24 Nov 2014

The invisible problem of light

Līza L writes:*

After the 1994 earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles, local emergency centers received calls from anxious residents who reported a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky that they had never seen before. They were reporting the Milky Way – the galaxy that contains our Solar System. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Rīga, the capital of Latvia, I find it comic that people had never seen the Milky Way before. What is less comic is that this is the reality for millions of urban people around the world.

Source: www.stellarium.org
The stars in very urbanized and industrial cities have become (almost) non-existent. It’s not that stars are suddenly dying out; they are simply hidden from view because of urban sky glow. Due to urbanization at least half the kids in any given population are growing up in urban areas where most of the light pollution is happening, and they might not know what a sky full of stars looks like. They are not presented with the stark contrast of a countryside sky and a city sky if they barely leave cities, so they don’t realize there is a problem. And it’s not just kids but adults too – while light pollution is now talked about more, many adults don’t realize that all the artificial light in cities is creating problems not only for their health, but for ecosystems disturbed by artificial light. Most wildlife follows diurnal patterns of dark and light so their interactions might alter and overall physiological harm can be done to plants and animals alike.

Light pollution is, in a sense, similar to the problems presented as a consequence of fisheries depletion because people don’t necessarily see the strong impacts in their immediate environment. People who assume there isn’t a problem are mistaken. Similarly to ocean fisheries, people feel like they are far away from the light pollution problem. This false perception creates an imaginary distance between individuals and "unattainable" solutions. But of all the pollution we face, light pollution is probably most easily remedied because most of the solutions are quite simple, such as changing the type of light used or improving light fixtures so that light isn’t leaked. So even if raising awareness of light pollution and its harmful consequences to the general public is too difficult, it shouldn’t be too difficult to change policies and reduce light pollution.

Bottom Line: Light pollution is an ‘invisible’ problem which can be easily remedied. Even if we cannot make the problem ‘visible’ to the general public, simple policies can substantially reduce that pollution -- and bring back the stars.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.