Our village had a power cut last week that sent my freezer into meltdown and wiped out every streetlight long before dawn. I was up early enough to step outside and experience the true, inky darkness of night under a cloudy sky and a new moon. My neighbour did the same. It felt particularly surreal, we concluded, because our modern night times have recently become so brightly lit by the clinical blue-white glare of energy-efficient LEDs that have replaced the orange glow of the old sodium lamps.
Tourists are invited to drink in the marvels of the Forum and the Pantheon under a forensic glare by which a surgeon could safely wield a scalpel
These new lights save our councils a fortune, and should make the roads and streets they illuminate safer, which is all for the good. The one outside our house was changed a few months ago and means that when our daughters come tripping up the drive in their heels in the small hours they can at least see where they’re going.
But, as the Italians are currently discovering, there is a miserable downside to this surgical white light beaming down upon us all. In Rome, locals are lamenting the impact on the ambience around the ancient city. Gone is the cosy atmosphere of narrow streets illuminated principally by candles on the tables of the trattoria serving carciofi alla romana. Instead, tourists are invited to drink in the marvels of the Forum and the Pantheon under a forensic glare by which a surgeon could safely wield a scalpel, even at 3am.
I sympathise. Twenty-five years ago my husband and I, as newlyweds, walked hand-in-hand across the city’s cobbles, bathed in the romantic glow of traditional lanterns. We were young and in love, but I still appreciated how the warm light flattered our features. I’m not sure we’d look half as good today, every wrinkle thrown into sharp relief by the kind of light only a dentist ought to see you under.
A residents’ group is urging locals to place a candle in their windows as a silent protest against the new lighting system. One tour guide likened the new lights to walking down a supermarket frozen-food aisle.
The lamp post makes for such a convincing lunar doppelganger I can’t believe it is anything else until I put on my glasses
Here at home, I’ve just had to buy heavy-duty blackout blinds for the bedroom at the front of the house. Otherwise it’s like trying to sleep in an operating theatre. And while I ought to be used by now to the new LED’s powerful, unearthly glow, I still keep urging my husband to come and gaze upon the latest super moon. The lamp post makes for such a convincing lunar doppelganger I can’t believe it is anything else until I put on my glasses.
Stargazers aren’t happy – all this extra light has a impact on how much we get to see of what the sky holds after dark. Even lamps with shields to prevent spilling light are so bright the very photons seem to bounce off the ground and upwards anyway.
We’re in the countryside, where it’s still possible to find pockets of darkness to stand and be mesmerized by the celestial bodies above us. But elsewhere, all around the world, the march of the LEDs seems unstoppable. From San Francisco to Siena, they are remorselessly replacing their gentler predecessors.
The result is a global revolution in the way our nights are looking. And I suspect that given the millions saved in annual energy costs, those of us who don’t like this new look will just have to lump it. Are we really condemned forever to see the world in a cold, unsparing new light?