One winter's night, some ten years ago, I found myself on Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke is a small island, part of a string of barrier islands along the North Carolina coast known collectively as the Outer Banks. You may know Ocracoke. If you do, you are lucky. Among other beauties, its beaches are consistently (and deservedly) ranked among the loveliest in the U.S.
But I was visiting in late November, during a bitter cold snap, and it was also night, so I wasn't lolling on the beach. I was driving. To be more accurate, I was stopped in the middle of Ocracoke's main thoroughfare with my nose pressed against the windshield trying to ascertain whether the road ahead curved left or right. I couldn't see a damn thing. The night was black velvet, with a flood of stars overhead.
Ocracoke and its residents march to their own beat. Regarding street lighting, the rules are simple. Unless a resident opts to pay for a street lamp themselves, there isn't one. Five minutes on their roads will tell you that O'cockers are thrifty folks who prefer nighttime as Nature presents it. This presents small problems for visitors and locals alike. Now and again locals crash headlong into each other, probably why many of them prefer to ride bikes.
I eventually found my way to where I was going, but I performed several more middle-of-the-road scoutings along the way. I had no wish to suddenly find a bicyclist mashed against my windshield. Once, I simply stopped to look up at the stars. It seemed impossible that there were so many. Standing beneath them felt like a very pleasant drowning.
Ocracoke Island is the exception to the rule. Did you know that roughly two-thirds of the population of the United States and about half the population of the European Union can't see the Milky Way? According to a group called the International Dark-Sky Association, light pollution is growing at the rate of 4 percent faster than the population. Want to know how bright you are? The IDA has a neat little page you can click to find out if your town lives under the thumb of light pollution. When I typed in Ventura, California the answer was unequivocally yes. When I typed Ocracoke, North Carolina the island was very nearly black. Of course, you can also just step outside to see where you fall. But odds are you already know your stars are vague. Man's ongoing rush to illuminate everything has dimmed the stars themselves.'
I bring this up because there are those fighting the good fight for dark in the night. Just last week the Ojai City Council adopted a dark-skies ordinance designed to limit light pollution. City ordinances are generally more complicated than Congressional politics, but if I understand Ojai's correctly it restricts illumination on outside lighting, and nonconforming (too bright) lights already in place have to be turned off at 10 p.m. From last week on, outside lighting installed in Ojai has to be shielded and directed downwards like some shy debutant. The city is also working with Southern California Edison to slowly replace the street lights with more night-sky friendly versions.
While the idea of dimming Ojai's lights was first championed by a group called the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, the International Dark-Sky Association soon got involved. Founded in 1988, the IDA claims to be the first organization to call attention to the hazards of light pollution. In June of last year, the IDA dispatched one Mr. Scott Kardel to Ojai to present the case for, well, dark skies. Mr. Kardel opened his presentation to City Council with the assurance that the Dark-Sky Association does not want "to turn off the lights and plunge us all into darkness and chaos... Basically we're trying to preserve the nighttime environment through responsible outdoor lighting." And then, beginning his audiovisual presentation, he said, "Can we dim the lights?" Clever, those Dark Sky people.
If you go to their website you'll see the IDA raises some interesting points. According to the IDA, light pollution doesn't just ruin our view of the stars. Poor lighting, says the IDA, threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems (nocturnal bird migrations, bat behavior and sea turtle movements), and disrupts teenage necking. I am only kidding about the last one. I just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.
According to the IDA, poor lighting also wastes energy to the tune of 2.2 billion dollars a year in the U.S., a very serious figure, and probably the main reason some 200 cities already have some kind of light pollution ordinance on the books. Governments are rarely motivated by star-gazing introspection, although Ojai, where at least one councilmember has gone on the record as being "a major environmental nutcase", may be an exception.
The IDA addresses the philosophical, too. "A lost view of the stars extinguishes a connection with the natural world and blinds us to one of the most splendid wonders in the universe," someone writes on their website. "Children who grow up without the experience of a starry night miss invaluable opportunities to speculate about larger questions and to learn about the environment and larger world."
The IDA's stated premise is simple: light what you need, when you need it.
Of course, that is a subjective matter. There are those who would argue that night lights are necessary for many things. What about crime, what about necking teenagers, what about bicyclists lurching out of the blackness, what about our individual rights to light up our own property? Even in environmentally friendly Ojai, it took almost five years to pass the dark-skies ordinance.
Once I stayed on Santa Barbara Island with friends. One square mile in all, Santa Barbara Island sits only 38 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The island is part of Channel Islands National Park, and there's nothing there but a small ranger station and a tiny campground. You don't have to visit Santa Barbara Island to imagine the night skies.
One night, sitting under those skies, my friend Tyler stared to the southeast and said, "Sometimes I wish I could go back in time. The simplicity of a lot of stuff. You know, go hunting, build a house, grow a garden. But I'm sure back then you were thinking, 'Damn, I wish I had electricity, whatever that is'."
Tyler went to get a beer. It took him a very long time.
On his return, his eyebrows arched. Or at least I think they did.
"Holy shit, it's dark."
Tyler was right. It was the kind of darkness rarely seen. It was, happily, as dark as Ocracoke.
We all sat quietly looking across the water to the southeast, Los Angeles sending up an enormous dome of sooty glow.
Actually, I lied. On that winter night in Ocracoke I was heading to the beach, but not to loll. Eventually I found my way there. It was so cold the sand cracked under my feet. The sea grass stood still and the stars hung equally frozen. Man's light was nowhere to be seen.
I walked down to the ocean's edge. The waves, dark creases, rolled in from the sea. As they neared shore, they rose and gathered the moonlight on their sloped backs and glittering faces. They came to shore like God's own pageant queens, sequined and sparkling.
Overhead an ocean of stars looked down.
I am more than willing to stop in the middle of the road for such reward.
According to their website, the IDA has 58 chapters in 16 countries. The chapters work to curtail light pollution in their area.
I wish them luck.