Light Pollution: Is It Our Problem?
Every year, hundreds of thousands of baby sea turtles hatch from their eggs in what is one of the largest reptilian spawns known to man. After climbing from the pit they were buried in by their mother as eggs, the sea turtles embark on the daunting journey to the coastline to become one with the sea they will only leave a few times, if ever, to return to their birthplace and deposit their own eggs. The journey from nest to ocean is littered with predators that have adapted their lives to accommodate the massive event, so making it to the water is truly a test of physical fitness and a bit of chance for these minuscule newborns – natural selection at its finest. This process, while harrowing, ensures that only the strongest and most well adapted offspring survive, consequently improving the gene pool with every generation and keeping sea turtle populations in check.
Unfortunately, in recent years human presence near the coastlines these turtles are born on has begun to make a serious negative impact on this process of natural selection. As more humans moved into these coastal cities, more lights began to pop up to accommodate beachgoer nightlife. Initially, the brightest source of light was the moon’s reflection off of the ocean, but in recent years the light emanating from clubs and streetlights has overshadowed the moon’s reflection. The baby turtles are instinctually inclined to follow the brightest light source they see once they reach the surface of the beach. This, in turn, spells disaster for turtles that surface facing the city and randomizes which babies live and which ones die – a direct result of human presence that could potentially pollute the gene pool and alter or even decimate the species altogether.
Baby turtles aren’t the only species being affected by light pollution. In fact, the excess light our cities emit into the night sky affects nearly every nocturnal and migratory species that lives near humans. Predator-prey relationships are strained greatly amongst nocturnal animals, because the excess light gives certain species an advantage over the other. For migratory birds and mammals that rely on the stars and moon to navigate, this obscured view of the night sky makes it much harder to find their destination and can even land entire populations in places they simply are not adapted to survive in.
Debate surrounding light pollution does not stem from whether or not the problem exists, as there is generally consensus where that is concerned, but rather about its import in context of our society. Some view light pollution as a minor side effect of humankind’s technological advancement, and feel it is of little concern because it has no foreseeable effect on humankind beyond obscuring the aesthetically appealing night sky. Members of this camp have a largely anthropocentric view towards preservation and environmental awareness. They believe humans are of the utmost importance, so the environmental impacts of our actions are negligible as long as they don’t put humankind at risk. On the other side of the debate lie the environmentalists, or those who feel that mankind’s social and technological progress should not affect the livelihood of Earth’s other living creatures or alter the Earth’s natural ecology.
In his staunchly anthropocentric essay, They Stopped the Sky from Falling, Greg Easterbrook fervently condemns “damophobes” on the grounds that environmentalists are too concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment and wrongfully advocate for issues that should not concern us at all. He contends that attempts to show that these technological advances often outweigh the impacts they have on the environment, citing the James Bay project as his primary example. He defends the project’s merit, alleging that, “The James Bay project, which has hewn dozens of dams into a region rich with glacial rivers, already generates about as much power as five Three Mile Island stations” (Charney 134). He goes on to challenge environmentalists’ stance, suggesting that, “many environmentalists think that in order to be pro-conservation, they must be anti-production” (Charney 135).
Using this line of argument and Easterbrook’s general opinion on the way environmentalists think, he would likely argue that making the switch to LED lights is an unnecessary waste of resources on the grounds that there are no severe ramifications of the continued use of HPS lighting. While some species’ habits and lifestyles may be affected by it, in time the species will learn to adapt to the new conditions, similarly to how he believes “the tundra and wild-river ecology will reassert itself” in the matter of the James Bay project (Charney 136). Easterbrook’s primary motivation for his argument seems to be efficiency – how much energy we can produce at the lowest cost to us. To that end, I think Chivers would serve to be his most immediate contender.
