How to Fight Light Pollution

“Great results can be achieved with small forces.”
― Sun Tzu

Sometimes you have to step back and re-assess a strategy you feel is not working, or just the wrong path.

Light pollution is a serious problem, but one known today by very few.  It wastes energy.  It harms our sleep cycles.  It damages the ecosystems within our environment that developed over millions of years on the assumption of a non-polluted, dark night.  It deprives all humans of our inalienable right, as inhabitants of Earth, to spur our imaginations by wondering at the universe beyond.

I have written before about light pollution, but those were constituted primarily of my own thoughts.  I am not an expert on light pollution.  There are people who are, and doing the real yeomen’s work to raise attention to the cause, to change the public’s attitude, and to guide civic remedies.

So instead of espousing my own random thoughts, which may not always be right or productive, I want to use my blog writings on light pollution to highlight the people and organizations working to solve the light pollution epidemic.  My tiny blog will not have much impact, but I will do what I can to spread knowledge on the genuine efforts underway.

I will start by highlighting one account on Twitter, Saving our Stars.  It is a good daily feed of light pollution matters being posted throughout the Internet.  It also has an accompanying website.  I encourage everyone to follow this Twitter account to appreciate both the small and large scale issues regarding light pollution.

To Combat Light Pollution, Sports Lights Must Be Shielded

The amount of wasted energy in this picture is extraordinary.

How many obvious conditions of the world that we live in allude society’s basic comprehension?

Many.  Too many to count, would be my guess.  I am sure that we miss a lot of things, both as individuals and as society.  I acknowledge there are many things about the world and our existence right in front of me which I ignore, either from lack of observation skills or an ingrained conditioning to avoid.

Light pollution is one of these conditions that society ignores.  It does not exist in the minds of most people.  But it is such a fundamental premise that it is remarkable we gloss over the matter as we do.  It’s all around us, but we don’t see the decay it has wrought to the natural order.  We all use light, yet we assume that light is both infinite and practically free of costs.  When you flip a light switch, you don’t just assume, you reticently demand that a light turns on.  And when the switch does not work, you get angry and frustrated.  So powerful is the draw of light, it is almost intoxicating.

Why don’t we see light as a finite thing that should be managed like any other?  You don’t let your showers or faucets spray water in all directions in your bathroom.  Your chimney funnels smoke in a very specific way and direction for a good reason.  Our garbage and waste materials have very discrete locations where they should be placed.  Imagine if the gas pipe into your home protruded into your living room open-ended.

These are examples of resources and materials that we collectively understand how to manage.  But we, collectively, have no good understanding of how to manage light.  So we create all shapes and sizes of omni-directional lighting which emit photons up, down, left, right, sideways.  There is normally no need to radiate light in all directions, especially up.

So we light the empty sky above us, wasting photons.  Isn’t this a form of pollution?

Further, is not this a waste of energy?

An extraordinary and should-be-obvious effect happens when light is shielded and directed towards its intended target: you end up needing less light to illuminate the target!  That’s right, you could actually reduce the brightness of your bulbs if your lights were shielded.  Can you imagine how much energy would be saved if every streetlight in the world was shielded towards the ground?

There are fewer easier examples of this problem to note than how nighttime flood lights are used to illuminate sports events.  Since the beginnings of night sports, those giant light posts have been wasting both energy and light by not being shielded towards their intended play field targets.  Think about all that energy wasted over the last century, if only those lights had been shielded.

Somehow, we need to get the deep pockets – like Major League Baseball and the National Football Association – to realize both the problem of light pollution and the benefits to themselves and their communities for implementing fully shielded lights at their stadiums.  For once the heavy hitters make inroads, everyone else will follow.

An Open Letter to McDonald’s on Their Light Pollution

Dear McDonald’s,

Now is the time to make amends for your transgressions.

You may not be the absolute worst of corporate violators, but you are near the top of those publicly visible.  And the growth of your company, starting about 60 years ago, coincidences with the meteoric rise of the environmental mess.  Over the past century, your explosive insertion into the fabric of the developed world has marched hand-in-hand with the rampant spread of this most severe problem.

All of your violations, in aggregate, are far worse than any one-time ocean oil spill.  For though such water pollution events are severe, they are also short-term and localized.  The pollution you generate is widespread, long-term, and gradually destructive, altering huge swaths of the Earth’s natural environment.

From every urban neighborhood where a McDonald’s stands to the remotest of your locations on lonesome country highways, you are destroying the environments for the very customers you serve.  If your byproduct was a green sludge poured into rivers or a toxic gas pumped into the air, you would be facing an avalanche of lawsuits while your executives answered heated questions before the U.S. Congress.

Your pollution is aggressively silent, one of the core obstacles to both identifying the problem and rectifying its conditions.  So in the interest of laying out the problem straightforward, here it is: you are pumping egregiously excessive amounts of light pollution into the night sky.

Like a pale attempt at being their own Suns, tens of thousands of Golden Arches spearhead the false day your locations generate.  Bright white neon strips shine unnecessarily into the night above, pushing out an intruding dome into open skies which neither need nor want to be illuminated.  Side fixtures and parking lot poles build on the problem as well, any time they are not explicitly shielded to shine only upon their targeted ground areas.

McDonald’s light pollution is a prime factor to the destruction of our night environment.  For too long, we have all assumed that bright nights are “just the way it is” and a consequence of a civilized society.  But we cannot afford to think like this anymore, with all the mounting evidence for how bad light pollution is to our own health as well as to the ecosystems that rely on the living Earth’s innate cadence of day dancing with night.

