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CONNECTIONS: Are progress and change always good?

Is all change good? Is the point of progress to improve sales or improve life? The trouble with misinformation is not just that it proliferates lies, but that it obscures the truth.

I took this photo at 5:30pm on a weekday. I call it “Rush Hour in Mt. Washington.” Horro vacui.

They say nature abhors a vacuum. Does it? Maybe, but humans sure do. We see a vacant lot and we mentally begin to subdivide. How many houses will fit? And yet …

Books and articles are dedicated to the healing power of trees. The untouched, the natural, can make us stronger. In “The Healing Power of Nature” in Time Magazine, Alexandra Sifferlin writes, “It sounded more like a lark than a scientific study when a handful of Japanese researchers set out to discover whether something special—and clinically therapeutic—happens when people spend time in nature.”

And yet, the researchers found nature—the forest, a park, undeveloped land—can lower blood pressure; promote cancer-fighting cells; and help deal with depression, anxiety, and the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In the 40 years since that study, replication has confirmed results. As our forests and open spaces dwindle, concomitantly, we learned about their importance to our health.

The end of night

In “End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” Paul Bogard explores the high cost of losing the dark.

Humans, it seems, have an affinity for light. We prize warmth and light more than their absence. Light eases fear and facilitates completion of any task. From the first time a spark cut through the darkness, people breathed a collective sigh of relief.

We certainly are prejudiced. Our religious and secular literature is replete with references: “the dark arts”, “the dark lord”, and “the dark ages.” Dark symbolizes ignorance and evil. Light is the symbol of knowledge and goodness.

Today, we have all but eradicated the dark from large swathes of the Earth. Viewed from space, huge chunks of the planet are aglow 24/7. Good, right? Not so good.

Darkness gets an undeserved bad rap. In the natural world, it is not just the sun rising every day that we can count on; we can also rely upon its setting. It seems we need the darkness as much as we need light. Dark is essential to human health. Living constantly in the light, evidently, interferes with achieving calm and repose. We are a country of overweight, sleep-deprived people and that is, in part, a dark-deficit disorder.

Worse, electric light—as opposed to starlight, moonlight, and candlelight—plays a role in contracting cancer and other diseases because production of the hormone melatonin is suppressed by light. The list of diseases correlated with dark-deprivation includes: cardiovascular complaints, ulcers, miscarriages, and obesity.

Bogard also argues that darkness nurtures the soul. Our art and literature are inspired by the night, the night sky, the stars, and darkness itself. He names Thoreau; Emerson; and a myriad of other writers, poets, philosophers, and artists influenced by natural dark. For us ordinary mortals, just being able to look up and see the night sky diverts and impresses us; and yet we are obliterating the stars with artificial light.

Historically, mankind sought light, and yet in the modern world, Bogard maintains, we have learned that constant exposure to artificial light can be a tool of torture. It is a feature of prison life, and because it is thought to be a necessary element in security, constant light has become a feature of city life.

Use of artificial light is a sales tool. From the search lights cutting the sky to mark a movie premiere to the lights of Broadway and Las Vegas to the neon business signs, killing the dark is a money-making exercise.

Unfortunately, it also kills insects and, therefore, the bats and night birds that feed on them. For anyone tormented by mosquitoes this year, the solution is to protect bats, and that, Bogard tells us, requires turning off some lights.

Before he was president of the United States, Ronald Reagan was host of the GE Theater. Sitting in front of a black-and-white TV with an 11-inch screen—before we learned that sitting on a couch holding a remote does not constitute a life—you could watch Ronald Reagan tell America, “At General Electric, progress is our most important product.”

As a kid, it did not occur to me what an odd sentiment that was. Ultimately it meant that GE created increased market share through invention. It did not answer the question: Is all change good? Is the point of progress to improve sales or improve life? The trouble with misinformation is not just that it proliferates lies, but that it obscures the truth.

There is an app that gives you directions via the most uplifting route not the shortest, the most beautiful route not the fastest. The point of that app, the developers say, is that the lesson for the 21st century (versus the slogan of the 20th century) may be that all change may not be good; all progress may not be healthy or wise.

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