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New Moon

Scientists have come up with a plan to abolish the night

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.