Skip to main content

A thousand artificial suns

Light pollution is an under-discussed aspect of urban planning.  It is true that it causes damage to ecosystems (disrupting natural flight patterns and so forth), wastes energy, both from improperly directed light (meaning into the sky rather than at the ground) and over-illumination.  Even security lights are mostly useless, particularly the unshielded million-candlepower floodlights that frightened homeowners often favor.

But that's not what really motivates my interest.  One of the few aspects where I think rural living is definitely superior to urban is that you can see the stars more clearly (as opposed to the pernicious nonsense about "rural values").  The human capacity for adaptation is very great, and the corresponding capacity for awe is easily eroded—witness the collective shrug at the exponential growth of computing power over the last thirty years.  (My SIM card has more memory than the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.  If that isn't staggering, I don't know what is.)

Here you see rural (top) and urban views of the sky.  Via Wikipedia
One area where this lack of awe is most glaring (so to speak) is with respect to our place in the universe.  The true insignificance not just of the human race, but of our entire planet, is literally impossible to grasp. I (perhaps foolishly) believe that if more people tried to grapple with that fundamental truth, the world would be a better place.  Cities inhibit this kind of thinking.  Surrounded by our amazing creations, the earth subjected and brutalized under thousands of tons of steel and concrete, it's easy to lose sight of the cosmic perspective.  Yet the logic of cities is unassailable.  New Yorkers, for example, use 75% less energy than the US average.

So reducing light pollution by the greatest possible extent is part of my harebrained scheme to bludgeon the human race with the cosmic perspective.  If the vast (and growing) number of people living in cities could each night look up and be confronted by the night sky's vastness, they might wonder why, as Watterson said, "why man considers himself such a big screaming deal."  And besides, the stars are beautiful!  Carl Sagan had some wise words on this subject:


  1. Have you considered that maybe cities are semi-intentionally designed to barricade mankind off from the uncaring universe? As Calvin said, "That's why we stay inside with our appliances."

  2. I have that pale blue dot speech on a poster in my apartment (in the middle of a city).


  3. @Anonymous: I suppose that could be true, but I still think a little more space would be beneficial at the margin. If cities were so designed, most people have long since forgotten about it. You'd be sneaking it in, so to speak.

    @Jasper: That's the ticket. Defend yourself from that creeping urban soul blight.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that