In Scraping Bottom, Chivers harps on how our harvesting practices are decimating fish populations because they are simply too effective. While he never argues for either side firsthand, the anecdotes and information he includes insinuates that he agrees with the general consensus of traditional fisherman. He highlights different plausible approaches to counteracting this rapid decline in population – most of which include some form of regulations that limit how much a fisherman can catch, where he/she can fish, and even restrict the use of certain fishing methods altogether. Chivers seems to blame federal law for being too slow to take action regarding this problem, citing their preoccupation with the money generated by the massive amounts of fish caught in each harvest as the main cause. The essay’s main line of argument is that humankind has no right to destroy the ecosystems and life cycles of other living creatures with our technology, because we share the planet with them and they therefore have just as much claim to the land as we do. He emphasizes this notion of sustainability when he quotes Pete Taylor, a “traditional fisherman” who “thinks the low-tech fishing styles of yesteryear have the least impact on the bottom, and thus are the most sustainable” (Charney 133). Chivers clearly takes an environmentalist stance here, and would likely do the same on the matter of LED lights vs. HPS lights.
He ends his editorial with another quotation from Pete Taylor that undoubtedly echoes his own stance on the matter, chiding that, “federal fishery people have just let this problem build and build. It makes [him] sick” (Charney 134). Following this same vein, Chivers would most likely respond to Easterbrook by citing the fisheries as an example. While the ecological consequences of relying on HPS lights seem low now, humankind is bound to expand and urbanize further, and with that new urbanization comes more lights. This would only serve to exacerbate the problem, and would likely create a similar bind in the future where federal government is too hesitant to intervene because of the extreme financial toll it would impose on them. Chivers would propose making the switch to LED lights as early as possible; primarily because of the reduced effect they would have on wildlife, but also to avoid this extreme financial burden should we decide to make the switch in the years to come.
In 2013, residents of Berlin, Germany tirelessly fought to repudiate an initiative from their local government to switch some 43,000 gas-powered streetlights on the grounds that the switch would negatively impact the city’s aesthetics. Critics of the switch considered the gas lamps to be a world heritage icon and memento from Victorian-era Berlin. Berlin’s residents felt they had been forced to give up a significant part of their culture in the past and the fact that “so many historic lanterns have survived redevelopment, bombing and partition, even on streets that are otherwise lined with post-World War II buildings,” spoke to the tenacity of the city as a whole (O’Sullivan). The initiative’s critics also referred to the gas-lamp’s practicality arguing that, “the oxygen-free environment within gas lamps prevents their corrosion, giving them a lifespan of up to a century” (O’Sullivan). This anecdote serves as a support for the notion highlighted in Easterbrook’s argument that making the switch to LED lights is an unnecessary and, in this case, unwanted change that serves to offer little benefit to the individuals that would be paying for it.
A New York Times article, “LED Streetlights in Brooklyn Are Saving Energy but Exhausting Residents,” highlights the polarized public opinion in the wake of the more than $14 million in combined savings from the borough’s switch to LEDs. While the financial benefit from making the switch proves undeniable across the board, “to some residents, the new lights make it feel as though a construction or film crew is working outside all night” (Chaban). The author provides multiple viewpoints about the switch from Brooklyn residents in his article, ranging anywhere from comparisons to “Night of the Living Dead” to sincere testimonies about how, “while [the new lights] were a bit shocking at first… it definitely makes the park feel safer at night” (Chaban). He goes on to cite reports of positive public reception in areas like Philadelphia and Detroit, and even improved facial recognition rates in surveillance cameras in parts of Los Angeles that have made the switch from HPS lights to LEDs – further evidence that making the switch to LED lights serves to benefit humankind as well as the ecosystem. This article helps to bolster Chivers’ point about sustainability by showing that finding a way to make technological advances while also preserving the natural ecology is not only possible, but helpful to all involved parties.
Nicholas Kristof, another proponent of the anthropocentric approach, would argue that the fact that a significant amount of residents are bothered by the new lights renders the other observed benefits from LEDs moot. His article, “In Praise of Snowmobiles,” illuminates the controversy surrounding reforms made by the Bush administration that limit transportation methods to four-stroke vehicles. His rebut emerges amidst a push from some environmentalists who are trying to take the reforms a step further and remove snowmobiles from the National Park altogether. Kristof contends that snowmobiles are the best and most environmentally friendly way to get around Yellowstone in the winter months and warns that, if they were banned humans would essentially be banned from Yellowstone during the winter as well. He reasons that snow coaches, the only viable four-stroke alternative to snowmobiles, “are very noisy, and one study found that they are also more polluting – even per passenger – than four-stroke snowmobiles” (Charney 155). Kristof blatantly asserts his main line of argument, suggesting that, “our aim should be not just to preserve nature for its own sake but to give Americans a chance to enjoy the outdoors” (Charney 155). To this end, he would presumably argue Chivers’ point about sharing nature with animals saying that we should be able to enjoy the wilderness too if humans and animals have equal ownership of the land.
