We all get a primordial thrill out of seeing bright lights in the dense, deep darkness of Northwest winters. So it’s no wonder our ancestors created festivals of lights like Hanukkah to push back the night.
But where festivals of old featured wicked olive oil and beeswax candles, ours feature hydrocarbon (paraffin) candles and electric lights, and run, 24-7, across the developed world. Before the introduction of electric city lighting, and “light pollution” in the 1800s, you could see the Milky Way from Manhattan. Today, you can barely see the stars for the glare from the developed world’s lights — which, incidentally, are visible from outer space. You can see the NASA photos at
What does that mean in Seattle Jewish community terms? If you’re out looking for three stars to tell you that Shabbat or Yom Kippur is over, Seattle’s light pollution will have obscured dozens before you see three bright enough to shine through. Basically, your Jewish holiday has ended much earlier than you thought.
Light pollution runs counter to all three tenets of Jewish environmentalism: Ba’al tashchit (do not destroy), tsar b’aleh chayyim (the suffering of living things), and tikkun olam (heal the earth).
The International Dark Sky Association (www.darksky.org) reckons that light pollution annually wastes 800 billion kilowatt-hours (KwH), or $76 billion dollars’ worth of energy (at 9.5 cents/KwH) on the sky. But beyond waste, over-lighting helps kill tens of millions of birds each year, who may lose their course or crash into buildings and other man-made obstructions, according to the Fatal Light Awareness Program (www.flap.org), an organization that seeks to bring awareness to the loss of avian wildlife. Excess lighting likewise affects the circadian rhythms of land, amphibious and sea animals. Unnatural, glowing urban light in the sky and on the horizon, or fishing boats’ lights at sea, conspire to confuse mating, migratory and egg-laying behaviors.
Up the food chain, public health and cancer researchers have found that humans exposed to moderate or bright light throughout their 24-hour cycle show negative effects in their health and sleep patterns. In line with the knowledge that 15-20 percent of U.S. workers currently do night and rotating shift schedules, and millions of students burn the midnight oil, the 2005 National Sleep Foundation survey found that at least 25 percent of Americans sleep less than seven hours a day.
Sleeping less and more poorly tends to significantly decrease production of prolactin and melatonin, which affect our moods and physical health, and ghrelin and leptin, which affect our appetites. It puts us at higher risk for industrial accidents and injuries, and significantly raises our risks of getting colorectal and breast cancers, and other diseases.
In a world where we love our reading lamps and televisions, our brightly lit celebrations (think Vegas, New York, — “the city that never sleeps” — and the Fourth of July), and our ability to stay productive even after the sun sets — breaking the late night habit and re-thinking our relationship to light are tall orders. But in the interests of our own health, and of tikkun olam, we need to grapple with this quality-of-life issue. It’s a good thing Bubbe can’t drive at night. She’s healthier for it.
Today, several hundred North American cities and communities have created light-density restrictions, energy-saving light curfews, and new lighting schedules and techniques for their outdoor illumination. At this point, Seattle isn’t one of them. But you can make a difference — you can start the glare-reduction process yourself.
Go outside on a clear night, and look at the lighting around your house, and in your neighborhood. Then look at the sky. If you can’t see the Milky Way, but only the brightest of the stars — the Big Dipper, the North Star, Orion — think about where yours and your neighbors’ lights are shining. How can you shift or shade them to put light where you need it for illumination and safety, and keep wasted light away from where you don’t so you can see more heavenly lights?
If you find yourself challenged by public lighting, on power poles or at bus stops, see about joining with your neighbors to approach your local power utility, your local parks department, and/or Metro Transit. There’s a balance they can strike to provide illumination for safety without overdoing it. Encourage those public entities to reduce unneeded, wasteful and costly lighting, and invest instead in more targeted, shaded instruments. If you find them reluctant to listen or respond, approach your city council person.
In Seattle, the city service center can be reached at 206-615-0600 for the north zone and 206-386-4200 for the south zone. City Councilman Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Energy and Technology Committee, and works with City Light, can be reached at 206-684-8804.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, the author of last November’s National Geographic magazine cover story, “Our Vanishing Night,” wrote that, “Of all the pollutions we face, light pollution is perhaps the most easily remedied.”
Next December, as we light our Hanukkah candles, let’s include kol ha kochavim b’shamayim in them — all the stars in the heavens.