I read a National Geographic's article about light pollution and I have a question about a certain phrase, "peripheral glow of our prosperity."

In his article "Our Vanishing Night," Klinkenborg states that "For the past century or so, we've been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body's sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll."

At first, I thought the use of the word 'peripheral' seemed kind of vague and confusing to me, so I looked up the dictionary. It says 'peripheral' means 'on or near an edge or constituting an outer boundary; the outer area.' But after reading this paragraph several times, I have come to realize that it is not nessarily meaning "the outer area of our prosperity = outside of cities that many creatures live in." Does the phrase have a more profound, some kind of metaphor, like the world we live in with lots of lighting, which was created by our prosperity? Then, why does the writer use the word "peripheral" instead of "secondary" in his article? I guess the phrase "peripheral glow" carries some implications, but my interpretation of "something created by our prosperity" might go too far...

2 Answers 2


Understand it first as not metaphorical. "Glow" is peripheral to "our prosperity," meaning developed areas. I think you're being confused by "our prosperity," an abstract term, being used to mean "places where humans live in high enough numbers to cause light pollution."

The writer is using "our prosperity" to indicate light pollution is a side effect of that prosperity. The glow of light pollution is tangible and peripheral to developed areas. If you understand "our prosperity" as a location (cities), it's not metaphorical at all.

All that said, though, there is a second metaphorical meaning which is complementary to the literal meaning, where "peripheral glow" can mean all spheres of influence where humans are having an effect.

I think it's a nice turn of phrase.

"Secondary" doesn't work as the relationship being described between humans and nature is a spatial one, even in the metaphorical sense. I can understand why you might think it's a hierarchical one, as humans affect everything in some way, but in the arena of light pollution, you can escape humanity's sphere of influence.

  • thanks for your prompt answer. You said glow is peripheral to our prosperity. Here, what does "peripheral? mean? I think I'm pretty certain about the meaning of "prosperity" in this paragraph, but I can't understand your phase "the glow of light pollution is tangible and peripheral to developed areas." Actually I want to know what word can be a substitue for that word "peripheral" to understand the context better...
    – cellardoor
    Jun 19, 2015 at 5:27
  • Peripheral-- around the edges of. So, the glow around the edges of our prosperity. Or just outside, in the nearest neighboring area, outside but adjacent... Etc
    – stevesliva
    Jun 19, 2015 at 5:51
  • It's the adjective for periphery. Surroundings. Boundaries. Edges.
    – stevesliva
    Jun 19, 2015 at 5:55
  • Thanks! Now I can understand what you're trying to explain... The interpretation of "peripheral glow" as "some kind of results/consequences of our prosperity" might go too far, right?
    – cellardoor
    Jun 19, 2015 at 6:06
  • 1
    No, I don't think you go too far. I see why you were thinking "secondary" now, in the secondary effect sense. It is describing a side effect. That's pretty much what light pollution is, a side effect. Or perhaps a peripheral effect.
    – stevesliva
    Jun 19, 2015 at 18:30

In “the peripheral glow of our prosperity", the author cleverly marries two phrases, “peripheral glow” and “glow of our prosperity”, using terms in both a concrete and metaphorical manner.

Peripheral glow” can be understood literally to refer to the diffusion of artificial light (aka, light pollution) that is especially visible in the urban night-sky from a distance, while figuratively “peripheral glow” refers to the non-local (in terms of space/time and species) or secondary (peripheral) effects of man-made lighting which, though often unseen and unrecognized, are yet damaging to the health of biological organisms.

The usage of “glow” is metaphoric and ironic, on the one hand “glow” symbolizes the pride we feel in our advanced technological capacity, a capacity however which we are coming to realize seems to create as many problems as it was intended to solve, witness global climate change and the geopolitical conflicts surrounding our industrial dependence on petroleum. On the other hand, “glow”---a word with synonyms like radiance, light, shine, gleam, glimmer, incandescence, and luminescence---evokes nothing but the positive associations of warmth and security.

Glow of our prosperity” can again be understood as the wealth and security---the prosperity---resulting from advanced technological capacity and the control it apparently confers over nature, and the pride we feel in our way of life. And this “glow” can alternatively be understood as an “afterglow”, a secondary and lingering effect, resulting from that same technological capacity and lifestyle.

Excerpt from, International Dark Sky Association

The way we see the night today is vastly different than the way people saw the night just a couple of centuries ago. When most of us look out our windows at night we see the soft glow of street lamps and porch lights. What most of us don’t see is the bright twinkle of stars and planets.

Light pollution is when large amounts of light hinder sky visibility and create adverse effects to those living around it. Light pollution is especially common in urban areas, where buildings are close together and lights are often left on all night long. This causes a waste of energy that could be saved by turning off the lights.

Light pollution has negative impacts on wildlife, astronomers, and people. All the extra light can cause confusion in animal migratory and mating patterns, which in turn causes problems within the entire ecosystem. Light pollution can also be confusing to nocturnal animals and those that rely on natural light for communication such as fireflies.

Astronomers feel the effects of light pollution as well, as it keeps them from having a clear view of the sky, and can prevent their instruments from working properly. Light pollution also means that it is harder for people to stargaze and enjoy nature because the lights are so bright.

When it comes to health effects, studies have shown that light pollution negatively affects humans’ natural sleep pattern, and that an increase of exposure to artificial light can lead to an increased chance of cancer.

International Dark Sky Association

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