Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius


Take Back the Night

A few years ago, during the electricity crisis that plagued California, the city of Los Angeles was plunged into darkness. Soon afterwards emergency services and the power companies began to receive telephone calls from anxious citizens, reporting strange lights in the sky and a mysterious luminous band which stretched from horizon to horizon. What was it? Was this causing the power outage? Or something even more sinister, like (wait for it) an alien invasion?

The mysterious lights were stars, of course, and that band of light was the Milky Way, the delineation of our own galaxy. This story may or may not be apocryphal, but the point remains: for the first time in human history, large numbers of people --- possibly the majority in the First World --- have not seen the night sky in all its glory and wonder. Instead, we have light pollution, from millions of lamp standards, all shining up, obscuring all but the brightest stars and planets.

I'm a bit of an amateur astronomer. Even in my splendid isolation in rural Peterborough County, the light pollution from Peterborough city, 25 kilometers away, is significant and obvious: the western horizon is pretty much obscured. And driving home from work from suburban Toronto there is actually a point along the 115 where its possible to see the light domes from both Toronto and Peterborough.

The graphic above represents the light pollution in south-central Ontario as seen from space. The cross marks Peterborough, the colours represent the quality of the night sky from totally dark (black) to obscured (white). In almost all of the City of Toronto, the sky is so obscured that only the brightest planets (i.e. Jupiter and Venus) and stars will shine; there is no hope for most of the rest of the GTA to see the Milky Way.

There are, of course, obvious economic and cultural impacts to this light pollution. Something in the order of 40% of light from lamp standards, buildings, security lighting, billboards and the like is directed upwards into space, wasting energy, disorienting wildlife, interfering with circadian cycles and human health, rendering scientific research futile, and depriving the humanity of its natural heritage of the night sky. If there was ever a noxious consequence of our industrial civilization, light pollution would go to the top of the list, along with global warming and reality television.

Of course, public consciousness equates bright, visible lighting to safety, lower crime rates and security in general. The more the better, in fact, which accounts for light pollution being off the radar for most politicians. Who wants to be accused of wanting more crime?* Yet in fact, several studies have shown that installing energy-and-sky friendly lighting has no adverse effect on crime and security in general; poorly designed lighting seen all too frequently in cities actually decreases visibility from the glare it creates --- think of the glare created by the headlights of an oncoming car.

I sometimes think all this lighting has some broader cultural impacts. Since widespread lighting has become common --- in the 1930s, the Milky Way was visible in downtown Toronto --- there have been more UFO sightings, more claims of alien abduction, more belief in the physical reality of angels, in short, more belief in supernatural nonsense from the heavens, and a concurrent decline in public interest in pure science. It's as if the sky, in all its unadorned glory, has become a thing to be feared as unfamiliar and dangerous, rather than a source of wonder, curiosity and awe. Maybe we prefer to be cocooned in the illusionary safety of high-wattage light. More's the shame.

*Several years ago, Trent University faced pressure from some groups to improve safety, especially in the area of lighting. The university resisted for a time, stating its environmentally-friendly and architecturally sensitive lighting was adequate for the purposes of safety and security; the cry was (inevitably) raised the university was anti-woman, the university caved, and Trent is now a model of sodium-vapour lighting in that exact shade of urban alienation and in the worst possible way. I would be curious if the number of attacks since this lighting was installed has actually declined.


Blogger Tim said...

Welcome back, Michael! A pleasure to see you blogging again.

Tuesday, 26 September, 2006  
Blogger Tim said...

Welcome back, Michael! A pleasure to see you blogging again.

Tuesday, 26 September, 2006  
Blogger Declan said...

Ah yes, the far reaching orange glow over Trent - I remember it well.

Some useful links on night-takebacking at the site for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Light Pollution Abatement Program (RASC LPAP)

Thursday, 28 September, 2006  

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