In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via e-mail to email@example.com. Submissions become property of Orion.
About ten years ago, my husband and I had supper at a friend’s house in rural Minnesota. As we were leaving, our friend said, “Wait, let me turn off the porch light, then we can see the stars better.” We stood in silence looking at the star-studded night sky. It was stunning. “Isn’t this beautiful?” someone whispered.
I felt bewildered as we drove home. Even as a staunch environmentalist I’d never given the night sky a thought. When we arrived in the city, I looked up and saw a few anemic-looking stars in a sickly orange sky. I decided to get educated.
I contacted the International Dark-Sky Association (www.darksky.org) and requested information. A week later a huge packet arrived in the mail. After that, no friend escaped without hearing about those glaring lights along the streets, in parking lots, on houses and businesses, along lakes, in barnyards. Often I received the inevitable reply: “Seeing the stars is nice but I want my security. Lights attract business and reduce vandalism.” But in fact, non-glaring light with appropriate wattage increases security. Try this: shield your eyes from a glaring light — and notice greatly improved visibility.
Artificial light has in many ways served us well, but we have been lax in pondering the possible negative consequences. I finally found reference to a conference at the Boston Museum of Science that brought together health professionals, environmentalists, criminologists, lighting engineers, lawmakers, manufacturers, and members of the International Dark-Sky Association to learn how artificial outdoor light affects us in ways perhaps never imagined.
Today’s outdated outdoor night lights waste over $2 billion a year in energy costs in the U.S. alone. They produce glare that law enforcement agencies know is unsafe. Millions of migrating songbirds die each year by slamming into brightly lit buildings. Most disturbing, these lights can negatively affect our health in ways we are only recently beginning to explore.
Armed with research and visual aids — thanks to a grant from the University of Minnesota — I started to share information with city councils, planning commissions, county boards, and service clubs. At first people were perturbed: “Who is this woman? And what is she talking about?” Then, after a while, people sighed and rolled their eyes: “Oh, it’s her.” I became known as the Night Lady.
But after over eighty-five presentations, something began to happen. At planning meetings when the issue of outdoor lighting came up, someone would say, “Let’s make sure we have proper downlighting.” And the Night Lady was nowhere around. A new, large, local subdivision proudly installed elegant, full-cutoff streetlights (which point the light down rather than out and upward). The University of Minnesota put downlighting of street lamps in their long-range plan.
When we built a home on forty acres in rural Minnesota, we recessed the lights on our front porch and used nonglaring lights on the garage. We put our land in perpetual conservation with the Minnesota Land Trust, and outdoor lighting language is now part of their easements and discussed with landowners.
Yes, we benefit from artificial outdoor lights. But we need to get rid of the outdated models and keep working to preserve everyone’s birthright of being able to gape at that awesome, mysterious, star-filled sky.