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Blotting out the starry night

An article in a recent New York Times on the issue of light pollution recounts the shock experienced by Northridge residents in the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake – calls came into the emergency response centers expressing concern about the “giant silvery cloud” hovering over the city darkened by the power outages.  It turns out what people were seeing, or actually noticing for the first time, was the Milky Way, more usually blotted out by the artificial lights everywhere.

The so-called Dark Skies movement got its start in Arizona, where the proliferation of research telescopes and observatories gave astronomers a vested interest in working with local officials in Phoenix and Tucson to turn down the city lights and leave the skies unmolested by outdoor security lights, or at least to invest in technologies that minimize the glare and the extent to which is faces skyward.  Tucson is today the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association, and the IDSA has worked hard to spread the word that poorly configured outdoor lighting may be wasting as much as $10 billion in needless energy expenses every year.  And so what began as a pet peeve for astronomers has now gained traction as an energy conservation priority.

Now no one, me included, favors wasting energy, and so the idea that lighting should not simply blind those on the ground or needlessly light the sky above makes sense.  But I wonder if the cultural biases for light over darkness don’t play some role in suppressing the anti-light pollution message even for those naturally inclined to support environmental causes.  My own experience is probably typical:  I naturally gravitate not only to the translucence of the television screen and the stained glass window but also to the brightly lit city skyscape which for me signifies life and vibrancy and energy.  And this is not simply the preference of a city snob; one might argue that human achievement, and civilization itself, was enabled as human beings found technologies able to drive back the darkness.  Lights extend the work day and deter crime and enable safe travel and more.

Perhaps the preference is also theological.  In the Gospels, Jesus is the light, his disciples candles hidden under bushel baskets, believers encouraged to “walk in the light,” and heaven is described as a place “where there will be no more night” (Rev. 22:5 NIV).  Christians are, according to Paul, “sons of light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 NIV) and “sons of day.  We do not belong to the darkness.”  For Paul darkness is a scene for depravity and drunkenness and shamefulness; Jesus is quoted as teaching that “everyone who does evil hates the light… but whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (John 3:20-21) and this is a metaphorical preference that has even infiltrated our free speech jurisprudence – the light of open investigation and a regime of free publication is a “disinfectant” able to send night creatures scurrying.

I am struck by how many of the arguments against light pollution (the very phrase seems to express a contradiction) revert to appeal to a larger aesthetic principle, namely, that the inhabitants of planet earth must not be denied the sublime experience of clearly seeing the night sky.  David Crawford, director of the IDSA, makes the point passingly:  “This excess light in the sky has an adverse impact on the environment and seriously threatens to remove forever one of humanity’s natural wonders – our view of the universe.”  His column making this point is physically juxtaposed with an announcement from the ISAST Space Art Working Group that artists are being invited to partner with the Dark Skies people, presumably to better track the aesthetic centrality of preserving a wondrous nighttime experience.  As Chet Raymo wrote in 1985, reflecting these more abstract sentiments:  “The typical urban or suburban observer might only see a few hundred of the brightest stars, and none of the more elusive objects.  We have abused the darkness.  We have lost the faint lights.”

The environmental costs are real:  most creatures are nocturnal and many are damaged by ongoing exposure to brighter-than-normal skies that disrupt patterns of rest and nourishment and also mating.  In California, glossy snakes seem to be disappearing and night lights seem to be a factor:  in mapping their habitat researchers discovered that populations were healthiest in areas relatively shielded from light by local topography.  Sea turtles are also adversely affected.  As Harder put it in a 2002 Science News article:

When turtle hatchlings emerge at night from their eggs and head for the ocean, lights from hotels and other sources can lead them off course.  Sometimes the hatchlings get killed trekking in the wrong direction as they attempt to cross roads.  If their long night’s journey stretches into day, the turtles often die of exposure or fall victim to hungry predators.

Many more examples are documented in Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Island Press, 2006).

Among the other consequences are those documented by public health experts.  An example of this is the curious but now replicated finding that breast cancer rates are nearly twice as high in areas that are brightly lit.  The explanation appears to lie in the fact that when the sleep cycles of women (in this case) are interrupted (say, by working all night shifts), that fact in turn produced hormonal changes that aggravate the risks of cancer.  (The same phenomenon is at work with men; those who work in environments that interrupt their sleep cycles run a higher risk of prostate cancer).

Curiously, it wasn’t until 2002 that the first national action was undertaken to limit light pollution (in June of that year, the Czech Republic implemented legislation).  But awareness of the issue has spread.  Remember those twin beams of light shot into the night sky to memorialize the collapse of the World Trade Centers?  After consulting with the Audubon Society, coordinators at the site agreed to turn the lights off every night at 11:00 so that the migratory patterns of birds would not be interrupted.

SOURCES:  Joe Sharkey, “Helping the Stars Take Back the Night,” New York Times, August 31, 2008, pg. BrightIdeas 4; David L. Crawford, “Astronomy’s Problem with Light Pollution,” Leonardo 22.2 (1989): pgs. 285-286; Ben Harder, “Light All Night:  New Images Quantify a Nocturnal Pollutant,” Science News, 18 March 2006, pgs. 170-172; Harder, “Deprived of Darkness:  The Unnatural Ecology of Artificial Light at Night,” Science News, 20 April 2002, pgs. 248-249; Harder, “Turning Out the Lights,” US News & World Report, 24 March 2008, pgs. 16-18; Kristen Ploetz, “Light Pollution in the United States: An Overview of the Inadequacies of the Common Law and State and Local Regulation,” New England Law Review 36.4 (2002): 985-1039.


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