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Article ID: 6263
Age Group: Adult
Posted: April 20th. 2003
Night Vision: Where Did the Stars Go?
by Peg Aloi
Happy Earth Day All! Every year when this auspicious day rolls around I like to think that neo-pagans the world over are giving some serious thought to what it means to walk lightly on the earth. Maybe they start trying to buy more organic food. Maybe they switch coffee shops and go to the one that serves free-trade coffee. Maybe they step up their recycling efforts. Maybe they vow to bike, walk or bus to work more often instead of driving every day. Maybe they decide to volunteer to help clean up a local park or riverbank. Maybe they try harder to conserve energy.
Well, turning off those lights will do more than lower your electric bill and place a lower demand on the power grid. It may help protect wildlife, too. And it just might give us the stars back.
Those of us who enjoy looking at the night sky are already aware of the problem of light pollution ("The Simpsons" even devoted an episode to the issue recently!). Many city dwellers have no conception of what it's like to see Orion or the Big Dipper, much less subtler constellations or celestial treats like the Crab Nebula. And forget seeing a meteor shower in the city! The inability to see stars at night seems a mighty gyp to some of us who enjoy life in the city for other reasons (arts, culture, etc.), and so maybe it just seems like an aesthetic problem. But it turns out that too many bright lights at night are harmful: scientists are now saying that our eco-system is being damaged by bright lights. Check out this great article from National Geographic. In it, a powerful argument is put forth for the dimming of bright lights at night, because ultra-brightness is interfering with the flight patterns of migratory birds and the mating habits of frogs, among other things.
So what? One may ask. As long as it doesn't harm people. Animals die every day, crossing the street or building a home or finding food; nature red in tooth and claw, and all that...
But you know the story, folks; first it messes up the insects, then the birds, then reptiles, then the small mammals, then the larger ones, then finally us...
I was thinking about all this recently, when a friend sent me an article from Sky and Telescope magazine about "Dark Sky Week." This is similar to the Great Smokeout, or Buy Nothing Day: consumers are urged to change their behavior and raise their awareness and maybe, just maybe, some progress is made. Some communities are passing ordinances having to do with light pollution, particularly in areas where there is a heavy influx of migrating birds. Trouble is, turning down the wattage one week out of the year may not help the problem very much. What we need, friends, is to recover our night vision.
Any pagan who's ever been to a gathering in the woods knows what I am talking about. If you enjoy camping, being close to nature, you find something starts to happen after a couple of days respite from urban living: your body and senses start to readjust to their natural surroundings. You wake up early without needing an alarm clock, you eat only when you're hungry, you don't need a flashlight to find your tent zipper, you can navigate your way to the bonfire across the field by looking at the position of the moon in the sky (okay, I realize that may be a stretch for some of you), and you can even navigate your way down paths using only dim moonlight... in short, you feel comfortable with darkness. I remember going to Rites of Spring years ago where a number of individuals got rather upset if someone was walking on paths at night and shined their flashlights upwards instead of at the ground, as they claimed it destroyed their night vision. This is a very real phenomenon, and it can be frustrating to put time and energy into become attuned to the darkness and stillness of the night only to have to start over.
I feel the same way having to deal with overzealous city dwellers who insist on having bright lights. In fact, while writing this article I was startled by a female screaming on my porch. It turned out to be the young woman who lives upstairs with her family. She'd forgotten her cell phone in her car as she was returning home from work at 1 AM. She was surprised by something or someone she saw in the bushes right by our front steps. This same girl had been terrified by a tiny garter snake in broad daylight, so I just assumed it was the neighborhood skunk that had spooked her. But everyone wanted to make sure it was not a burglar or worse. Her mother commented we need some more lights. I said I did not have any extra bulbs for the light in the vestibule and she indicated she meant on the porch. Then I looked out and saw the street was absolutely flooded with light from the street lamps and the porch lights from neighboring houses! I said it looked pretty bright out there to me and maybe we should just have the hedges trimmed.
