Light-Struck Or Star-Struck?

March 22 2004

With fossil fuel-burning vehicles multiplying like fruit flies and the planet steadily warming, the subject of light pollution may not appear to be an environmental priority.

It should be. Brightly lit civilization is creeping across the landscape as inexorably as urban sprawl. It is keeping most Americans from ever enjoying the nuances of the night sky.

Except for people in remote areas, most of us live as if a faraway flashlight were trained on our eyes, preventing us from viewing celestial surroundings. An estimated two-thirds of the population has never looked heavenward to witness the wonder of their own galaxy, the Milky Way, as subtle as milkweed silk.

That's sad from an aesthetic point of view. But it also prevents the light-struck from experiencing the cosmic connection that is both a source of inspiration and a humbling thing.

When lying on one's back in the dark looking up at a sky full of stars, there's a feeling of communion with those distant points of light. We can imagine others like ourselves looking up from other galaxies. We are inspired to learn and explore. This is an experience worth protecting just as we do mountain ridges and beautiful vistas.

Light pollution also affects plants and wildlife, as any egg farmer who keeps hens in perpetual daylight can tell you.

Some states, including Connecticut, have taken measures to regulate excessive lighting, from billboards to ballparks. New Mexico has a Night Sky Protection Act banning streetlights with high-powered mercury vapor bulbs. Maine and Arizona have adopted energy efficiency and glare standards.

In lieu of federal environmental standards, all states should adopt suitable measures to reduce light pollution, which actually save money in the long run. Here's an illuminating fact from Tucson: Officials replaced streetlights with hooded fixtures forcing the light to shine down, rather than toward the sky. The result was 50 percent more illumination at half the wattage.

Next time there's a celestial event like a comet or a meteor shower, remember that it can actually cost less to improve everyone's view.

Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant