Will new technology make an old problem even worse?
Light pollution is one topic I’d prefer not to write about ever again. But I expect I will—and probably several times. Although it can be eliminated with the flick of a switch (literally!), the problem isn’t going away any time soon. It’s also true that by definition, light pollution is pure waste. It benefits no one, but the costs are borne by all.
Light pollution is largely a by-product of ignorance. No one would voluntarily agree to pay higher taxes for streetlights to illuminate the undersides of airborne geese. We wouldn’t deliberately deprive ourselves and our children of the splendours of the night sky. No one interested in the natural world would sign on for disrupting the migratory patterns of birds and the nocturnal habits of all kinds of critters. No one concerned about health and safety would think it’s a good idea to disturb our own sleep patterns. And yet here we are. Sadly, I fear the situation is about to get worse. Blame it on something called the Jevons paradox.
In the 19th century, English economist William Stanley Jevons noted that efficiencies gained through technological improvements were almost always offset by an increase in consumption. In Jevons’ day, the resource in question was coal. Discovering a way to burn coal more efficiently should have meant that less of the messy black stuff got used. Instead, the new efficiency drove down the price of coal, which, in turn, led to a marked uptick in consumption. And though Jevons wasn’t an astronomer (despite penning a work entitled Commercial Crises and Sun-Spots), he would surely recognize his paradox at work in the world of modern technology were he alive today. Make something cheaper, and people will use more of it.
But what has the less-is-more dilemma got to do with astronomy and light pollution? Consider this. All across Canada, cities and towns are converting conventional streetlights (often having high-pressure sodium lamps) to new high-efficiency LED fixtures. The appeal for municipal governments is obvious: If less of their budget is allocated to lighting the streets, taxes can be lowered or more funds can be directed to building new schools and libraries. So where’s the problem?
Well, if the Jevons paradox holds true, these same governmental entities will be unable to resist the urge to add more lights. Hey, we just saved 50 percent, now we can afford to light up that intersection people are complaining about. And we can add streetlights to that new subdivision on the hill. Gee, these new bulbs are so much more efficient, we can double the brightness of our existing streetlights and still save money! It’s all too easy to imagine. And for many of us, we don’t have to imagine—we can see it happening right in front of our eyes.
Perhaps the history lesson all this wasted light most clearly illuminates is that ignorance trumps reason. Fortunately, history also teaches us that information can be a powerful antidote to ignorance. I’d encourage you to share our special Light-Pollution issue of SkyNews (March/April 2019) with your nonastronomy friends. The more that people are aware that light pollution is a “thing,” the more they’ll think twice about needlessly burning the midnight oil. They say knowledge is power, but in this instance, knowledge saves power. Eliminating wasted light really is the low-hanging fruit of energy conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction. And it’s time to get picking!
Check out the March/April 2018 issue of SkyNews for an expanded version of Gary’s Editor’s Report.