Vanishing Night

Emma Lee Adams

The Vanishing Night, Running from Light

When most people hear the word city, they picture flashing lights and the bustling, busy
streets, radiating with life that seems never to sleep. Here, at night, tall buildings with glowing
windows crowd the sky, and street lamps with their occasional flicker illuminate pedestrians and
drivers below, as neon signs beckon them closer. In such a setting, whether in a large city as the
one described, or a smaller city whose light similarly clouds the darkness, viewing the night sky
in its raw and wondrous state is completely impossible. Many view this lack of vision in urban
communities as simply a necessary consequence of modern advancement; others ignore the
presence of such light, perhaps from growing used to it. However, Verlyn Klinkenborg, a
professor at Yale and frequently published author, urges his audience to do something about the
ever increasing light pollution that seems to consume most cities, and only worsens as time
continues. In his article published by National Geographic in 2008, entitled “Our Vanishing
Night,” he illuminates readers of the issues manufactured from light pollution, and indirectly
invites them to change. Through the careful use and attention to the connotation of his diction,
emotionally and logically appealing assertions, and descriptive vivid imagery, he enlightens
readers of the negative effects of light pollution. While his reasoning is sufficient enough to
gather support for his claim using these rhetorical strategies, he lacks success in helping his
audience enact change. Because of this, he is less effective than he otherwise could have been.

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Klinkenborg carefully crafts the syntax of his article, giving special attention to both the
connotation and denotation of the words used. He introduces his article with the ironic title, “Our
Vanishing Night.” Generally, vanish and night are used together to describe the diminishment of
light, as used in the familiar phrase “vanished into the night,” rather than the diminishment of
darkness, as used in the title. Vanished in this sense is often used to describe situations in
enchanting fairy tales, or the magical disappearance of objects by an enchanted magician. By
choosing to include vanished in his title, Klinkenborg establishes the idea that nighttime, the
reoccurring bedtime of the sun that is generally viewed as mundane, expected, and uneventful, is
also enchanting. Such word choice unconsciously sparks the attention of his readers as his
passion for the nighttime sky is made evident. When describing human kind’s impact on the
environment, he explains, “we’ve engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.” Using the
word engineered to describe our influence on nature, a word that contradicts anything to do with
engineering, implies that we have changed the way night is innately meant to be, thus
establishing the claim that individuals are intrusive to the ways of nature. Klinkenborg continues
to emphasize this idea by utilizing words such as “spilled,” rather than spread, to describe the
permeating effects of light. In this specific example, spilled connotes a lack of thought and care
given to the issue, and generally is used to describe situations of mistakes and “oopses.” Spread,
on the other hand, would fail to evoke such emotion, because on its own, it is simply neutral- not
blatantly positive or negative. Such attention to the connotation and denotation of his words
throughout the article maximize the author’s effect on his audience, because they are better able
to see through Klinkenborg’s eyes, as each word evokes specified meaning.

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In allowing his audience to see through his eyes, he also opens their eyes and in doing so,
speaks to their emotions and their logic. Throughout his article, Klinkenborg uses various
examples of animals that are affected by our thoughtless and excess use of light: songbirds and
seabirds collide with brightly lit tall buildings, opossums and badgers become easier targets for
predators, hatching sea turtles confuse artificial lighting with the light of the moon, and so on. In
doing so, and through the repetitive use of the word we, Klinkenborg places responsibility on the
reader, thus creating a sense of guilt and empathetic desire to rescue these creatures that have
become victims. This tactic is effective because his primary audience, subscribers of National
Geographic, are likely to have interest in animals and other creatures with whom we share this
earth. His secondary audience of general readers is also likely, though to a lesser extent, to feel
such guilt and empathy because it is generally a natural human instinct to feel remorse at the
sight of suffering. While appealing to emotion, he simultaneously appeals to the logic of readers
as well, for the very act of disclosing the detriments of light proves that a solution to the problem
of light is necessary. The simple act of detailing such cause and effect makes readers more
inclined to agree with the author: of course readers do not want to impair the living conditions of
helpless creatures. As the author develops these appeals, readers more readily support the his
While these appeals encourage support in his claim, his lack of appeal to ethos
significantly weakens his argument. Although his education at Princeton and employment at
Yale University prove his intelligence and aptitude, his schooling and current occupation with a
focus on writing do not signify any expertise in the field of science, where this article is based
(De Nicoloa). His passion for the conservation of earth’s material is evident, and his living

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experience in both the small town of Clarion, Iowa, and the large city of Sacramento, California
reveal his personal experience in locations of varying light pollution (De Nicoloa). However,
such passion and observation of the sky do not equate to expertise in this specific field. His ethos
is also reduced in his lack of specificity when referencing various studies.When stating scientific
facts, he relies on the support from studies of several “scientists,” only mentioning a specific
study once (“scientists speak..,” “scientists have determined..,” and “[scientists in] a least one
new study [have] suggested…”). The specific study mentioned, by researchers Travis Longcore
and Catherine Rich, is primarily focused on the process of light “[acting] as a magnet” on living
things, and not on the ideas of his article later mentioned. Even if the ideas mentioned later were
included in the study, the study of Longcore and Rich would still lack significance because it
was simply in the “process of being studied,” and not yet complete at the time the article was
published. Because of Klinkenborg’s lack of expertise in this field, as well as lack of specificity
in the research employed to enhance his argument, he lacks full credibility and is less effective.
Though lacking credibility, Klinkenborg’s article successfully addresses that light
pollution is an issue worth fixing, largely through his articulate use of visual imagery.
Klinkenborg’s first obvious employment of visual imagery is seen at the start of the third
paragraph, as he paints an image of the streets of London in 1800 and their “dim collective
glow,” unthreatening and unobtrusive to the world around them. He immediately follows this
description with the modern day “nebula of light,” laying side by side and starkly contrasting the
inviting and pleasurable old world with the dome and “pervasive orange haze” of the new world
that mimics the “glow of dystopian science fiction.” This contrast of visual imagery further
emphasizes the negative result of excess light and its polluting effects in the world. He continues

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this contrast in presenting the light polluted sky as a “pale ceiling.” This simplistic but accurate
depiction of the sky is then followed by the description of the world that lies beyond it: “a bright
shoal of stars and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness.” The concise description and
lack of detail about the city sky, and the elaborate description with poetic specificity about the
universe behind it, again relays the importance of seeing beyond the roof of light pollution, and
encourages readers to unbox themselves, and find freedom “living [outside] a glare of [their]
own making.” In doing so, he successfully encourages readers that changes and improvement
must be made.
Although this change is encouraged, Klinkenborg fails to address how readers can assist
in remedying this issue. While he labels light pollution as the pollution “most easily remedied,”
he also explains that light pollution “is largely the result of bad lighting design,” which most
readers have no ability nor authority to change. His article was not directed towards politicians or
other leaders of the community who might be able to enact such change, it was simply written
for subscribers of National Geographic. Because his paper is presented in a way that elicits a call
to action, or need for change, it is assumed that readers would finish his remarks enlightened in
ways they can help limit light pollution. Instead of providing this specific call to action, he is
only successful up to a certain point. Such success is accomplished through his attention to
connotation, appeals to logic and emotion, and descriptive visual imagery. However, by failing
to achieve his main goal, his audience is merely educated of the need for improvement; action
will not follow.

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Works Cited

De Nicoloa, Amantio. “Verlyn Klinkenborg.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Our Vanishing Night.” National Geographic , Oct. 2008.

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