Dim the Lights: Bring on the Dark Skies

I miss daylight. It’s hard to get up before the sun rises to exercise,

or to leave work in the afternoon darkness. One of my favorite

celebrations of the year is of the Winter Solstice, which marks, within

a few days of each other, both the earliest sunset and the shortest day

of the year.

But I do appreciate the seasonal rhythms of darkness and light, day and

night. And I love a night sky, its vastness awash with stars or lit up

by a big harvest moon. And so I was moved by Verlyn Klinkenborg’s cover

story in National Geographic’s November issue, “The End of Night.” It’s

not often one reads about light pollution and its effects on living

things. Light is a powerful biological force, according to scientists,

acting for many species as a magnet, drawing seabirds, for example, to

the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, and prompting swans

to migrate earlier than is optimal for nesting. Sadly, nesting sea

turtles, which prefer dark beaches, find fewer and fewer of them on

which to nest. Their hatchlings, which would normally move themselves

toward the brighter sea horizon are confused by artificial lighting

beyond the beach and are lost by the hundreds of thousands every year.

“In most cities,” Klinkenborg writes, “the sky looks as though it has

been emptied of stars.” New York City scores a nine on the nine-point

Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, according to the International Dark Sky

Association, which has pushed for city and state legislation to turn the

lights down.

New York has, in fact, begun to dim down. The State Assembly passed

legislation in June requiring that new outdoor lighting have shields

that reduce glare and waste. Other measures — to require full

streetlight shields and motion detectors in all commercial and

government buildings, and to mandate more efficiently lighted billboards

– are now under consideration. The business community may be a bit ahead

of the politicians on these matters. Several of the city’s newest

skyscrapers incorporate cutting-edge technologies that appeal to both

environmentalists and those eager to keep energy costs down. Landlords

have also found that meeting stiffer energy-efficiency standards in

their new and refurbished buildings is a selling point with tenants,

especially those that pay their own electricity bills.

For our part, Green Guide just moved into a space with just one light

switch for the whole floor. It’s not that large a floor, but it feels

strange to not be able to turn the light off in my office when I leave.

Worse still, what an awful waste for me to have to light the whole floor

when I am the only one in the office. I have an LED desk lamp, which

helps on these late-fall afternoons, as my desk is in a dark corner (LED

lamps are particularly energy efficient). And hopefully we’ll eventually

be able to afford a lighting retrofit that would allow for zone

lighting, motion sensors, timers and more.

In the meantime, I’m encouraged to see New York join the many other

cities that are taking steps to save energy and cut down on light

pollution. It may be a long, long time before we get to see Venus from

our rooftops, but perhaps if we’ve got it in our mind’s eye we’ll keep

working toward reaching that goal some day…or night.

Human Journey