For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.
With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success. While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.
One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th. What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration. Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held. The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it. These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two. Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything. Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high. Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).
What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout. Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy. For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war. In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known. While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast. To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded. While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public. Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.
Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula. South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns. North of it, almost complete darkness. The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes. By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional. Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out. Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.
However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening. An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station. Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”. Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments. Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs. The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising. Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them. While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around. After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol. In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?
The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed. Does anyone see any way to change that?