The stars are the most accessible interface with the awesome scale of the natural world we have, and the only artificial barrier to seeing them everywhere, every night is light pollution – something individual people can help reduce by making small, smart changes at home that will save money as well as dark skies. If we can return a view of the night sky to more of humanity, then people and the environment will benefit in four major ways.
First, more people would experience the health benefits of living with darkness, the biggest of which is an increase in melatonin production, a natural and powerful antioxidant whose production is suppressed by artificial light at night. You know how difficult it can be to keep awake after watching the sun set and twilight begin. Without such a time of day or any exposure to natural darkness, we continue to stay up later and later, eating when we shouldn’t and wasting time watching TV or doing other useless things. I’m sick of living that way, aren’t you?
Second, all forms of creatures from plants to moths to deer would experience health benefits from their reduced exposure to light pollution, which can disrupt mating, hunting, and other vital behaviors that occur at night. For so many nocturnal critters, night is the only time for them to live their normal lives. By stripping them of the one environment they’ve been able to survive in, humans are evicting them from their homes.
Tucson, AZ, the nearest metropolitan area to Sonoita, is an example of a city taking the considerations of nocturnal animals seriously. Starting in 2016, the city began retrofitting existing outdoor lighting with LEDs, and putting them on a schedule that reduces their brightness as morning approaches: “The lower lumen output results in a reduction of blue light emissions of approximately thirty-four percent, which is an important factor in making the city safer for nocturnal wildlife.”
Third, more people would be able to see a starry night sky and feel awe at the natural world – a feeling that requires seeing something that challenges your concept of scale – which might not be accessible in an urban setting. This feeling of awe too is something that comes with its own health benefits, lowering stress levels, instilling a sense of humility, and increasing one’s sense of connectedness with the world, a priceless feeling itself that may move some from apathy to action, whether at an individual or community level, on climate change (Marchant).
Fourth, cities and towns would save millions annually in energy and lighting servicing expenses. Tucson’s LED retrofit saves the city roughly $2.16 million each year and reduced its total light emissions by seven percent. Not only is this reducing the amount of air pollutants being emitted in our atmosphere, but it is also reducing the amount entering our bodies and eyes, keeping us up at night and fueling poor health.
The benefits of having access to dark skies, whether taken for granted or not, are real and have a major influence on our health, the health of our lived environments, and our sense of place and purpose on this planet. How can we deny these things to the children and folks in our communities who don’t have the opportunity to travel to see dark skies? Wouldn’t it just be easier to turn our outdoor lights off at night or add timers, dimmers, or motion sensors to them? Wouldn’t it just be easier to close our curtains, keep the holiday lights up for just a week, and switch our lightbulbs to warm LEDs?
Connor and I discussed these points with the residents of the ranch we were staying at. Jim, an artist who spends half the year down here drawing horses and the owner Dan told us that starry nights are to be expected around here. We were out in horse country, where, when the moon is not shining bright, the night sky is normally blanketed with stars.
Jim said that living in such a naturally dark environment has helped his sleep cycle, allowing him to go to bed an hour or so after the sun has set and wake up at dawn. Dan, though he just moved out from his lifelong home of Tucson three months ago, has been looking upon the dark skies of southern Arizona for all his life, and he shared fond memories of going out to the mountains as a young man to watch meteor showers with friends.
Out in the fields of Dan’s ranch, Connor and I sat appreciating the night landscape, now completely illuminated by a nearly full moon. Though it was fairly overcast, we still got to see a few friendly faces in the sky – Orion, Taurus, Pleiades. In the distance, we could see homes here and there lit by a singular orange light, which is even too much out here. On a night like the 12th, we didn’t even need a flashlight to get around.
Before you turn your outdoor lights on at night, or get any new ones installed, ask yourself – how much are you going to use them? If the answer is hardly ever, then skip it. Save the money for something much less harmful and much more needed – like yard signs raising awareness about light pollution that will educate your neighbors and help them make responsible lighting decisions as well.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is an archaeoastronomical site located in Coolidge, AZ.