“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.” â€• Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline
Nice idea, Mr Longfellow. I like your style, very poetic. But not very up to date. Not modern. Not relevant for most of us. The stars are largely gone, at least if they are if you live in a city of even moderate size. For most people, lying on your back and looking at the stars is rather like viewing a heavily tobacco-stained ceiling into which someone has screwed a handful of failing three-volt torch bulbs.
But so what? You should know this, Mr Longfellow. Most people don’t know, or don’t care. Yes, occasionally there’ll be times when, stumbling out of a bar at midnight, on a cold clear night in late November or December, people in cities will glance upward and see something more than the usual feeble sparks. Yes, something might stir within them, a sense of mystery perhaps, or a feeling that they would once have chosen the word “awesome” to describe. (Mr Longfellow, I’m talking about the time before the word was used to depict, perhaps, a particularly large pizza with six additional toppings and a cheese-filled crust, or a moderately impressive basketball shot.) Yes, they might even experience a fleeting sense that we are indeed part of a vast cosmos, a place where distances are truly incomprehensible, that we are only here for an infinitesimal amount of time in comparison to the vast ocean of time that has existed before us and which will continue to exist far beyond our lives, our solar system, our galaxy. Then they’ll throw up in the street and by the next morning will have forgotten all about it. Only the hangover will remain, albeit briefly.
Look, Mr Longfellow. People don’t miss what they’ve never had. It isn’t worth spending time or money on this problem. There are no votes here - I’m never going to get any politician to buy into this, so why are you trying to convince me to do otherwise? And besides, it really is very important to – well, to the CEOs of many companies and corporations, as well as to senior leaders from many major political parties – that the outsides of their headquarters are well lit. Well, you may say that it takes 5000W of lighting to illuminate a five-storey building, but these things are necessary. Yes, even at three o’clock in the morning, Mr Longfellow! People need to ensure that they know what the outside of the local town council building looks like, even in the early hours. It's never too late, or too early to enjoy a faceless office block. Yes, it's expensive, but all that power we generate has got to be used for something, right?
What about the animals? So what are we talking? Sea turtles? Foxes? Bats? Insects? OK, so they like it dark. They can move, can’t they? Surely they can move? Or be moved? They can’t? Well, they can, you know, just be quietly forgotten about, can’t they? Let’s go with that, shall we? Anyway, survival of the fittest, isn’t it? The hardiest sea turtles will presumably survive and will live to create new generations of increasingly light-loving descendants, so what are we worrying about here? That’s progress, surely?
What’s that, Mr Longfellow? You think it’s still worth spending time and money investigating a way of reducing what you seem to think is a problem?
Well OK, if you insist. I understand that there are companies that do in fact make street lighting with what’s called full cut-off fixtures. It’s quite simple really, they just stop the light leaking out from around the edges of the light and stop it heading out into space. The light, amazingly enough, can then be better used to light up the ground, where people actually want it. Street lighting with full cut-off fixtures is being used increasingly, but where it isn’t – well, Mr Longfellow, I can’t do everything. You are going to just have to get up off your poetic butt and go and speak to the people who are using lights which contribute to this problem. You know, people like the owners of shopping malls, and the owners and operators of office blocks and public buildings. When you see buildings being planned, ask about the lighting schemes. (Yes, Mr Longfellow, looking at planning applications may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but you’re just going to have to get used to it.) Talk to city councillors, talk to developers. Convince them that there is more at stake than just their vision of what the world should look like at night. Tell them that people are really keen to get their skies back and that light pollution is a serious issue. You may get through to them, you never know.
And speak to the architects of new schemes. Try to convince them that, by uplighting a building, they are ruining the night sky for thousands of people. Yes, I know it's going to be difficult. You may only have an aesthetic argument to put before them, and you may struggle to win it – it’s only the majesty of the universe we’re talking about here after all, and in some architect’s minds that will definitely come a poor second to illuminating a dull municipal headquarters or cookie-cutter apartment block in an interesting shade of chartreuse. But do try, Mr Longfellow, if it really matters to you. Maybe it matters to other people as well - perhaps they just do not realise it just at the moment. I believe it was one of your fellow countrymen – a Mr Henry David Thoreau – who once said that “the stars are the jewels of the night and perchance surpass anything which day has to show”, and he’s probably right. Best of luck.