Streetlights

Every morning in winter I wake, pull up the blinds and look out into the dark. Our house stands high on the hills on the south side of Bath with a panoramic view over the city. Streetlights spread across the floor of the valley and meander toward Bristol, where they cast an orange glow over the sky. Beyond, on the farther side of the River Severn, another patch of lights—Chepstow or Newport—shimmers delicately through the dark.

Visitors to our house are drawn to the window and look out at the lights with wonder, “What a wonderful view!” they say, “It’s like coming to land in an aeroplane.” And it is a spectacular scene: the orange sodium lights follow the lines of the streets, interspersed with bright white security lights, occasional intense blue from advertising signs and the flashing lights of pedestrian crossings.

This week, the newspapers published something similar on a grander scale: photographs of Earth at night taken by the new NASA satellite. They show the blue night-time glow of the atmosphere studded with artificial lights. There are bright clusters covering much of North America, Europe, India, China and Japan. Standing out in dark patches are more isolated cities such as Johannesburg, Rio, Sydney, Lagos. The whole of the Nile valley and delta is picked out in a ribbon of light, as is the Indus snaking up through Pakistan. It is an astounding sight and a marvellous accomplishment, in equal parts beautiful and terrible.

When I pull up the blind and see the city lights, when I look at these satellite pictures, I do marvel, yet also have a sinking feeling in my stomach, a rising sense of panic and helplessness. For what I see is the accumulated fossil energy store of the planet leaking into the atmosphere, as if Earth is suffering an internal bleeding. When I link what I see to what I know about carbon emissions and climate change, I wonder to myself, “What are we doing to our planet?”  And then everyday normalness takes over and I just get on with my day.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2012/dec/06/black-marble-images-earth-in-pictures