Gent is an amateur astronomer and the public-relations officer for the International Dark-Sky Association, which is dedicated to combating light pollution—the growing glow of man-made outdoor lighting that is making it more and more difficult to see the stars. "When I was a boy growing up in Arizona, I would look up at night, and the sky would be filled with millions of stars—I could see the galaxy—and it was a magnificent spiritual experience," Gent recalls. "But all those stars aren't visible anymore because the lights of urban sprawl make them impossible to see. In fact, now that the vast majority of people across the country live in cities, they rarely get to experience that—maybe only when they go on vacation."
Life in brightly illuminated cities is distorting our concept of the universe. For many people, the once-eternal night sky is only about 40 feet high—the height of a street lamp—and its heavenly pageant of stars is reduced to a scraggly strand of Christmas lights from a Charlie Brown tree. The valuable message of night, which for centuries checked the human ego with a humbling reminder of Earth's true itsy-bitsy-ness, has been obscured by the electric glow of our self-promoting light show.
The two biggest reasons for lots of outdoor lighting are security and advertising. For electric companies, those reasons work together. Southern California Edison recently concluded a major advertising campaign that described a dark front yard as a welcome mat to burglars. One of its billboards showed a single woman crouching indoors and peering out the window at the hazy shadow of a man who appeared to be carrying a weapon—a man who, when the lights went on, turned out to be carrying flowers.
"The idea that more light equals better security is a misconception," insists Bob Gill, an administrator in the physics department at Cal State Fullerton who oversees the campus's compliance with environmental and security regulations. "By shielding bulbs and directing them where they're needed, it's possible to control lighting and reduce light pollution without detriment to security."
Likewise, a study of commercial lighting by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America concluded that many companies use five times the amount of light necessary for effective marketing. "It becomes kind of a lighting war—like, I can make a light brighter than you can," says Gent, whose International Dark-Sky Association represents 3,300 members in 69 countries. "It's almost reached the point where you can get a sunburn going to McDonald's at night."
The effects of all this nonstop light aren't merely aesthetic. Studies indicate an adverse impact everywhere, from the eyesight of babies raised in too-bright nurseries to migrating birds that are confused into flying at night and crash into buildings. "For millions of years, we have lived on this planet with day and night," says Gent. "Now business is trying to take away the night. To me, it's a national tragedy."
Unlike most forms of pollution, however, nearly all the ill effects of light pollution can be solved instantaneously—by pulling a plug or flipping a switch. Gibson Reaves, 76, the noted astronomer from USC who grew up in Los Angeles near the intersection of Highland Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, can attest to that. "The last time I saw a good-looking night sky in the cities of Southern California was during the blackouts and gas rationing of World War II," Reaves recalls. "That created less smog and less light. We were scared—we didn't know what was going to happen—but it was beautiful. I've never forgotten it."
It seems the best nights are like that. Every time I look into a dark, star-dusted sky and consider the inconceivable, I am reminded of a power greater than myself and a mystery beyond any attempts to solve. I can feel frustrated—doomed—when I realize that my fate is so out of my control. I can feel cynical—angry—when I see how feeble are the looms of religion and science upon which we weave our faith. But more often these past few years, my reflexive choking gasp in the face of astronomical grandeur is relieved by a breath of resuscitating air—a new perspective. Sometimes, when I am open-minded and willing, I can see the endlessness of the universe as a healthy reminder, which places my ego in its proper perspective. I can be calmed and consoled by it, too, because to surrender to its plan is to receive freedom from my own. My concerns, my schemes, my schedules, my self-serving expectations of myself and my judgmental expectations of others—they can fall away, replaced by the simplicity of what I am pleased to be reminded are my core values: love, tolerance, helpfulness. A starry, starry night reminds me that I am neither such a big deal, nor such a bad guy, as I had hoped or feared.