I agree that it totally sucks that we can’t see the Milky Way as much as we could back in the Dark Ages, or even 20 years ago. The Milky Way is frickin’ awesome, and there’s not enough interest in science. But I still think that doesn’t justify the semantic wrangling of calling today’s skies “polluted”.
Calling progress “pollution” is a semantic stretch. It’s equivocation. What is equivocation, you might ask? It is “to use equivocal language especially with intent to deceive”. And what is the definition equivocal? “Subject to two or more interpretations and usually used to mislead or confuse.” Equivocation is using something that has 2 or more interpretations in a way to mislead or confuse. And that is what the term “light pollution” is. They are tempting to conflate the definition of “pollution” that goes with “air pollution” to be the same thing. But it’s not in any way the same as air pollution.
Look up pollution in the dictionary. “The action of polluting especially by environmental contamination with man-made waste.” Look up polluting in the dictionary. This is the one with 2 definitions that is being used in equivocation. The first, primary definition is “to make physically impure or unclean”. The second, less-used definition is “to make ceremonially or morally impure: defile, debase”. Air pollution is the “unclean” definition. Light pollution is the “defile” definition. These aren’t the same kinds of pollution.
Typically, when a layman speaks about pollution, they are talking about the first definition: impure and unclean. Things the EPA regulates. Nuclear waste. Chemical runoff. Air pollution. Factory smoke. Mercury from light bulbs. Pesticides. Things that make us physically impure or unclean. Things that physically harm us, animals, or plants.
But “light pollution” is clearly the second definition. The “defile, debase” definition. Light definitely defiles the sky, in the same way that the word “aint” defiles the English language. Yes, it’s annoying. But I like being able to drive at night. I can’t help but find environmentalists harping about “light pollution” to be engaging in a slight semantic stretch. They are equivocating light pollution with actual damage to the environment, which is not happening. They are preying upon people’s environmental guilt, and trying to get them to feel guilty that we can’t see as much in the sky.
NOT THAT I’M COMPLETELY INDIFFERENT… BUT THE DARK AGES WERE, WELL.. DARK!
I’m all for not wasting energy — not shining floodlights into the sky pointlessly. But every car headlight is visible from above. If I shine a light on my yard, you can see my house from a satellite. I need to be able to walk in my yard, even at night.
Unless you turn off every headlight of every car, and make every city street rapier (that is — more likely to having rape committed due to the darkness) — you’re going to be able to see the cities from the sky. We can’t stem the tide of time any more than we can stop using electricity. It’s almost a neo-Luddite pipe dream. It’s not going to happen.
AGAIN: “NO DAMAGE IS BEING DONE”!
And I’m sorry, but nothing is being damaged by light. If light is damaging to the environment, then we are all FUCKED, because last time I looked — I saw light. Every sight that I’ve ever seen is light. Every star in the sky is light. Every galaxy is light. And there’s a huge flaming ball of “pollution” that rises and sets every day!
If light is damaging to any lifeforms or environment, then pretty much every life form or environment in the universe is currently being damaged. I’m pretty sure there’s a star in the sky no matter where you are, unless you’re some freak planetoid that’s not part of a galaxy and has somehow drifted so far away as to be out of the reach of all light. I’m not sure that’s possible. And either way: Turning off EVERY light on planet earth is not going to change this, because the universe is full of light. Even the space telescopes have to employ people to remove interference created by (drum roll, please)… THE SUN!
The word that comes to mind with respect to the light man is creating vs the total light in the universe is: “negligible”.
THINGS THAT DISAPPEAR ON THEIR OWN DON’T.
DON’T SAY “THE BIG BANG IS POLLUTION”.
Furthermore, light disappears. The pie chart on this NASA page shows how 13.7 billion years ago, the universe was comprised of photons at a rate of 15%. The pie chart for today doesn’t even show photons — they are now a very small part of the universe. Light goes away. It does not simply “disperse”. If I put a candle in a sealed box (full of oxygen, of course), and let that burn out… And then open the box… The light isn’t going to pour out. Those photons are GONE. They don’t exist anymore. Technically, they are absorbed by nuclei, atoms or molecules, provoking transitions between their energy levels.
