The glare of progress blinds us to nature
www.chinaview.cn 2009-04-09 10:28:02   Print

    By Wan Lixin

    BEIJING, April. 9 -- For about six months, I was awakened every morning well before my usual hour of rising by a racket outside.

    The noise came from a group of migrants workers camped just in front of my home.

    They were sent there to widen the narrow neighborhood roads to allow for more cars and to give the buildings a face-lift in anticipation of the World Expo the next year.

    These former peasants are, by definition, urbanized, but still cling to their rustic habits of early rising and early retiring.

    Like most urbanites, I thought their daily regimen no more than a giveaway of their rustic origins.

    But now that they have decamped and stopped the noise, I have time for more balanced reflections, and begin to wonder who has more sense: the migrants whose daily agenda is still somewhat in tune with nature, or I whose life has long been thrown out of joint by artificial illumination.

    While some people are compelled to work night shifts, I can offer no justification for burning the midnight oil and not taking advantage of the natural morning light.

    Energy saving is just one of many considerations.

    I was taught in my childhood that early rising is the source of sturdy health and longevity.

    Nearly every life of virtue begins with early rising.

    Zhu Bolu was a scholar in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) known for his Household Maxim, which begins: "Rise at dawn! Sweep your house clean within and without."

    Most old-style academies maintain the ritual of consecrating an early morning meeting to reflect on how to give new meaning to the new day.

    Remarks made by scholar Liang Shumin in such meetings during 1931-1934 were later published as a book titled "Zhaohua" ("Morning Remarks").

    "In winter, when the first glow of the dawn is on the horizon, we are gathered on a platform, with a sprinkling of stars and a fading moon high above us and all universe immersed in a silence interrupted only by crows of the roosters. We feel inspired, excited ..." Liang wrote.

    Unfortunately, most of us urbanites have lost our sensibility not only to the changes of seasons, but also to the changes of day and night.

    The over-illuminated nighttime sky over a metropolis is mostly empty of stars, and one has to be particularly alert to find signs of spring in a city.

    For a couple of months, some Shanghai reporters have been pestering meteorologists as to whether spring has come already. They do not know that spring is not worked out by computers, but made of flowers.

    We also have difficulty telling night from a day, as office buildings (both interior and exterior), homes and streets are bathed in glorious artificial lighting much more fascinating than that offered by the sun.

    We have obviously forgotten that we humans are originally diurnal animals that have long adapted psychologically and cognitively to the natural succession of day and night.

    Our sensitivity becomes an integral part of culture, and finds its expression in our calendar, mythology and religion.

    But we are losing this ability as our cities are turned into nebula of light.

    Symbolic hour

    On March 28 some Chinese cities joined in Earth Hour, a global event calling on households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and other electrical appliances for one hour to draw attention to climate change.

    Ironically, after the one-hour vigil it is business as usual: numerous highrises and streets continue to be awash in dazzling lights.

    Considering the money being burned, the energy consumed, and how simple the remedy is - just switch off - the message emanating from this symbolic move is rather grim: How unwilling we are to reduce the unnecessary glare around us.

    After reading about a vaunted 2.1-million-yuan (307,000 U.S. dollars) "moonlight town" project in Shaanxi (Shanghai Daily, April 8), I regret to say that such sins of illumination are still being committed with complacency.

    When I was studying in Hangzhou, much of the West Lake at night was still shrouded in darkness.

    Later authorities started a project aimed at filling the lake with light to attract more tourists.

    One of the first songs my son learned is "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," but I wonder whether he ever actually saw a star twinkle in this city swamped by light.

    Light pollution, defined in the broad sense, refers to any nighttime artificial light that shines where it's not needed. It has a disturbing impact on the migration, feeding and reproduction of other animals, but humans are victims too.

    Living in this self-inflicted glare, we are out of sync with the succession of day and night, and forget our place in the universe.

    Our obsession with artificial illumination stems from our tendency to see a well-lit city as a sign of modernity and prosperity.

    And this tendency stems from our hubris, in our inclination to see nature as needing of improvement.

    Chinese culture is essentially a culture that had been highly adapted to agricultural life that is tightly coupled to the pulse of awe-inspiring nature.

    Unfortunately, this life has been portrayed as backward and market forces are forcing peasants to turn their back on life-giving fields.

    Increasingly we tend to measure our "progress" by the degree to which we are insulated from nature.

    I have heard that although sweaters are generally useless in Hong Kong winters, office ladies there have to resort to them in summer in their freezing-cold offices if they do not want to suffer arthritis.

    Most office clerks in big cities today probably spend most of their time in mid-air, in highrises, far removed from the "genius of the earth."

    Surrounded by so much noise, we have forgotten how to listen to the voice of nature.

    (Source: Shanghai Daily)

Editor: Zhang Xiang
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