This June, from the front porch of a cabin built a hundred years ago, at the edge of a national forest, in a New Mexico town so small the semis only slow to 45 and no one has to stop, I couldn’t take my eyes of it: a “security light” so bright that it wiped the Milky Way from view. At first, my friends didn’t notice. But as I began to explain—see how the unshielded lamp glares every which way, and no obvious reason—they did. “It’s as though someone turned it on decades ago and forgot to come turn it off,” Alicia said. “Still,” said Tiffany,” if you hadn’t pointed it out, I wouldn’t have noticed.”
The first 30 years of my life, I wouldn’t have noticed either. Not really, not consciously, not with any perspective. Now, I notice every night—lights, lights, and more lights—no matter where I am. I began to notice when I finally got around to learning the constellations. I’d always loved the night sky, growing up going to a lake in northern Minnesota where the Milky Way spread in a sugary sash from horizon to horizon, but I’d never taken the time to learn the stars. When I did, I quickly began to learn about lights, and specifically, light pollution.
We use the term “light pollution” to cover the many different examples of society’s overuse and misuse of artificial light. Most of this light is electric, though increasingly it is electronic (think LEDs). Major elements include “sky glow,” the luminous veil of light hanging over every city of any size; “light trespass,” the light allowed to flood from one property to another—think of your neighbor’s light shining into your bedroom; and “glare,” light allowed to shine directly into your eyes. The bad news is that the costs of all this light are high, and are just beginning to be discovered by scientists, ecologists, and others. Meanwhile, our world is brighter than ever before, and growing brighter every year.
But don’t we need all this light for safety and security? The easy answer is no, we don’t. Much of this light is waste, sent to no apparent purpose. And while some light can help improve our safety and security at night, ever more light does not make us ever more safe or more secure. In fact, by casting glare and causing shadows, too much light can actually reduce our safety by making it harder to see, and by providing “bad guys” the hiding places they need. Contrary to common assumptions, safety and security at night is a complex problem that can’t be solved by simply pumping more light into the night.
The good news is that light pollution is a problem readily within our grasp to control, and that doing so goes hand in hand with improving safety and security at night. That’s because the best thing we could do with our lights is to shield them. Think of the lights in your house or apartment—how many of them are bare bulbs allowed to shine every which way? Probably none. Most are covered by lampshades or otherwise parts of lighting fixtures that direct the light where we want it, and keep it from shining where we don’t. But then, think of the lights outside your home—the streetlights, the lights on ball fields, gas stations, parking lots—the vast majority are unshielded, and so shed their light in every direction. Hence we have light pollution—wasted light shining straight into the sky, into our eyes, and into our bedrooms, and making no one safer or more secure.
We are so used to this light that we hardly notice it. Most anyone younger than 50 has grown up with all this light, and so we don’t know anything different. Once you begin to see light pollution, you see it everywhere, and you can think about how to control it. But the first step is to see the light around us.
I live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a city of around 50,000 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This spring I worked with photographer Jennifer Tremblay to gather some images of our city at night. While all these images are from Harrisonburg, when it comes to light pollution, Harrisonburg is a typical American city. So what you see here can be found, to greater or lesser degree, just about anywhere in the country.
Seeing the Light in Harrisonburg, Virginia
Gallery by Jennifer M. Tremblay
Hover over an image to see its details, or click image to view in larger format and begin slideshow:
Jennifer M. Tremblay received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Vermont in 2001, and her BFA in studio art from Keene State College in 2011. She is currently pursuing a MFA in photography at James Madison University. Her photographic work focuses on both social and environmental issues as well as exploring science from an artistic viewpoint.