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Univ should move into 21st century and address light pollution

Published: September 5, 2014
Section: Opinions


Walk out of your dorm at night, and you’ll quickly realize Brandeis doesn’t seem to be a particularly dangerous place. Every path and building has been carefully illuminated to create both dramatic ambiance and a sense of safety for late-night walkers. Most paths have two or three, sometimes even four, lights carefully trained on the pavement. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this valuable lighting is wasted, flittered away into outer space and away from where it’s needed. This is light pollution, and it’s a major problem.

Light pollution doesn’t create anger the way other forms of pollution do. There is no anti-light pollution activism here on campus, no angry talking heads on the news decrying the destruction of our night sky, no stories of distraught parents who lost their children to light pollution-related cancer. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to assume light pollution doesn’t matter, or that it’s just a case of some angry person complaining that a street light shines into his window. Whereas global warming is considered a global problem, we assume light pollution is so localized that it’s not relevant. In truth, however, the lighting policies of this campus are destructive both to the well-being of its surroundings and the fulfillment of its environmental commitments, and something needs to be done.

The next time you take a midnight stroll past Usdan, look up. Above you, you’ll see streetlamps shaped like glass spheres on spikes illuminating the path and building. Well, more accurately they’re illuminating the sky above the building and some of that light coincidentally hits something else. You see, in globe streetlamps, over 50 percent of the surface area of the glass is located on the top half of the sphere, since a scion of the bottom is taken up by wiring. In other words, over 50 percent of the lighting goes up toward the sky and away from the path below it. Though some of this light may reflect off trees or the walls of buildings, the majority of that light is lost. It’s not hard to imagine the environmental effects of light pollution on our campus and in our local and national communities.

According to the International Dark Sky Association, the leading international light pollution advocacy group, over 30 percent of all outdoor light produced in the U.S. is wasted out into the sky. This costs the U.S. economy $2.2 billion and 12.9 million barrels of oil every year. Brandeis, as a first-tier research university, has an obligation to take a leadership role in preventing this kind of needless waste. Our university has already adopted a strategic plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, but parts of our lighting system are so antiquated they are barely functional and need to be replaced to meet our deadline. In fact, the level of efficiency for these types of lamps is actually so low it endangers any university effort to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions. For a university dedicated to environmental activism and social justice, this may be both the largest singular energy waste on campus and one of the easiest to fix.

Although the global environmental effects of light pollution are high, it also takes its toll on our local communities. Light reflected into the sky competes with starlight, blocking out our view of the heavens and instead leaving an eerie luminescent glow. Many natural species depend on the stars for migration, reproduction or hibernation, and by blocking out the stars we often doom entire communities to death. For birds especially, excessive light pollution can draw migrating birds close to ground level where they often crash into windows, buildings or each other. Every year, the American Bird Conservancy estimates 300 million to 1 billion birds are killed in collisions related to improper light pollution, many of them endangered or threatened species. The environmental costs of losing 1 billion birds per year is almost unimaginable, but for too many species it has become a grim reality. Luckily, the solution to this wanton environmental destruction is actually simple.

Now, that you wandered past Usdan at 1 a.m., head down to the SCC or up to Mandel or over to the Heller school and look up again. You’ll see something very different: lamp posts with a shade. These types of lamp posts redirect light that shines upward back down onto the ground instead of out into outer space and are thus twice as energy efficient. These lampposts don’t cost significantly more money than the ones outside Usdan, and with an endowment of over $700 million the university easily has the resources to invest in them. In doing so, they could take a simple, concrete step to support both our local environment and our carbon commitments. The solution to too many of our crises is simple: End the scourge of light pollution on our campus. The birds will be happy you did.