Scientists have come up with a plan to abolish the
Resurgence, February 1999
One evening later this year, if the scientists have
their way (and they usually do), the inhabitants of
London, Kiev, Brussels, Seattle and Quebec will look
up into the night sky and see a new moon. Nothing so
unusual about that, you might think - we get one every
month, after all. Ah, but this one is different. Very
different. For this new moon will appear alongside the
old one - the real one. On that night, history will
be made. For the first time ever, the inhabitants of
planet Earth will be able to gaze into the night sky
and see - two moons.
It's not Star Wars and it's not H.G. Wells: not science
fiction, but science fact. It is the latest, terrifying
example of a bizarre illness at the heart of human society.
It is a plan to abolish the night.
The new moon - or, to give it its technical name,
Znamya 2.5 - will last only one night before falling
back into the Earth's atmosphere and burning up. It
will consist of a giant, paper-thin foil reflector,
25 metres in diameter, which will be released from the
Russian space station Mir. Aboard Mir, astronauts will
be able to control the tilt and direction of Znamya
so that it reflects sunlight down to specific spots
on the Earth's surface. If it works, Znamya will be
five to ten times as bright as the moon, and will provide
the 'benefits' of all-night daylight to the inhabitants
of the areas on which it is focussed.
If that were all there were to it, the Znamya experiment
might be little more than a freak occurrence, a bit
of a fun for the few million people across the world
who get to see two moons for a night - a bit of space
junk, like a comet or an asteroid shower. But Znamya
2.5 is just the latest stage in a huge, multi-million
dollar experiment which most people seem to know very
little about and which, if it were ever to really succeed,
could change the face of the planet - literally overnight.
Znamya 2.5 forms part of an ongoing mission to test
the feasibility of space illumination. Russian and American
scientists are spending billions of dollars on the project
every year. If it succeeds, they say, there are great
possibilities for the future. Strings of vast man-made
moons could light up all the world's cities every night,
making street lights obsolete, and saving vast amounts
of energy and money. Enough 'moons' aimed at any one
area of the planet could, literally, provide all-night
daylight for its inhabitants. The launch of Znamya 3,
scheduled for the year 2000, will involve a 70-metre
diameter mirror, which will be 100 times brighter than
the real moon. The two companies currently involved
in road-testing this revolutionary new technology, the
Russian Space Regatta Consortium, and their American
daughter company Energia, see great potential benefits,
including the "more efficient use" of our
cities during what is currently known as night.
Step back for a moment, and examine your reaction
to this idea. Most people, I imagine, would be horrified.
But why? There are a number of utilitarian objections
that could be - indeed have been - raised. Astronomers,
for example, have complained that a string of false
moons across the night sky would effectively blot out
the stars and thus abolish their science. Ecologists
and naturalists have warned of disastrous effects on
ecosystems and species that rely on the age-old rhythm
of night and day for their stability. Biologists have
expressed fears that permanent daylight in the arctic
- one area that might be very keen to extend its daylight
hours - could accelerate the melting of the ice caps
and the permafrost beneath the Siberian tundra, already
suffering the effects of global climate change.
But the horror that most people must surely feel at
any scheme to abolish the night, even in selected areas
of the planet, is a much deeper, more basic one. It
is not based on practical, scientific or material objections,
but is rather a reaction deep down in that ancient part
of ourselves that is still tied to nature; to the ancient
cycles of the seasons, the rise and fall of the birdsong
and the grasses, the primal rhythm of night and day.
It must be quite clear to anyone with a soul that the
Znamya project, whatever spurious 'benefits' it could
provide, is yet another example of the use of technology
to solve a 'problem' that has never existed. The real
problem, surely, lies in quite the opposite direction.
Yet it is a measure of the sort of society we have
become that not only are a group of scientists able
to spend billions of dollars and roubles planning to
abolish the night - with nobody's permission but that
of their paymasters - but also that so few people seem
to have objected to it in any real way. The objections
outlined above, while perfectly valid by themselves,
all take place within the bounds of the paradigm that
western scientists, economists and politicians have
set out for us over perhaps two hundred years, and upon
which the modern world has been built.
To object to something so fundamental as the abolition
of darkness purely on rational, reductionist grounds
is to play into the hands of its promoters. Such 'practical'
opposition is in vogue these days, particularly amongst
environmentalists. It has become de rigeur to object
to the destruction of tropical forests because of the
valuable medicinal plants they might contain, rather
than because of their intrinsic value. 'Eco-tourism'
is justified as about the only 'practical' way to preserve
ancient landscapes and cultures in their original form:
anything else would not make economic sense. As the
opponents of the worst excesses of 'progress' use anthropocentric
arguments to justify their opposition, so they are co-opted
into the dominant worldview: the Earth is a commodity,
provided for our use. Everything, from endangered species
to clean rivers to entire forests, must pay its way,
or we are quite within our rights to wipe it out.
Take that step back again, then, and ask yourself
this: just what is the problem with abolishing night?
After all, the scientists who dreamt up the scheme presumably
think it's a good plan. They must believe it will benefit
society, in some as-yet-unclear way. Is it such a bad
idea after all?
It is a terrible, and terrifying, idea, precisely
because of what it says about the kind of mindset that
'development' has trained us in. We apparently no longer
have any concept of living in a wider world that was
here before we were. We are so wrapped up in the wonders
of science and technology, and what they can create,
that we are unable to see what they are also destroying.
We are so chained by the economics of greed and the
ideology of progress-at-all-cost, that we have no time
to sit, in the dark, on a hillside and admire the stars.
Slumped in our cities, turning the handles of the global
money machine, we have forgotten the wonders of the
night that poets, artists, writers and musicians have
been inspired by for tens of thousands of years.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised that it has
come to this. Perhaps, after all, the logic of global
consumerism demands it. After all, we spend a third
of our lives asleep, plunged into unproductive darkness.
If only that darkness could be abolished, the time could
be used more efficiently, creating wealth, bumping up
the GDP. Some years ago, one corporation posited a scheme
to use satellites, about the diameter of Znamya, to
carry enormous moon-sized space-billboards which would
orbit the night skies and bring the boundless benefits
of the global market to everyone, not matter how remote
their hiding place. Wherever you were, on a remote hillside
or a vast desert plain, Coca Cola and McDonalds would
find you. Little has been heard of this idea recently,
but I would be willing to bet that it resurfaces again
in the not-too-distant future, and that it is debated
in all seriousness by otherwise apparently sane people.
The tranquility of the night sky, perhaps, is the final
frontier that global capitalism has yet to conquer.
This whole sorry tale is indicative of a skulking
malaise at the heart of modern humanity. It seems we
have lost all sense of our place in the world, of the
limits of technology, of what should or should not be
done, of what is right and wrong. Our arguments, our
beliefs and our ideologies have become confined within
the narrow prisons of western economics, science and
utility. Where has the sense of life, the sense of a
global whole, the sense of the humility of Man and the
boundless beauty of nature that motivated all those
artists, writers and poets, gone to? Buried, it would
seem, beneath a kind of deliberate global amnesia: a
will to ignore the world and hope it goes away. Buried
beneath a spiritual sickness and a short-term, self-serving
global mindset that will end by eating us all alive.