I Can’t See for Miles

On a beach in North Carolina, my cousin Andy pointed up to the night sky and said, "Look, there"s the Big Dipper!" My two girls, ages seven and 10, followed his hand and, after some squinting and trying really hard, were able to see that those dim beacons formed a pattern, one they"d seen in pictures.

It wasn"t always like that. In the 1960s, I lived in the foothills of the Indian Himalyas for two years, beyond the reach even of SUVs. Our night sky was something I"d never seen before and am not likely to see again. We could see thousands of stars on a clear night. We were taught in school that billions of them are out there, and it was easy to believe it back then.

It"s not surprising that our ancestors eight generations ago made up stories and myths about the points of light they saw above them. They were able to see as many as 11,000 stars in the night sky.

Today, 90 percent of all Americans are affected by "light pollution"—evening commercial and domestic lighting, often unnecessary and ineffective as a safety device, which invades our privacy and interferes with nature"s timeless patterns. If you"ve ever heard birds sing at night, it"s because they"re confused by artificial light.

Air pollution is a factor in our loss of the wondrous night sky, of course, but even under mildly polluted conditions we should still be able to see 2,600 stars. Instead, because of "skyglow" caused by misdirected nighttime illumination, two thirds of all Americans can no longer catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. In many suburban areas 11,000 stars have become less than 100.

This pollution problem has the power to render even 100-inch telescopes useless for serious astronomy, but it also does more than that. Unwanted light also trespasses across property lines into neighbors" yards, wastes energy and money (an estimated $1 billion annually in the U.S. alone), affects sleep patterns and, because of preventable glare, causes traffic accidents. And it makes people mad.

My next-door neighbor is engaged to marry an affable, ponytailed fellow by the name of Bob Crelin. He"s a musician and a designer who creates inlays for upscale guitars. But he"s also a light pollution activist who has persuaded his own small Connecticut town to address the problem with a commonsense lighting ordinance.

Crelin, author of a children"s book called There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars and designer of a light fixture called the Glarebuster, says, “What does it mean for kids today to not have that night sky? Just dots in an orange haze. The world’s got to seem pretty small to them. For me, the night sky was the Never-Never Land. It filled me with awe.”

Crelin sees assaults on the night sky all around him. The state plans to install $2 million worth of floodlights on the I-95 highway bridge near his house. He points out that not only will the state waste 526,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year at an estimated cost of $31,600, but only five percent of the light will actually hit the bridge. The rest goes skyward, where it confuses migrating birds, among other problems. "Once inside a beam of light, birds are reluctant to fly out of the lighted area into the dark, and often continue to flap around in the beam of light until they drop to the ground with exhaustion," reports the Canadian organization FLAP.

Susan Harder became a light pollution activist when a neighbor"s 500-watt bulb ruined the retired art dealer"s appreciation of the stars above her East Hampton, Long Island beach home. Now she campaigns to increase community awareness of this insidious invader.

Light pollution is preventable and reversible. Studies in both the U.S. and Great Britain show no significant link between crime rates and extra lighting. Though security lights make us feel better, about 60 percent of all break-ins actually take place during daylight hours.

As the realization of what we"ve lost becomes clear, laws to restrict nighttime lighting are making headway in many cities and states. What"s more, a new range of sky- and neighbor-friendly lights means you, too, can become a pollution-fighting night ranger.

At least nine states have strong laws to control light pollution, and bills are pending in 10 more. Arizona"s is probably the strongest, since it requires all outdoor light fixtures above 150 watts (except airport navigational lights and some streetlights) to be shielded, which means no light can rise above the bottom of the lamp. New Mexico gives residents and businesses the option of shielding lights or shutting them down at 11 p.m. Other states, like Texas, Maine and Connecticut, regulate state-funded lights only.

It was a concerned Virginia high school student, Jennifer Barlow, who took the initiative to found National Dark Sky Week, which was celebrated April 19 to 26 this year. The group Barlow, an amateur astronomer, founded recommends that you honor this special event by turning off unnecessary lights, spreading the word, going to star parties and observatories, and seeing "the greatest show the universe has to offer from a safe location." The largest light pollution group is the International Dark-Sky Association, which has 41 sections in the U.S. and branches in 17 countries.

My girls don"t know what I"m talking about when I rail about light pollution. That great blankness up there is all they"ve ever seen.