I’m sorry, but that is absolutely NOT pollution in the same sense as “environmental contamination” or “air pollution“. The universe is not being made physically impure by the few photons we cast off this planet. And if it was — we better nuke the fucking sun, because it’s brighter than 85% of the stars in this galaxy, and brighter than all of mankind by orders of magnitude. If light is pollution, and pollution is bad because it contaminates the environment — then let’s address the biggest polluter in our reach: The sun. Let’s nuke the fucking thing. (Of course I’m not serious when I say that!)
NO REAL HARM DONE!
By trying to group the word “light pollution” with “air pollution“, there is an implication that we are doing harm to the universe (or to Earth) with our city lights. We’re supposed to feel guilty? Right now in the sky is a sun that’s a gapillion (a word I just made up) times brighter than us. Saying we are polluting the universe is akin to chiding a cigarette smoker for ashing on the ground while he’s standing next to a volcano eruption. Again, the word that comes to mind is “negligible”.
Astronomers don’t like “light pollution” because it defiles and debases THEIR god: The visible sky. Of course any professional is mad when their job is made harder. That’s why cops taser people! If I build a cabinet around my sink’s pipes, I’m making my plumber’s job harder. I wonder if he would call that “cabinet pollution“. I wonder if street sweepers call snow “street pollution” or “snow pollution”. Someone’s job being made harder does not constitute pollution. It may pollute (2nd definition: defile/debase) the sky they are looking at, but it is not pollution.
“OKAY, IT’S NOT POLLUTION. BUT DOESN’T IT CONTAMINATE?”
Fine: Let’s look at the word contaminate. “To soil, stain, corrupt, or infect by contact or association”, “to make inferior or impure by admixture”, and “to make unfit for use by the introduction of unwholesome or undesirable elements”.
I’m sorry, but we aren’t staining the universe. Our sun is doing a gapillion times more “staining”. We aren’t corrupting or infecting the universe. Photons are absorbed by matter, as mentioned above. The matter doesn’t turn into something else; its energy levels change. And those are being changed by every star.
We aren’t making the universe impure. You could argue we’re making it inferior — but only for astronomers who want to view it easily, not for the rest of the universe.
We certainly aren’t making it unfit for use. Last I checked, everyone using the universe still is. (Except some angry astronomers.)
ASTRONOMERS’ GUILT TRIP
It seems to me that astronomers simply don’t want their sky defiled, because they want to be able to make as many observations as once. That’s their own perogative, and I wish their job was easier. I’m pro-science. But don’t try to guilt everyone into doing it.
But for example, to pre-preemptively invoke Godwin’s Law: Science is not so important that Mengele’s experiments were worth performing. Science is not so important that we should be made less safe. Streetlights deter crime. (Though many dispute this.) I know I’m less likely to be mugged if I can actually see all the people around me and make my own value judgments about my safety. And I’d rather send my unaccompanied wife down a well-lit street where 100 people can see her, than a dark alleyway where nobody can see anything. And if I was going to steal out of a car, I’d want one in a dark place so fewer people are likely to see me do it. Parking your car under a light reduces its chance of being robbed. Crime doesn’t necessarily get reduced — a hungry thief is probably going to mug SOMEbody. But if you’re in a dark alleyway, and I’m walking down a well-lit street? Guess who’s slightly less likely to be mugged? If I’m gonna mug someone, I’m going to wait in a dark alleyway where nobody can see me, and simply wait for my prey to step in front of me.
ASTRONOMY SHOULD DEFINITELY GET MORE FUNDING
If Astronomer’s jobs are so hard, we should fund more observatories in distant places: islands in the Pacific; Antarctica (less atmospheric interference); etc. And we should of course keep Hubble operational as long as possible. We should keep launching bigger and better telescopes into space. We can see far more from the space telescopes than we can see from most Earth telescopes. Nobody should be cutting funding for astronomy; if anything, some of the money spent on developing our killer military should instead be devoted to science.
