Blinded by the light

The solvable eco issue you've been waiting for

One of the most striking things about spending time in the country is the stars. Those swirling galaxies, a sky more freckled than my summer skin. Something glorious can be revealed simply by remembering to look up.

We’re seeing the same constellations that are above us in the city, just no longer hidden by so much competing light. There’s a metaphor here, about all the things our progress obscures, but today we’ll be focusing on the practical: all the creatures blinded by the light.

83% of people around the world are living under light polluted skies, including 99% of Americans, and in some cities 99.5% of the stars are invisible. And according to a 2017 study, light pollution is increasing by 2% a year.

Why is this a problem? It’s not directly warming the planet or harming human health like so many other emissions, but it still has an indirect impact on us by hurting the ecosystems that support life on this blue marble. Remember that life evolved before electric light, and now it messes with the internal rhythms of all creatures great and small, slowing reproduction rates, causing birds to fly into buildings, or drawing migrations off course. Light harms a huge range of species, from corals to bats to primates. For example, newborn sea turtles use the moon to guide them on their treacherous path to the ocean, but with all the competing light sources, they can get discombobulated long enough to be gobbled up by their many predators.

And while it’s adorable to consider a wallaby wearing blue-light glasses, there’s an easier solution: dim the lights. Excess light is something that can literally be switched off to stop its negative effects. Instant gratification like this is hard to come by in the environmental space, so let’s learn how we can dim the lights for a brighter future.

At home

If you have external lights (and control over them), first assess whether they’re necessary. If so, replace them with a warm-coloured LED on a motion sensor. Warm wavelengths scatter less intense light, so choose a bulb rated under 3000 kelvins. Choose a light with a shield (a shade that focuses the light downward) around the bulb, so the light goes just where it’s needed. Shielding matters: according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), 20 to 50% of outdoor residential lighting is wasted from poor shielding. You can also look for a fixture certified by the IDA.

The bonus to all this? You’ll save money and lower your carbon emissions. Bad outdoor lighting wastes enough energy every night to power a 50-inch plasma TV for an hour. Wasted light and dead wildlife or Mare of Easttown? Easy choice.

At work

If your work isn’t your home, and there’s no one in the building overnight, kill the lights, especially if you work in an office tower. This is doubly important during migration season. Every year, tens of thousands of birds collide with buildings in Toronto alone, and many more are drawn off course, because they usually migrate by the light of the stars.

(By the way, in daylight hours, you can also use tactics like window stickers to prevent bird collisions. There’s a ton of info on effective interventions at flap.org.)

On a municipal level

Of course there are lots of big interventions that require more council meetings and patience than seem humanly possible, but Chicago is changing its streetlights, and Flagstaff, Arizona, was designated a Dark Sky Community (which sounds like a great cult I’d consider joining). Los Angeles upgraded 150,000 streetlights to LEDs, an intervention that’ll save $8 million dollars annually, and Manitoba is making province-wide upgrades to 130,000 streetlights, preventing 27,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually (roughly the energy used by 2,200 homes). Brampton, Mississauga, and Markham are all on the upgrade train. Toronto, sadly, is tackling this much more slowly.

But the bulbs themselves aren’t enough: we still need shields on streetlights that shine just where needed, warmer light, and fixtures that are a bit closer to the ground. The effect isn’t only safer for wildlife, it’s safer for humans too. Glare from poorly considered lights can actually cause accidents and is generally unpleasant. Think less institutional glare, more hygge glow.

Now you might say, what about crime? As a woman, light makes me feel safer when I’m going anywhere alone at night. But according to the IDA, several studies suggest that lights don’t actually prevent crime. In fact, brightly lit alleyways in Chicago correlated with increased crime. No one’s advocating for getting rid of lights anyway, just using the lights we have in a way that’s safer and more effective.

If this gets you all lit up like a 60-watt bulb, the IDA has info on how to advocate for better lighting ordinances in your town.


TL;DR

  • Light pollution puts many species at risk, harming reproduction and migration, but it’s an easy fix! (Words I almost never say! SAVOUR IT.)

  • Outdoor lights should be shaded so the light points downward; use warm-temperature bulbs (under 3000 kelvins) and timers or motion sensors.

  • Office towers should extinguish lights overnight, especially during migration season.

  • Revamping your city or town’s streetlights could save a ton of money and energy, and make things safer and more pleasant for wildlife and humans.


Wins of the Week

“Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.” — Richard Powers, The Overstory (If you’ve read this book and have feelings about it, write me!)

With the back-to-school vibes in the air, I’d like to give a shiny gold star to:

  • Sarah Joy, who organized a community litter pickup in their local watershed. (I especially love a win that meets the month’s theme!)

  • Tiffany, who followed my canning tutorial and successfully navigated home canning for the first time! Her peaches look delicious.

  • Nathan, who booked a plumber through Jiffy to fix all his leaky faucets and change to a low-flow toilet. He says, “There’s not a drop of water anywhere in this apartment leaving an outlet without explicit human intent.”

If you’d like to submit your recent actions for extra credit, please get in touch! You can hit reply to this newsletter, post in the FB group, or message me on the socials. I welcome good news on any channel. Whatever you do, keep taking any and all action you can. We’re in the ultimate group project, and this one requires all of us to do the work, not just the Devis and Bens among us.

xo

JK

P.S. This month brings yet another opportunity to take to the streets! The youth-led Fridays for Future is organizing another international climate strike on September 24. You may remember the last one, in 2019, that brought over six million people into the streets worldwide. You can check out the map for a protest near you. Me and my fellow Torontonians will be gathering at Queen’s Park at 12:30 p.m. (Facebook event here). While you may understandably not want to bring unvaccinated kiddos out, round up your double-jabbed posse, grab your masks, and make some good trouble.

Five Minutes for Planet is written by me, Jen Knoch, and edited by Crissy Calhoun. Opening photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash.