What price for a dark sky? For a winter night when the air crackles with brittle stars, or sailing a dog watch beneath the Perseids? For the constellations' wheeling pageant playing out against the vault of heaven? When the only glow on the horizon is the red seam of dawn? What's that worth?
Plenty, it turns out, to a nocturnal migrator disoriented by flashing strobes, or a sea turtle looking in vain for a dark beach to lay her eggs, or her hatchlings distracted by the glare of artificial light on their desperate race to the sea. The ecological impacts of light pollution are still being cataloged but the indications of effects on both plant and animal species are very disturbing. Alex Wilson has a comprehensive article in the September, 1998 issue of Environmental Building News on light pollution that lays out some of the environmental consequences of light pollution, including the following startling observation:
"In addition to death and injury from flying into illuminated structures, the daily cycles of some birds are being altered by light pollution. According to the book Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Arthur Upgren, birds that sing at dawn are sometimes tricked by streetlights: 'The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that at any given hour on any given night, 10,000 English robins are serenading a false dawn.' ”
This composite satellite image of the United States after dark provided by the International Dark-Sky Association shows most of the land east of the Mississippi flooded with artificial light. I live in one of the few "dark" places, yet the lights on my street are unshielded and I have to get out of the village to really take in the night sky.
The skies in Africa were like nothing I ever dreamed the night could be. Stars of minor magnitude stood out against the firmament as only a telescope could reveal at home. Gazing at the spiral of our galaxy edge on, the Milky Way and the Magellanic clouds spilled out like finest sand against polished obsidian. Ghostly nebula and stars revealing a broad spectrum of color held my nightly attention at our evening fire.
There is a price for this beauty, and in rural Namibia it is a hard life in a sparsely populated desert without amenities or food security. One can only hope that livelihood diversification and rural development, when it comes to Namibia, does not discard this birthright in exchange for the benefits of modernity.
If sprawl is really the same as "bad planning", light pollution is even more so. Communities can and are taking practical steps in their municipal regulations and building codes to limit wasted light and shield the sky from its glare. The community of Norfolk in northwest Connecticut is including an assessment of its dark skies in its comprehensive natural resources inventory and will use the information it gathers to inform its Town Plan.
While the windows of every other house in my neighborhood betray television's blue corpse-light, I still try to walk in awe under the stars. When we stop turning our faces to the glorious and shivering vastness of the night sky, we mistake the flickering shadows on the walls of our caves for the universe. Our ancestors knew the night sky in all its terrible and comforting glory. Our children deserve stars of their own dark skies to steer by.