Some authors position themselves somewhere between the two camps, offering up alternatives that serve as a compromise between the two schools of thought. For example in, Taming the Wilderness Myth, Arturo Gómez-Pompa acknowledges humankind’s involvement in the ecosystem’s development by citing “scientific findings [that] indicate that virtually every part of the globe, from forests to humid tropics, has been inhabited, modified, or managed throughout our human past” to highlight that the concept of wilderness is entirely based on the onlooker’s level of urbanization (Charney 144). He uses “indigenous groups in the tropics” as an exemplar for how we view the tropical forest as wilderness, but to the people that live there, “it is their home” (Charney 142). Gómez-Pompa goes on to describe some of the indigenous groups’ conservation tactics, like the ritual moratorium they imposed on fishing during salmon spawns to ensure the next generation of salmon gets a fair chance to mature and reproduce, providing a paradigm for the viability of alternative hunting measures.
He draws on Kristof and Chivers’ notion that the land is ours to share with the wildlife that lives there, affirming that, “humans are not apart from nature” (Charney 149). Gómez-Pompa would likely argue that humans have always played a role in the development of the world’s ecology and this is no exception, but that cases where species are immediately affected should be handled by the communities that share the land with them, as the two are intrinsically connected. The past has shown us that the environment and other species readily adapt to changes brought about by us, so we must be cautious not to prematurely deem ecological changes that result from our involvement as an issue, or a nonissue. Instead, we should evaluate our impact on the ecosystem on a case-by-case basis and formulate a plan that achieves some sort of equilibrium between humankind and its fellow inhabitants in each unique situation. Concerning the urgency behind making the switch to LEDs, Gómez-Pompa would therefore take the stance that making the switch to LED lights is practical in areas where light trespass impedes on the livelihood of the other organisms, like the coastal cities where sea turtles hatch, but that it may be too drastic a move on a national or global scale.
In a similar fashion, John Robinson’s stance would be best classified as somewhere between an environmentalist and anthropocentric view. In, The Responsibility to Conserve Wild Species, Robinson suggests that intervention is justified if it brings some immediate benefit to the species as a whole, but cannot be justified on a case-by-case basis. He credits urbanization for the shift in dynamic between mankind and the natural world, commenting on the ethical justification of the urban man intervening in the lives of wild animals, considering we no longer live in the wilderness. Robinson’s insinuation that urban society lost its claim to the wilderness when we made the decision to urbanize gives the essay strong environmentalist undertones; however, his strict classification of the wilderness and urban society as two completely separate sectors is reminiscent of the anthropocentric belief that portions of the earth are somehow subject to some sort of species-based ownership.
While he himself may be classified as an environmentalist, Robinson’s argument that human intervention in the lives of animals must “promote the conservation of populations or species” for it to be ethically justified does not neatly fit in the same category. Like Gómez-Pompa, Robinson would likely argue for the implementation of LEDs on a case-by-case basis. He is bound to be a strong advocate for the switch near beaches and in rural areas where there is a high concentration of nocturnal animals, but would probably side with Kristof’s point that the lights have no place in urban areas where the residents find them problematic. For the former, Robinson would contend that the organisms in question haven’t adapted to coexist with us, and that our increasing presence in those areas could prove catastrophic for the other species living there if the issue remains unaddressed.
I think the main problem with light pollution lies in the fact that we have no way of knowing its effects until after it is too late. We have the resources to remedy the excess light we produce, and it would financially benefit humankind to do so in the long run, so it seems like an obvious decision to me. Humankind serves to gain absolutely nothing from the continued use of HPS lighting, and updating our lighting infrastructure to LEDs will provide an efficient, effective, and environmentally friendly source of lighting that we can use for the rest of the foreseeable future. While I understand the arguments of the anthropocentric school of thought, I simply cannot forgo the blatant evidence that suggests that light pollution can become a potentially dangerous phenomenon for global ecology. Touting a 20-year lifespan, LED lights offer humanity a bright and sustainable future while also safeguarding the wildlife we share the world with.
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