THOMAS EDISON — THE POLLUTER?!?!
Edison didn’t invent a form of pollution. For the religious out there, God didn’t pollute the universe by saying “Let there be light.” For the scientific minded ones, the big bang did NOT pollute the universe by exploding light into it. (Granted, everything technically comes from the big bang.)
Light is not pollution in the “air pollution” sense. This is politically-driven semantics equivocation, designed to take our environmental guilt and use it against light.
We shouldn’t waste energy; but light pollution isn’t necessarily wasted energy. If you want to drive, you need to reflect car light off the road. Unless you invent roads that magically only deflect that light back to the drivers — some of it’s going to go up! It’s time to get over it. Lumping it in with “air pollution” is just plain silly.
BUT WHAT ABOUT EARTH?
Okay, now that I feel like I’ve more or less debunked the idea that our light is somehow messing up the universe — because this was actually brought up to me by people who said the big bang is pollution — what about earth?
I’ve heard light can mess up bird migration, bat biorhythms, and the circadian rhythms of insects.
I’m sorry, but this isn’t really our problem. If we need to feel guilty that we’re causing a bird to fly differently, or an insect to behave differently — merely because we have light during nighttime — then I suppose it’s time to destroy civilization and return to the caves.
Yes, this is a straw man. What is the real proposed solutions? Hospitals turn off all their lights at night? Ambulances drive in the dark? Nightclubs cease operation? Streets remain unlit? Drivers drive with nightvision goggles instead of headlights? Genetically alter our DNA so we can see by starlight? I’m a big fan of complaining about problems that don’t have solutions, but if you’re proposing to call something “pollution”, it’s best that you propose a real solution rather than just complain about it. If I’m being hypocritical by saying that, I’ll just have to apologize for being a hypocrite.
Anyway, nature already has a built-in compensation method for this: It’s called natural selection.
Are we making birds go extinct with our light? I really freakin’ doubt it, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the idea outright as well. Show me the evidence.. But if so: It’s time for those species to move on to the extinction phase. Man is indeed a part of nature, and there will be always repercussions to our actions. We can’t live in such a way that there is zero impact. We can minimize our impact — and that is a good thing. But there is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS going to be light at night!
If this causes a bird to go extinct: Time to evolve, buddy. Adapt, adopt, and improve: Motto of the round table. We can’t hold back our technological process for a bird. I’m not saying kill the birds on purpose: But please. Some of us drive home at night. We need our headlights. We are more important than any bird or insect. I’m on the human team, and I vote for team human. If our choice is to live in the dark like monkeys, or cause a species to go extinct: Then let’s see the extinctions happen. I don’t want them to happen, but like hell am I going to turn off lights at night.
Evolution and extinction should not be denied. Do conservationists really want to keep every species alive forever? That would constitute an imbalanced ecosystem. Things are supposed to die. Species are supposed to go extinct. Life is a battle. Like it or not, man is a part of nature. We’re an invasive species. Like kudzu. It is our nature to cause an imbalance. Most species create an imbalance if you introduce them into an ecosystem they weren’t originally in. We definitely changed North America when we arrived. A huge swath of species change the species around them. This is how nature works.
Conservation is important — but not at the cost of losing progress. And trying to make people feel guilty about a problem which has no real solution — that’s just going to turn people off to actual conversation where an actual difference can be made. Turn your lights off to save energy. Don’t turn them off because you think you’re “polluting”. That’s just ridiculous.
For other examples of politically-driven semantic equivocation, research the history of the word “addiction” (a purely medical term that has been twisted into a synonym of ‘habit’ by prohibitionists) or “piracy” (a naval term about depriving property that has been twisted to ‘copyright infringement’ intellectual property holders–though the history of this equivocation actually technically predates copyright, the layman takeover of the word did not really occur until the 1980s… there’s a reason that the ‘copyright infringement’ definition is number 3 in the list and not number 1).