Dark Sky

Ward Schumaker's illustration accompanying Grant Barrett's essay in the NYT.

Lexicographer Grant Barrett published a list of words that entered into common usage in 2011 that he thinks will be with us for a while. One of them was this:

DARK SKY Designates a place free of nighttime light pollution. For example, the island of Sark in the English Channel is a dark-sky island.

This is meaningful in several respects. First, it signifies that light polluted skies, hazy, starless, jaundice-colored, are so ubiquitous that the absence of them is notable (and now, through the International Dark Sky Associations’s Dark Sky Places program, certifiable.) Second, the common adoption of the phrase signifies (I hope) that people are waking up to the harm light pollution causes to animals, plants and quite probably humans and are willing to do something about it. Unlike many intractable problems, light pollution has a clear and simple solution: full cut-off outdoor lighting fixtures.

The cynic in me sees a scarier, sadder, side to the creation of Dark Sky preserves. I worry that people will become complacent and think that we can hem the night sky into little zoos and then not worry about the skies everywhere else. It’s only partially about an inspiring vista, remember, there are health and environmental impacts, not to mention grotesque wastes of money involved.

And there’s the commoditization of nature. Bill McKibben once wrote that the difference between wilderness and civilization is that in wilderness nobody can sell you anything; I fear that advanced capitalism is figuring out how to sell us wilderness itself. To put it more straightforwardly-the rarity of truly dark skies and the cost to get these places is putting perhaps one of the most crucial views of the universe-and our place within it-out of reach of many people. The night sky should not be for rich people only. Something once free, like air or sunshine, has now been turned into a rare commodity. I wonder when they’ll start trading it. But that leads me to a different word of 2011 according to Barrett: Occupy Wall Street. But that’s for a different blog.

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