The devils the movement seeks to forcibly and expensively exorcise from the public and private landscape are "light pollution" and "light trespass." Let There Be Light
(But Watch Out for the "Dark Sky" Movement)

God (or thermonuclear hydrogen fusion) started it.

Peking Man took it inside.

Henry Lantern and Jonathan Candle made it portable.*

Sir Humphrey Davy electrified it.

Thomas Edison made it practical and ubiquitous.

And it was good. Utilitarian good. Old Master aesthetically good. Without light, specifically the artificial light developed by man, the history of civilization would have been brief and already finished. We wouldn’t have been here to read it.

Enter now the dark sky movement. If you’ve been too distracted by terrorism, the economy, kidnappings, sexual predator priests, the heartbreaking travails of Martha Stewart or the return of Phil Donahue to notice, you’re excused. We’re here for you. The dark sky movement is currently pre-pubescent, a dangerous developmental phase.

Dark sky activists are not to be confused with those biddies habitually chirping at you to stay out of the sun, possibly as fronts for the SPF lobby. They are not recidivists for President Jimmy Carter’s ill-advised attempt to have everyone turn off office lights during an energy crisis, only to learn that the energy required to fire them up again was greater than that consumed by leaving them on. They are unfortunately not among those who wish to move to the renowned wilderness of ANWR, where it’s dark a lot, and leave the rest of us alone.

The dark sky movement is promoted primarily by astronomers, in their first significant political outing since the powers that once were took care of Galileo. The devils the movement seeks to forcibly and expensively exorcise from the public and private landscape are "light pollution" and "light trespass."

Light pollution may be simplistically described as the glow from accumulated artificial lighting that obscures human vision of the night sky. Predominantly, the movement is at arms and on the march because it claims that only one in five humans can see the Milky Way (our galaxy, not a candy bar) at night from where they live. Only one-third of Americans can.

Secondarily, along some coastal areas, sea turtle hatchlings which emerge from their eggs on the beaches at night and try to head for the ocean are distracted or disoriented by artificial lights, with fatal results. Get deep enough into the science, and moths, frogs, salamanders, fish and birds are said to suffer a variety of effects from an array of artificial light conditions. You can be sure that other victims will be discovered as we go.

Although often used as an interchangeable term with light pollution, light trespass may be distinguished as when your light intrudes on someone else’s space, a fairly frequent occurrence, given the nature of light. Here is where a lot of folks enter the fray, with complaints that run a gamut limited only by the imagination and back again. If it is artificial light generated by anyone, it bothers someone else, and, hey, what are governments for if not to regulate all that annoys in our lives except for the governments themselves?

While the Czech Republic may not generally rank way up there as a bellwether for legislation, in this case it does. As of June 1 this year, all outdoor lights in the country must be shielded to direct light only in an intended direction, mostly downward. (Former visitors to Prague who marveled that the city’s lighting seemed sufficient only for the city’s considerable population of spies and prostitutes will be puzzled.)

For public lighting, the Czech approach seems to be the initial preferred methodology. Following similar legislation in Arizona, Texas and Connecticut, the Virginia legislature this year decreed that all lighting fixtures purchased by the state must be shielded. Some localities, most small and without much media attention, are following those models, but beginning to encroach on residential and business lighting, where both costs and security are substantive issues. One critic of a local legislative proposal has referred to it as a Vampire Empowerment Act.

Beyond shielding, some dark sky proponents argue for sodium lights, which produce light in a narrow spectrum without glare. But sodium lights are initially expensive. While they may satisfy astronomers and reduce some residential light trespass tension, they seem to be worse for some animals, so there is no consensus fix. All of this comes before one even addresses complaints against red and strobe lights, used primarily for warnings, including, in many localities, on school buses and as an adjunct to traffic lights.

Thus far, we are unable to identify legislative restrictions more onerous than shielded lights. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being proposed. Holiday lighting restrictions, outdoor lighting curfews and lumen limits are rattling around, and, as anyone who follows legislation knows, it’s only a matter of time before the truly absurd gets an adoption somewhere.

We like a good night view as much as the next person. We love astronomers, some of whom may help some of us get off this rock when the time comes. We have witnessed the turtle hatching issue firsthand. While limited, it is real. We have personally and voluntarily used sodium lights for residential security, believing them to be remarkably effective with minimum annoyance to neighbors.

That said, whether a view of the Milky Way is better or more important than a view of a lit city skyline at night is a matter of personal perspective. If there must be mutual exclusivity, we’ll argue for the New York City skyline, pre- or post-9-ll, any night of the week. Some city dwellers will actually drive to see the Milky Way just as they drive to show their kids sheep, no longer practical in Central Park.

This is not to argue against the better use of lighting, publicly and privately, as technologies advance. That will happen anyway. But legislating light (which must be followed by policing light) is only the latest sign of how fractious society has become and how legislatures inflame rather than reduce conflicts.

Whatever your position on light regulation, watch it come. We think the dark sky movement has legs…until they hit Christmas lights. As with the Milky Way, many Americans have never seen villagers with torches.

*Please do not write to tell us that neither of those estimable gentlemen ever existed. You can’t write this stuff regularly without having a bit of fun, and some of our historians have given plagiarism a bad name this year.

July 25, 2002
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