Clear Skies: An Essay on Light Pollution

A couple of years ago, in the few days following one of the most violent earthquakes to shake the area around Los Angeles, the local observatory and planetarium received a slew of phone calls from nearby residents. It seems that they were seeking information about all the strange sights they had just witnessed the few nights before in the sky. The observatory staff, having seen nothing unusual, was greatly puzzled, that is, until they realized what had happened. Due to the earthquake, electric power had failed in large areas around the city, and despite the glow from burning gas mains, what these people had been witnessing, perhaps for the first time in their life, was a natural, unhindered view of the night sky.

I kept thinking about this incident one night as I drove home from an environmental meeting held in Gaylord, the metropolitan hub of Otsego County here in Northern Lower Michigan. At that meeting one of the industry representatives trying to hold his ground has waxed rapturously about how his (oil & gas) industry was in the forefront of those elements which were rapidly making Otsego County one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and how the local land values (especially with the addition of just about one new golf course per year in recent years) and the population, and all the resultant business, was growing by leaps and bounds. It never seemed to dawn on the speaker that perhaps half the people in that crowded room were there because of their concern that all this urban blight threatened to engulf them in more outlying districts of the county and in the neighboring counties! As I left the meeting the message was, as it were, written in the heavens. Despite it being a near cloud-free evening, about all I could make out besides the first-quarter moon and the planet Jupiter close by it were just a few of the more prominent stars. I had to drive about 5 miles east -- just past the last resort complex in that direction -- before I could begin to see any real distance into space with its myriads of stars.

But this is nothing new to me. I live a about twenty-three miles northeast of town, but there is hardly a single evening any more when I can look to the western horizon and not see this cloud sitting above Gaylord at dusk, or not see the glow of the town's lights reflected in this cloud. Even on crystal clear winter nights the sky in the direction of the town -- thanks mostly to the local ski resorts -- reminds one of what used to happen downstate when some promoter rented surplus World War II anti-aircraft search-lamps to announce the opening of a new used-car lot. Lately the night-glow has acquired a distinctly yellowish cast after the downtown business association persuaded the city to spend a lot of money to erect about a half-mile of fake antique street lamps (equipped with speakers for canned music) to compete with all the new shopping malls and to help confuse those motorists who still believe you should slow down when you see a yellow light. Then, on top of this, we find the power companies, despite their pious rhetoric about saving electricity, still promoting the use of automatic high-intensity yard lamps so that those people who all moved so far up north to get a away from the big city won't suffer the fright of really dark skies at night while they huddle around the glow of their TV sets. All this adds to what professional astronomers somewhat euphemistically call this phenomenon "light pollution" and spend billions of the nation's dollars to build new observatories on ever more remote mountain tops far from city lights or in orbit far above earth. Amateur star-gazers like myself, who can't afford to buy lesser even hill tops -- most of them already occupied by micro-wave transmission towers anyway -- have less kind names for it.

Why get so disturbed by all this? Isn't all this the price of "progress"? Maybe so. But does it ever occur to these business- booster types that in the process of "development" they are willy- nilly destroying thee very things that have drawn people to our north- country to begin with: like clean air, clear waters, deep forests, and open space? Of course, the more cynical among us will point out that the most successful among these boosters need not really worry. After they make their pile of profit they will simply jump into their corporation jets and fly elsewhere -- to begin the process all over again (and leave the rest of us holding the empty bag).

Or is it enough, on the other hand, as is often said today, even by some of the most avid environmentalists, that people merely need to know that wilderness and clear skies exist somewhere else and are there to be seen IF they care to go out of their way to see them? Maybe so, at least for many people. Yet I can't help but see a tragedy in all this, or in that excuse. To know something theoretically is one thing. To live experientially in contact with it is quite something else. If people insist in a world where our strictly human scale of values, commerce, industry, entertainment, etc., becomes all that we can see, then it becomes inevitable that sooner or later we will begin to act as if that is all that really exists in this world. And when that happens, it is no wonder that there are people who care not a whit for whether or not people can breathe pure air, drink uncontaminated water (let them drink "coke" instead -- its better for business), or actually see the night sky. Are not our businesses and prosperity and human "progress" and what we call "civilization" more important in the long run? Perhaps, but I doubt that we can hope for much of the one without the other. Destroy our vision of the universe and we end up like a nest of tiny ants scurrying around frantically waving their antennae at each other imagining that their little hill and its immediate environs are the whole world.

True, it could be that aeons from now, when the "Big Bang" that launched the universe dies as a feeble ripple on the shores of eternity, that the human spirit or that of knowing creatures like ourselves may be all that remains as the legacy of billions of years. Yet somehow I suspect that until that time comes, even this outcome remains in jeopardy unless we ourselves become more consciously part of the process. Evolution does not mean automatic success. The vast majority of species that once existed no longer do. What makes us think we are any different? If truly human values are to survive, then we must become more fully aware of our place in nature and cease acting as if the natural world were some dumb beast to be exploited or an enemy to be overcome. And it is impossible to achieve this realization, much less appreciate it, unless we are willing to put aside our obsessions with our own self-manufactured, so-called "virtual", counterfeits of what we take to be reality and renew our contact with the real thing. Maybe its time that we begin to cut back on the street-lamps and discover the universe!

RWK 10/13/97

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