Sarah Rich

LIGHT POLLUTION - and the RETURN OF NIGHT

by , 02/07/06

We are honored and delighted to have one of our favorite bloggers, Geoff Manaugh of the inimitable BLDGBLOG providing a guest post today for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy! And if you aren’t already reading BLDG daily, now’s the time to start!

lightpollution2

Who wants to look at stars? Who needs astronomy when there’s a “sports complex with a driving range and multi-purpose dome” nearby, burning with floodlights and halogens, incandescent in the American night? Who wants constellations when you can watch a “billboard on Route 22 in Wingdale, New York that is lit by a dedicated floodlight”? Who, after all, wants to put up with something called nighttime?

Human interference with visible astronomy is generally referred to as “light pollution,” or – my personal favorite – “light trespass,” light that has trespassed its terrestrial limits and now competes with the heavens above, blocking out the stars and forming a counter-astronomy. Photographer David Allee, however, has found a way to take advantage of light trespass and its aesthetic possibilities, documenting the “intrusive otherworldly effect of artificial light on man-made environments.” This is light pollution as a photographic resource.


(Photographer David Allee’s image of a house that faces a brightly lit sports field in the small town of Amenia, New York)

As Metropolis explains: “Working with a large-format Linhof Technikardan camera, he positions himself in front of apartment buildings, houses, and gardens that are bathed in the overflow of floodlights from sports and recreation facilities. Using shutter speeds of two to three minutes, Allee subjects his film to the kind of intense light that turns night into an unnatural day, producing images that seem to capture a state between times and seasons.” He takes photographs, that is, of artificial light interfering with the sky – of urban counter-astronomy.

(Image: Allee captured this image from the rooftop of a bowling alley across from Yankee Stadium, with its lights pouring onto neighboring apartment buildings.)

(Images: David Allee.)

However, not everyone can find surreal, ironic beauty in the peripheral glare of suburban golf ranges, the artificial lightscapes of modernity. For those unwilling to make the aesthetic leap, there is the International Dark-Sky Association – whose members want to give the earth its stars back, by turning down the lights.

(Images: International Dark-Sky Assocation. When the eastern power grid failed, from Ontario to New York City, in August 2003, it revealed something many city dwellers had never seen: from horizon to horizon, a sky full of stars. Then the power came back on.)

Several interesting problems arise, however, in any campaign against nighttime lighting:

1) Dimming the cities and their suburban limits will extinguish one of the most memorable aspects of modern times: their overlit fluorescence and unearthly glare. This will put an end to David Allee’s White Nights series, for instance, as well as to the electrically dynamic urban utopias foreseen by the Italian Futurists; not to mention the stunning, two-dimensional plastic weirdness of suburban cul-de-sacs at night.

2) Public security advocates calling for more light, not less, will find themselves in a complicated bind – though the sinister-sounding “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” movement has a few things to say about that.

On the other hand:

1) The lack of stellar references in the everyday life of advanced modernism is worth correcting – the myths, depths, and orientations that stars allow have been part of the human experience for hundreds of thousands of years, and being able to find my way to a 7-11 in the middle of the night seems like an odd consolation for losing sight of Orion. For instance, there could be a star tax: a small fee paid for every star or constellation that your business makes it impossible for me to see. (This is an obviously ridiculous idea.)

Further: 2) The blazing horror of unnecessary self-illumination practiced by gas stations, shopping malls, casinos, cinemas, etc., has been shown to interfere with the bio-rhythmic cycles of local and migratory species (humans included). For instance, in areas aglow with light pollution, “birds [chirp] throughout the night, in anticipation of a dawn that will not arrive.” Dung beetles wander in circles. Glowworms lose their ability to mate. Grown men watch television for hours at a time.

3) All this wasted energy doesn’t come from nowhere: North American power plants burn more and more oil and coal for the privilege of lighting outdoor spaces no one is using.

And, I suppose: 4) How on earth am I supposed to hunt safely at night if I can’t use 2000-watt spotlights…?

[[image:lightpollution.jpg::center:0]](Image: A nighttime image by NASA (much better viewed at their own webpage) showing the electrified modern world, in open – if unstated – competition with the nebulous galaxies of light strung through extraplanetary space. Human civilization is its own galaxy.)

Attempting to address these questions, the International Dark-Sky Association has released its own Model Lighting Ordinance. They link to recommended fixtures, low-wattage lighting, and more efficient techniques of urban illumination, for both aesthetics and safety. As but one example of pro-astronomy urban regulations, Rome is now “set to dim its lights,” according to New Scientist. “Rome is the latest major city to begin dimming its lights to prevent light pollution obscuring the night sky and to save energy. And the trend could pick up next year with publication of an ‘off the shelf’ law that cities anywhere will be able to adopt to combat glare drowning out the stars. Rome has 170,000 street lights, and stands to save 40 per cent on its lighting bill through its dimming programme. Next to be turned off will be signs in shop windows and hotels, and the already dimmed lights illuminating monuments may be lowered still further.”

It should not come as a surprise that, yes, the International Dark-Sky Association is behind this move: “David Crawford, director and founder of the International Dark-Sky Association based in Tucson, Arizona, is architect of the model ‘ordinance’ for cutting light pollution. ‘The ground rules are simple,’ he says. ‘Shine light down, not up or sideways; don’t over-light; turn off lights when they are not needed; use energy-efficient lights and fixtures; and impose curfews,’ he says. Illuminated adverts could be switched off at night, for example, as could lighting in parking lots.” Would the money those cities save on electricity be used to hire more police, to counteract people targeting unlit parking lots? Only time will tell.

For now, though, as the stars seem poised to return to the urban world of human modernization, fixed in random patterns above parks and quiet streets, perhaps we can afford to appreciate the aesthetic weirdness and otherworldly allure of modern energy expenditure, rivers of light cast unused upon colorless urban surfaces, photonic waste, illuminated oases of football stadiums and parking lots. The gleaming impermanence of these nighttime landscapes is worth taking a second look at – before they disappear.

(Image: David Allee “looks across the Number 4 subway tracks and into Yankee Stadium during the early innings of a game in late September 2002″ – discovering symmetrical constellations of field lights and bases, right here on earth alongside us.)

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  1. Inhabitat » Blog ... August 19, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    [...] You might remember that we’ve railed against light pollution before, and since we’ve been talking a lot about lighting this week, we figured now would be a good time to bring up the subject matter again. Today we’ve brought in guest writer / night sky activist Anthony Arrigo to talk about the overly-bright light continuing to plague our night skys.. Light pollution affects the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet. Right here in the US, 19 out of 20 people live under skies that are clouded by light pollution. In fact, more than 2/3 of Americans live in places where they can no longer see the Milky Way at night. This sad state of affairs that speaks volumes about the wasteful nature of our society. [...]

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