that annually organizes the event since 2007, the objective of turning off the lights for one hour is to raise awareness about energy consumption and its effects on the environment . However, there are not a few criticisms that consider that the initiative has a wrong message: “abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century… the whole mentality around turn off the lights demonizes electricity” .
I consider that here we have two extreme ways of conceiving the human-nature relationship at night: the “humans are viruses” mentality, whose advocates believe that humanity is incompatible with the ecological balance and, on the other hand, a vision based on the mastery over nature. This dichotomy requires us to seek science-based perspectives that address the questions of how and why the night should be used to preserve natural (including human) well-being. The answer is simply complex: we need an interdisciplinary science of the night using sustainability tools.
But let us go step by step: first, why night matters? At any given moment, half of the Earth’s surface experiences night. The night is not only a time but, in many respects, a place: nocturnal environments are a critical element of biological, chemical, physical, and social systems on the planet . In the globalized world we live in, we have forgotten the role of darkness. Electric power and artificial lighting allow us to live in 24-hour cities. For the lucky city dwellers, the night means party and entertainment, but there are also a lot of people out there who face the less kind side of the nocturnal hours: office cleaners, health-care workers, restricted-hour lorries, sex workers and homeless people .
The next question is why we should think about complexity and interdisciplinary. Everyone has a particular and restricted solution for things that happen at night: there are politicians that believe that extremely bright streets reduce insecurity, no matter how many resources are wasted, engineers who seek energy efficiency without thinking about the quality of lighting required by individuals, and scientists who think that dark skies are only important for astronomy. That is, we have multidisciplinary but not interdisciplinary.
Unlike multidisciplinary which is the study of the same phenomenon by individual disciplines without cooperation, interdisciplinary is organized at hierarchical levels. It thus connotes coordination of a lower level from a higher one. A sense of purpose is introduced when the common axiomatics of a group is defined at the next hierarchical level. At the base, there is a set of disciplines that constitutes the pragmatic level, then there is the normative level that includes topics as planning, politics, design of social systems, environmental design, etc. Finally, the top of the pyramid corresponds to a value level and is occupied by ethics and philosophy .
Lights Over the City is a group in Mexico City that approaches interdisciplinary to achieve a sustainable night. It is made up of specialists in physics, Earth sciences, ecology, architecture, environmental engineering, atmospheric sciences, health, energy, and lighting design. They all work together for the same goal, which is to solve the problem of urban lighting based on scientific research and, thus generating comprehensive public policies to promote the use of lighting as a factor of social, economic, and cultural development to mitigate the negative effects on health and the environment and emphasize the rational use of energy .
The key to achieving a sustainable night is to not forget the complexity: linear solutions such as turning off the lights or making them super bright can backfire. Complexity in sustainability sciences gives us the ability to recognize and intervene in the properties and responses of nocturnal systems such as interactions between actors and the emergence of new properties and adaptation to the change .
A very big question remains: what is sustainability? We cannot stay with the classic idea that it is a vision to use the resources of today without compromising those of tomorrow or that a paper wrap instead of a plastic one is sustainable. We must think of sustainability as a perfectible guide within the current environmental-civilizational crisis that is constantly self-reflecting on how to develop good practices in different aspects of the natural systems with which humans interact. Regarding the sustainable night, as Michel Acuto stated “Night-oriented research does not yet form a coherent body of inquiry, and there is too little discussion about how night-time shapes sustainability challenges worldwide” .
Let us tell the half of the story that has not been told: the story of the night.
 WWF (2021). Earth Hour. Accessed January 30, 2021, from https://www.earthhour.org.
 McKitrick, R. (2009). Earth Hour: A Dissent. Accessed January 30, 2021, from http://www.rossmckitrick.com/uploads/4/8/0/8/4808045/earthhour.pdf.
 Kyba, et al. (2020). Night Matters - Why the interdisciplinary field of “night studies” is needed. Multidisciplinary Scientific Journal, 3: 1-6.
 Acuto, M. (2019). We need a science of the night. Nature, 576: 339.
 Max-Neef, M. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 53: 5-16.
. Cetto, A., and Pérez de Celis, M. (2021). Luces sobre la ciudad. Revista de la Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, 72(1): 50-59.
. Gershenson, C., and Fernández, N. (2012). Complexity and information: Measuring emergence, self-organization, and homeostasis at multiple scales. Complexity, 18(2): 29-44.