Essay: By What Way Is the Light Parted?

(“When the Morning Stars Sang Together,” by William Blake)
In 2001 I took my kids to a southern Utah park for their first camping trip. We pitched our tent then went hiking in time to witness a spectacular desert sunset. Boy, I couldn’t wait for the sky to darken and show my son and my daughter stars like they’d never seen them. I even had a speech prepared: “Look at those lights. Those are places where other things happen than happen here. We’re not the only show on the strip; don’t think your life is the only thing happening. There’s always more going on than you know.”  

But at nightfall, the couple in the next camping spot lit a lantern that blasted away darkness for a thirty-foot-plus radius, with glare shooting out farther. Our view of the night sky ended up being no better than what we had at home across from a streetlight.

Later on most other campground lights recessed behind tent flaps or went out. Our neighbors settled in beside their lantern and played cards till eleven. Worn out from the long ride down and the hike, my kids fell asleep. I lay staring into glow illuminating our tent’s interior enough I could see my children’s sleeping faces.

Astronomers have long complained that loose light interferes with observing astral environments and events, but CNN reports that national parks now consider light pollution a threat to wildlife rhythms and humankind’s wilderness experiences. Indeed, satellite photos taken at night show a North America that shines from dark sea to dark sea. That sounds pretty, but the schemata of personal, municipal, and commercial lighting can’t compare to conjunctions of the moon, planets, and constellations as they speak about that community of lights to which we belong.

Light pollution’s problems extend beyond mere nuisance or damaged aesthetics. For instance, during May through September pregnant sea turtles of several species flock to southeastern and gulf state beaches of the U.S. to lay their eggs. No one knows exactly how turtles find these ancient nurseries. Some suggest the old sea roads turtles follow to nesting grounds exist by virtue of genetic memories; others think each hatchling imprints on its place of emergence as it scrambles from its nest to the surf. However they know them, these routes are calculated upon frequencies and intensities of moon- and starlight, along with other urgent signals.

Nowadays when they arrive at traditional nesting sites, turtles are likely to find them polluted with resort, condo, and parking lot glare. Rejecting lit beaches, some turtles choose darker if otherwise inferior nesting sites. Some wander in confusion in the water where they may drop their eggs. Many turtles come ashore anyway, dig nests, lay eggs, then bury them. Drained by the effort, they seek shiny visual cues to guide them to the sea. Streetlights mislead some onto roads where automobiles injure or kill them.

Evidence shows sea turtle hatchlings orient on the nearest luster. Decades ago this was the ocean’s surface, luminous with moon- and starglow. Now too often they stray into lit swimming pools, parking lots, or pile up in confusion beneath lamps to die of exposure or to be eaten by predators. Or instead of fluttering towards the sea, they flap into abandoned beach fires. Or following streetlights, they tumble into roads where traffic kills them.

Turtles aren’t alone in suffering disorientation because of bad lighting. Night-migrating birds often die by the thousands when their flocks, traveling airways around human developments, tangle with floodlit smokestacks, guide lights, lit windows in high rises, and lighted transmission towers. The Fatal Light Awareness Program reports that collisions with lit structures destroy over 100 million birds annually. Speaking for FLAP, Michael Mesure said, “More birds die each year through collisions than died in the Exxon Valdez spill.” His protest here is against inequity: the highly publicized Valdez disaster resulted in an outpouring of volunteerism, punitive fines, and calls for change. Yet the vastly greater number of birds dying as a result of light pollution has drawn no attention, no fines, and little change.

Unaware of light pollution’s impact, we cultivate light in inefficient gardens nearly everywhere we live. Nearer than celestial lights, these weedy beams crowd out native stars. For many nocturnal species, the volume at which we broadcast light compares to our neighbors for a block around turning up their sound systems to a maddening blast. Thus we render incoherent this gorgeous energy many origin stories deem an organizing power.

One reason people give for squandering light is that it scares away wolves–whatever’s out there that wants to eat you. It’s an old fairy tale: light equals safety. So more light ought to equal more safety. But does it?  

Many outdoor lights send nearly one-third of their illumination upward, frustrating intentions to make walkways safer. Since it takes the eye time to adjust from bright light to darkness, floodlights installed to enhance security actually create unsafe shadows, providing cover for those who do wish to skulk. The bulbs of garden-variety “cobra” streetlights direct beautiful-in-principle particle-waves and glare into the sky, through bedroom windows, and sideways into the eyes of passers by, contributing to atomobile or auto-pedestrian accidents.

Scientists investigating constant light’s effect on humans have discovered our brains need heavy darkness to produce melatonin. Melatonin regulates our sleep cycle and maintains our immune systems. Intrusive nightlight from streetlights or brightly lit parking lots inhibits melatonin production, resulting in sleep interference, which results in decreased job efficiency, increased risk for accidents, and vulnerability to illnesses. New research suggests melatonin inhibits the growth of, even destroys cancer cells. Studies show a higher incidence of breast cancer in women who work night shifts beneath lights which slow their melatonin output. For anyone fearing wolves in the dark cancer is a real wolf, but rather than repelling this wolf light might actually enable it.

Of all our choices that have resulted in molecules, particulates, and waves streaming, radiating, and wafting wild, light pollution is the easiest and cheapest to fix. But we have to start thinking about the problem. More than just a modern convenience, light is a power and glory with qualities demanding our respect.

Many species take light literally, meaning that light pollution affects their decisions as misinformation does, which makes light pollution akin to careless lies. The same may hold true for humans. Like turtles and birds, we, too weigh in our minds the significance of light. Poets, scientists, shamans, and prophets have all found in night and day’s clarities revelatory beauty and sublime metaphors for relation, including spirituality. The LDS cosmos includes that whole glittering wilderness swaddling our Earth. But light pollution dims views of our context in creation, especially as it manifests at night. How might the Milky Way’s fading from sight affect our sense of awe and accompanying affinity for the sacred? How might the loss of common vistas for wonder turn aside our arts, or even our sense for human progress? Whatever else it does, light pollution muddies the night skies. Many children can’t see the stars anymore from where they live or don’t know why they should desire to. We’re in danger of raising up a generation who can’t hear the heavens sing or see them dance. How will they know which way to fly?