Glare Bombs v. The Heavens in Florida

Light Pollution

Blur – Far Out (mp3)

I caught the lunar eclipse Wednesday night but couldn’t find the satellite being exploded. That was clearly the more awesome event and would have been broadcast live on PBS if we had a halfway competent government.

I mention this because it reminded me of all the stars we had during our Florida Keys trip last month. They were allover in a way we hadn’t seen before, in a way we didn’t recall from last year’s trip. It was like one of those desert places where universities build their observatories. I, since I’m really good at figuring things out, explained to everyone that this was because there were no lights around to drown all the stars out, just water. All we had to compete with was U.S. 1, and the roadside kitsch on either side of U.S. 1, and nothing beside that from the panhandle to Cuba.

(I was fixated on U.S. 1 this trip, convinced the story of the Florida Keys was not the story of island life but the story of the American road. We kept running into markers for Flagler’s Folly, the railroad that preceded the paved road, a story that writes up as a South Floridian There Will Be Blood. America’s epic distilled to two lanes.)

My mind was just frazzled. It took us two nights to figure out the stars were there because there wasn’t any moon.

I was walking around the park with Katie on New Year’s Eve gazing up at these things, and predictably, as New Yorkers, we fell into talking about light pollution. More specifically, about that New Yorker light pollution article from a few months back. For a couple of post-Inconvenient Truth ecologists, here was something else to feel guilty about. The article, The Dark Side by David Owen, built up detail on detail into a cosmological gothic: glare bombs, circadian rhythm cancer, decimated insect populations, Vegas light leakage, children with telescopes, Home Depot signs on the moon.

The debate on light pollution, to the extent there is a debate, is a funny one: not good v. bad, or (like the guy who keeps taking out those Why won’t Al Gore debate me? ads) bad v. non existent, but bad v. who cares, bad v. we have priorities, bad v. lighten up.

As a generalization, the world’s big light polluters are its big energy consumers, our most economically developed nations. That seems to matter more than densely v. sparsely populated. Light pollution doesn’t come from the underdeveloped or remote regions, from the $1 a day world. Light pollution is a form of waste, but waste when waste is the burning off of luxury.

I don’t want to fault them, but the light pollution advocates haven’t been discussing the question on the metaphysical level. You’re going to call me old fashioned, but back in the day we used to think of light and dark primarily as symbols. They were the forces also known as good and evil; they were born to do battle with each other. Two players, two sides:

Mainstream faiths (the MSF) play down this idea now—the belief where (and I’m cribbing) evil is “a form of privation or defect of being.” But the heresies had it—the Dualists: Manichaeists, Gnostics, the Gospel of John, maybe the Gospel of Judas, all those Zoroastrian priests sticking to their craft over in Iran. The church condemned all these guys because they had a respect for the Dark Side, the way people used to have respect for their enemies. The Dark Side was equal and oppositional, and the outcome of Light v. Dark was not predetermined. Darkness wasn’t, as physics (or the Beastie Boys) has sort of confirmed, the absence rather than the opposite of light.

The light pollution question could have been about more than the environment. It could have been about one planet in a cosmos-wide struggle, where the slow crawl of Light over Darkness throughout human history, and Light’s giant leap around the world in the century since Edison, are praised as measurable signs of progress in the battle against the forces of Evil. Light illuminates.

That might make it a battle with an end in sight. As industrial development and economic freedom spreads, when light comes to the dark countries, when light gets full coverage over the earth’s surface, we will see the total triumph of light over darkness in our home arena. And we can move to the next planet and fight the battle there. Good wins.

Katie was having none of this, though. She said I was trying to spook her. She said I had dragged her back into the total darkness to scare her with ghost stories, like some cruel camp counselor. The whole logic of the idea was dumb.

This was not the reaction I was expecting. I was only trying to impress her with some philosophical extemporization. I wasn’t trying to scare anybody. I wasn’t saying the threat from Darkness was imminent, or advocating we immediately man the spotlights. And we weren’t lost in the park, and I was carrying a flashlight. But she threw me off my train of thought.

I wasn’t saying that once we bathe the surface of the earth in light the world would end. Though I suppose it could end. I mean it would have earned its permission. Peace with honor and all that.


  1. Katie
    Posted February 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Steve, should I go back to school and get my MBA?

    Wait, I think I just felt a piece of my soul dying. damn.


  2. Posted February 24, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Katie, if you even have to ask this question, the answer is always ‘YES.’

    When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say “Yes.”!

  3. Posted February 26, 2008 at 4:57 am | Permalink | Reply

    interesting take on the Gnostic Gospels here

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