Silent Night, Basic Right?

I have a nasty habit of letting magazines pile up in my room unread. As such, I finally got around to this article from Preservation Magazine, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The author describes a movement in America’s urban areas to “take back the night” in a whole new form. This movement seeks to make America’s night skies darker.

Light pollution may seem like the newest activist-invented crisis to some, but there are those who take it very seriously. Citing evidence that increased light levels in urban levels do very little to prevent crime, dark night advocates call for scaling back nighttime lightage for environmental, economic, health, and aesthetic reasons. The environmental reasons are obvious: fewer lights running mean less electricity consumed, and therefore less usage of natural resources. Less electricity usage also means financial savings for both municipalities and homeowners. Indeed, some urban areas, when shown a cost analysis of less light consumption, have been enthusiastic supporters of the darkness movement, turning off some lights and replacing old lamp posts with more efficient ones. For health reasons, advocates tout the benefits of deep sleep, which they say can be adversely affected by too much light outside. The connection between worker fatigue and lost productivity (not to mention workplace accidents) is well documented, though the connection between worker fatigue and sky brightness is more tenuous. The aesthetic justifications are pretty easy to make, but the most difficult to quantify. Everybody loves a starlit sky, especially when compared to the perpetual orange-blue glow you get over even moderate-sized cities like Washington, D.C. The areas in the United States where one can observe a starry, starry night and its related astronomical phenomena are quickly shrinking as human settlements expand.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the dark night movement becoming anything more than, say, the highway beautification movement of the 1960s. Some cities will adopt reduced-light ordinances for financial reasons, but I can’t see “light pollution” becoming an important political issue outside of the urban upper classes. I admit, it would be nice to see the stars more frequently without having to drive to upstate New York, Canada, or the upper Midwest, but I’m not about to decide my vote on the issue. The light bulb has been the symbol of industrial progress in the West for over 100 years now, and that has generally been a good thing. In fact, while reading the article, I couldn’t help but think of this map which went around the web about a year ago, showing the world lit up by artificial light sources, with North Korea, Siberia, and central Africa as the darkest spots on the globe. A starry night would be wonderful, but not at the expense of moving to Pyongyang to get it.

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