1.27.2009

Let There Be (to much) Light!


It must be some sort of primal instinct left over from our ancestors who were forced to live in caves. For many of us in the modern world, light equals a recognized world, and darkness gives
us... well, it gives us darkness. Perhaps we remember deep deep down in our marrow that at one time we were afraid of what the darkness brought - and so now, being all technologically advanced and such, we light the hell out of everything. EVERYTHING !!!

Did you know that millions upon millions of humans, the majority residing in urban centers, or modern suburbs, have no idea what a proper night sky looks like. For many of us, we just take it for granted now that our world at night is lit up. We don't have to venture very far to see the effects of light pollution - especially if you happen to live in the USA, Europe, or Japan. Just take a look at a map of our world from outer space showcasing the night time usage of artificial light and you'll see as clear as day (no pun intended) that light pollution is out of control. Where we live in Southern New England there is no shortage of light at night. Just the other night while driving home I noted 7 empty lots (large ones) lit up for no apparent reason, a smattering of buildings lit up from the inside without any sign that people were using those spaces that required the lights to be on, several roadside billboards brightly lit, roads as far as the eye could see lit up nice and bright, empty sidewalks lit up, peoples homes with every conceivable light switched on, and my favorite sight - whole buildings lit up from the outside for some crazy aesthetic reason. I guess it is just another sign of progress. We can declare ourselves so advanced that we can even negate the night sky.

lights off/lights on

Now, I must admit, we live in a semi-rural setting - decently away from any big town. Our area thankfully forgoes street lights on the main thoroughfare. And, our neighborhood in particular uses nothing but motion sensor lights, or even better, some solar lights. Still, if we venture outside to get a decent view of the night sky with its distant stars, planets, and some fantastic views of the moon when it is correctly placed, you don't have to look hard to see the glowing sky that indicates our neighboring town. And, I'm sure, if you are reading this, you can relate. Our skies are polluted with light.

the USA mapped at night

Yet, while we take all that light for granted now, and assume our world is a safer place at night because we light everything up, we once again neglect to take into account what all this means to us. Just like noise pollution, or visual pollution, light pollution has some poignant disadvantages. Studies show that lighting up the night sky can have profound effects on the natural lives around us, from insects to animals. Who cares, you might ask? Well, alot depends on the subtle fabric that weaves all living things together, and our planet. So, tampering with even the smallest organisms can set off a chain reaction in our eco system, for one thing. But, even if you could care less about a small insect's sex life or the migratory patterns of birds, for instance, you might be surprised to learn that light pollution can effect our internal clocks as humans too. Studies are starting to show a growing link between light pollution (over exposure to light) and such things as cancer and stress related illnesses. Our recent history of lighting everything up can't just wipe away a whole history of being used to changing elements.

And, what about our kids. How do they suffer from the loss of a night sky. How many kids are losing the profound mysteries the night sky has to offer. And, not only that - what is all this light doing to our kids sensibilities. Perhaps time will tell. I for one do not think that lighting everything up at night is good for my kids. For one thing, we make it very clear to our children that a room is only to be lit when it is being used. Nothing is more odd than a house full of lit rooms not being used - you know who you are! And, what kid isn't amazed by a little star gazing on a warm night. I definitely know mine are. You just haven't gained any human perspective until you get to see the Milky Way spread out before you.

photos by David Allee

Thankfully, unlike air pollution or water pollution, light pollution is agreed by many to be easily remedied. Just in your own home, or on your own street, things can change easily. And, just think how when you change your night time lighting environment, you directly start changing a dependency on your electricity usage, which has an effect on energy consumption - which helps the overall environment. And, in this stage of fiscal tightening of the belt, how much money could you save - or your town save, by just adopting a better strategy to allow for better lighting strategies or simply just turning off, or regulating light usage. A letter to your town or community council, making suggestions, might go alot further than you think. For many towns and cities, the worst light pollution is attributed to outdoor lighting (streets, buildings, etc) that does not use its purpose effectively. Many many outdoor lights not only shoot light at the ground, which is what they are supposed to do, but they also spray wasted light out in the form of glare to the side (this can be called light trespassing when light is scattered across space), or wasted light projected up into the sky - for no apparent reason other than poor lighting design.

This is supposed to be a time when we are being asked to take a longer, and sometimes harder, look at how we interact with our daily environment. We are asking ourselves more frequently now how we can better our world for ourselves and our kids. So, why not consider, one little light bulb at a time, what we can do to bring some clarity back to our night time world - and if we just can't get rid of that light altogether, then what we can do to make it more effecient and better
designed!

photo by David Allee

And, if you think you are alone in thinking this, as I sometimes think I am, well you're wrong. If National Geographic magazine can address the issue on its front cover like it did a few months ago, then it has got to be important. For more information regarding light pollution in general, with facts and figures, you can check out our friends at The International Dark-Sky Association.
Here you will find ideas about how you can do your part to better the world around you, as well as finding tips on simply better lighting solutions for your home. And, in some of my research, I found these interestingly beautiful photos, of the effects of light being used at night, by the photographer David Allee - follow the link to see more of his work.

The long and short of it, in my family's opinion, is that we shouldn't be so afraid of the darkness. And moreso, we shouldn't be so afraid to question our current stewardship of our little Earth - there are so many ways we can improve the relationship - so many ways to do our small part! YES we can!

2 comments:

karen said...

this is very interesting and so funny how 'scary' it can be in the dark b/c we are so used to lightness.... it is funny how much we resist against nature...

lesley said...

We were driving through Los Angeles last night. My children were looking for "wishing stars". They would find one then ask my why it was moving! Apparently they could only see helicopters and airplanes in the sky! We did manage to find a few wishing stars before the night was over.