You McDonald’s, are a corporate polluter.  It is time for the public to hold you accountable for your infractions.  But while the situation appears dire and hopeless to so many, you could make a great penance for your actions by asserting a leading role for the reversal of light pollution.  Your dedication to responsible corporate citizenry would not go unnoticed, as it would literally be visible if you decide to embark on the path to real change.

You, McDonald’s, have in your power the ability to do so much to end the harmful effects of light pollution, while at the same time elevating the problem’s awareness with the public at large.  You can and should, immediately, start redesigning your restaurants’ exteriors and surrounding properties to make them light pollution-neutral in the evenings, a task which could be completed at all your worldwide franchises within five years.  Broadcast public service messages on light pollution in your television commercials, showing the problem and what McDonald’s is doing to correct it.  And make your new corporate headquarters in the heart of Chicago a true example for how large companies, even in the heaviest of pollution blight, can guide the mantel of light-pollution neutrality.

Please, be willing to say, “no more,” and demonstrate your conscience to turn right this old wrong.

Today, I call you a corporate polluter.  I look forward to the day I can call McDonald’s a corporate leader by example that played a large role in ending the tragedy of light pollution.

No, Mr. President, the Skies of Detroit and Nebraska Are Not the Same

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“And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams and they are infused with the breath of life by the same Almighty Creator.”

– Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, January 20th, 2017

If only this were true, Mr. President.

The night sky in the city of Detroit is far different from the night sky in the state of Nebraska.

The child of the plains will likely have a wonderful view of the universe on clear evenings.  He will wonder, and dream, and imagine.  He will think about his place in the cosmos.  He will ponder both philosophical and spiritual questions about the Almighty Creator.  His ability to see the night sky in its nearly-complete wondrous glory will provide him with opportunities to become a sound and thoughtful adult.

The child of urban sprawl will grow up seeing a far different sky.  Her childhood will be spent under a sickly, orange haze.  She will not look up and wonder, because there will be nothing in her night sky to dream about.  Chances are, the overbearing glare of her neighbor’s porch light or a simmering alley bulb will arrest her attention far more than anything up in the sky.  This is not a place to wonder, or dream, or ponder about life and God.  With the simple absence of a decent night sky comes lost opportunity and inspiration for this child living in urban sprawl.

Of course, the city and country skies will never be the same, but the tragedy of light pollution is that so much of it could be mitigated with a trifle of thought, planning, and effort by all.  We are all victims of this least-understood form of pollution.  Not only is it aesthetically uninteresting, it is bad for your health, and both we and all our living ecosystems depend on the quality of a proper night just as much as the radiance of the Sun at day.

The Light Prison

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I am a prisoner.  My confinement is not built of walls or fences or gates, but derives from a byproduct of civilization taken for granted.

I see my prison everywhere I go.  It is in the streets, on buildings, emanating from vehicles, even on ourselves and within our pockets.  Looking up to the open sky should bring me solace, but it only reinforces why I know of this prison at all.

I see the telltale signs throughout the day, but the prison’s constricting grasp radiates most fiercely at night.

My prison hinders me, and billions of others, from fully engaging with the greatest physical medium.  It stifles imagination and stunts creativity.  It has created a tragedy of the mind, pushing us to believe in existence merely of the lands and clouds.  Severing our connection with the cosmos limits our potential and halts wonder, impacting even our perspectives on philosophy and Humanity’s enduring search to understand the Divine.

Mankind built this prison, certainly unintentionally, but Man bears responsibility for its upkeep and expansion.  Our continued, collective ignorance reinforces our detention.

It is a prison made from light, sourced from every construct.  From the backyard porch to parking lots.  From street posts to the tallest skyscraper.  Even automobiles and trains.  Anything that emits unshielded photons spilling into the empty sky beyond its intended illumination target contributes to the light prison.

We know our prison from the orange, sickly glow protruding across the horizon.  If you are lucky, this veil has its limitations, for when looking up, you shall see a wisp or more of the true freedom we are being slowly impeded from.

The prison is, ostensibly, pollution.  We have conquered or controlled so many forms of pollution, yet the prison of light continues to grow seemingly unabated.  Perhaps because we cannot smell it, nor tangibly observe a sludge byproduct, is why we continue to ignore the single type pollution that permeates every square measurement of society.  But it is pollution nonetheless, harming ourselves, our environment, and all life that depends on the eternal cadence of dawn and dusk.

We are meant to live in day and rest in night.  Some creatures thrive in the darkness.  The light prison, built in barely a century, distorts all of nature’s ecology, confusing rhythms forged through millions of years.

Acknowledgement of the existence of the light prison is not a call to Armageddon.  We need light, and it is a testament to our intellectual progress that we can bring light to the encompassing darkness with such ease.  What is needed is a societal understanding of both the existence of light pollution and the modest steps we can take to nullify its effects.

Should there be a goal?  Yes, and it is simple.  The the Milky Way in its entirety would be a stretch, but children in even the most populated urban areas should be able to see a night sky with thousands of stars, not just the Moon and Venus a handful of the brightest stars.  The goal is very plausible with better planning and foresight, utilizing prudent techniques to control it.  Architects should incorporate light-shielded designs into buildings and constructions of all varieties.

The light prison will never be deconstructed entirely, but through the spreading knowledge of its existence, and understanding the simple task to contain it, shall we and all of the Earth benefit from the return of the true night and the window to the cosmos it provides.  We will then no longer be prisoners, but proud stewards of a genuine planetary cause.