How to Take Back The Night from Light Pollution and Enjoy The Stars Again

Light pollution at night is a growing urban problem. Most of us city dwellers can no longer see the stars at night, and this will only become worse as we become more urban. Dark skies at night is a common pooled resource that we can reclaim when we reduce light pollution though proper governance of the commons.

What, you may be asking, are dark skies good for?

  • Environment and tourism. Sea turtle spawning areas, such as beaches near Coco Beach, Florida, are protected from residential light pollution. House lights draw newly hatched sea turtles inland, overriding their instincts to go towards the sea. And who doesn’t enjoy a twinkling starry night as part of their vacation?
  • Research. Dark skies make it easier to conduct astronomy at places such as Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Currently, astronomers are forced to work hours away from the nearest city to avoid light pollution.
  • Mental and physical health. Too much or the wrong type of light at night can be hazardous for drivers, pedestrians, and those struggling to get enough sleep. As mentioned in this NBC News article, Phoenix’s city council recently voted to replace the bulbs in all 90,000 lamps on streets and in parks with yellow-hued 2700k LEDs, reducing light pollution while offering safer driving conditions and fewer health effects. Seeing stars at night gives many of us a greater spiritual connection to the universe around us, helping our mental health.
  • Arts and Culture. Access to the stars and planets helps native cultures reclaim traditional navigation techniques. Learning about constellations that they can see helps children learn about history and culture. Fireworks and light shows are just better against a dark sky.

We know from Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons that it takes layers of appropriate regulation to keep common pooled resources going. By applying Ostrom’s guidelines, here’s what we could do to reduce light pollution and protect dark skies for all:

  • At a national level, create investment and incentives for the design, production and adoption of lighting that is less polluting. Create national building and safety codes and standards to encourage better lighting that doesn’t pollute. Protect places like national parks and wilderness areas from encroaching light pollution.
  • At the state level, adopt the codes and standards created at national level in ways that fit with each state’s needs and challenges.
  • At the local level, enforce better lighting codes. Also provide and promote rebates and other incentives to purchase lights and fixtures that are less polluting.
  • At the individual level, comply with codes, adopt new products and methods, and support organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association that combat light pollution.

At its heart, light pollution is a design problem. We need better designed lighting solutions that put light where we want it, when we want it. Design and technology that can help reduce light pollution includes

  • LED bulbs with different, controllable hues and intensities
  • Fixtures the shine more light on the ground, where we want it anyway
  • Smart lighting systems that make better use of motion detection and dimming to lower lights where and when they aren’t needed

How would your view of your neighborhood, and your world, change with a reliable view of the Milky Way overhead? And if you live in a place with dark skies, what would it mean to lose that view?

(Governing the Commons and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.)

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