I realized that city folk (they come from a much larger city than Boston, originally) equate bright lights with safety. The guy next door has one of those atrociously bright "security" lights in his backyard. I hate it. I even asked him to turn it off for a night when I planned a backyard party during a full moon, and though he promised to do so, when the night came he either forgot or didn't bother. I can't see a single star in the sky when I am standing in my own backyard and it is completely the fault of that guy's big-ass light. That's right, the biggest source of light pollution in my neighborhood is the damn blasted bright security lights people have in their backyards! I should add, I live right near Franklin Park, a huge Olmsted Park, thousands of acres. A prime location for star gazing because of the huge expanse of woodland and relatively low number of lights. But was I able to see the last meteor shower on a clear night? I was not. If my neighbors would tone down the wattage on their lights, one could go near the park at night and see a nice patch of stars. But people think it's somehow "safer" to have the brightest light available; when studies have proven that the brighter the light, the more dangerous for inhabitants, because they can't see to get their keys or to discover something out of place, etc. because of the glare, which also hides people more effectively than when one's eyes adjust to normal night-vision. Installing such high-powered lights is expensive, wasteful and excessive. I wonder if this is some sort of status symbol among urban dwellers, like having the fanciest alarm system, or the biggest SUV (also useless in the city).
Okay, you're saying. But isn't MOST light pollution from industrial sources? Factories and power companies and big skyscrapers where people are working at night? Yes, true, but a great deal of this problem can be dealt with by making simple changes to street light design (for example, installing hoods which direct the beam of light down at the street, where it is needed, instead of upwards, where it does no good to help visibility and also blocks our view of the night sky). And since these high-power bulbs for home use have become increasingly popular, it is now up to consumers to choose to be responsible about the environment and buy lights sufficient to the task, not excessive and wasteful.
Saying an individual can't make a difference in light pollution is like saying individuals picking up their own garbage isn't important, because it won't make a "dent" in global pollution...this very attitude is part of the problem and look at what years of such thinking has done! The "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It" campaign of the 1970s has been dying a slow death amid selfish, apathetic behavior. If everyone made an effort to clean up the trash in their immediate vicinity, think how much more beautiful our streets and parks and roadsides would be. Similarly, if people turn off their unnecessary lights or replace high-watt bulbs with lower watt ones, they will make a difference in the light pollution problem... maybe their neighbors will ask why, and then education and awareness begins...no effort is too small or insignificant.
But wait; what about safety? Light is meant as a deterrent to assault or other crimes. Of course, risking rape and murder is not acceptable; although in most cases the brightness of lights can be dimmed considerably and still be effective for safety purposes; and in fact, probably safer, for the reasons I gave above. However, many people will not wish to reasonably weigh these risks, because they have not considered the importance of caring for the environment, and its direct effects upon us. True story: an acquaintance of mine overheard someone at the garden shop recently saying "I don't care if this pesticide kills the birds, those bugs are eating my flowers!"
We SHOULD care.
We should indeed be worried about the mating habits of frogs and the ability of migratory birds to get where they're going. As well as pilot whales beaching themselves, and manatees choking on algae, and coyotes eating garbage from our cans. We are all in this together. We ARE having an effect on the eco-system and it IS harming us. Does anyone doubt that higher rates of certain cancers in urban areas or those within close distances of toxic waste sites are some strange coincidence? (If so, try telling it to the guys who went to my high school from 1980 onwards who have been diagnosed with testicular cancer at *25 TIMES the national rate*).
Animals are more sensitive to this stuff than we are; we would do well to observe what is happening to them so we can save ourselves. Rape and murder is scary, but physiological degradation of a species followed by wholesale extinction is a whole lot scarier. I personally believe that if we folks who are lucky enough to live in sophisticated, wealthy countries actually shifted our thinking from our shallow, needy little microcosm to include doing what is best for the environment, then compassion for our fellow humans would quickly follow. Not only would rape and murder be lessened, we might also be able to address problems like starvation, disease and civil war. One thing leads to another, as sung by Cy Curnin in that great 80s band, The Fixx.
Pesticides are a good example of this logic: they kill bugs instantly. They kill US, too, but it just takes a lot longer, because we're bigger. But pesticide residue has been linked to all sorts of carcinogenic and other pathological problems in humans: because they're everywhere. On our food, in our water, in the air, in the soil. Insects grow resistant to them within a couple of generations (for bugs that's a couple of years; think about it) and so manufacturers make stronger ones. And so on. One thing leads to another.
I have said it before, and I will say it here again now: we have forgotten how to live on the planet. We seem to think there's an endless supply of fuel, fresh water and plants and animals to eat. But we're poisoning the seas (most of the rivers and lakes went long ago), we've eroded all the topsoil with aggressive farming practices, and species are disappearing in the hundreds every single day because we've upset the balance of the ecological system of the Earth. We seem to think we can keep producing garbage and spewing poison from smokestacks and exhaust pipes and have it not affect us. I find it odd that people don't see the connection between the McDonald's wrappers they threw out of their car on the highway yesterday and the insidious destruction of our environment. It's happening cumulatively, one thoughtless action at a time. Multiplied by billions of people. I truly believe that the problems of bigotry and intolerance and greed and corruption are intimately connected to people's inability to grasp the idea that all living things share a common bond. Someone who can't pick up his own trash isn't going to be someone who jumps at the chance to help his neighbor, either. We are slowly but surely becoming ungrounded from our connection to the earth.
We are so blinded by the colorful carnival of commerce that we fail to see the subtle hues of flowers and sunsets, there for the looking. We pour chemicals over ourselves after we bathe, and fill our homes with toxic perfumes and anti-bacteria detergents, so that we render ourselves unable to smell the heady fragrance of a patch of clover, or the bark of a cherry tree, or the raspberries ripening within an inch of our oblivious noses.
We eat food out of boxes and bags, full of artificial nutrients and carcinogenic additives, and we blithely support agribusinesses with inhumane farming practices and little or no regard for the environment, because their products are plentiful and cheap, instead of seeking out organic products from small companies struggling to compete in the marketplace. We've allowed our communities to be taken over by corporate logos because we choose Home Depot and McDonald's over the mom-and-pop hardware store or the corner cafŽ. Our choices have an effect. Somewhere down the line, a business opens or closes because of the laws of supply and demand. And we can change things with our actions, and by choosing wisely before we spend out money.
"Little old me? How could *I* have an effect on things?" But you do. I know, I know: it's hard to believe it. I mean, look at our last presidential election; talk about feeling powerless! But we mustn't give up believing that our thoughts, our actions, do contain the power for change. We mustn't ignore the effect our behavior has on the rest of the world. We, as believers in magical energy, KNOW that our thoughts have power. We understand that using such power is difficult, and that achieving results takes time. But hey, so does cleaning up a toxic waste site!
I don't want to end on a cynical note, but I have to say it's been a depressing year and with the state of the economy, the distress and uncertainty brought on by the war, and all the other problems we face, it's no wonder that people don't want to have to think about something which seems so far removed from their lives as "the environment." But that's just my point; it's that distance, that feeling separate from it, that's the source of the problem.
I want to call on everyone to let this Earth Day be a day when we renew our commitment to being stewards of the Earth: such a commitment is a cornerstone of the neo-pagan revival and a crucial tenet of earth-based religions. Some of us feel a bit relieved that in recent years paganism and Wicca and so forth have become more visible to the public, that more people understand what we do and don't fear us because they are better informed about who we are and what we believe. Well, now's the time to show them WHY we do what we do.
"We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it...and what we do to the web, we do to ourselves."
(Attributed to Chief Seattle)
Stay green, witches...
For more information on light pollution and what you can do, check this out: Dark Skies campaign and International Dark Sky Association
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