Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Too much light, or too little

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The nation behaves well if it treats natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. … Conservation means development as much as it does protection. — Theodore Roosevelt

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegWhile some countries are struggling to get electricity, others are trying desperately to turn off the lights. Increasingly, we live in a world of “haves” and “have-nots” with regard to natural resources. As a recent Fulbright scholar to Ethiopia, I lived in towns where the average energy footprint of 18 Ethiopians was equivalent to that of one American. My hot shower was often nonexistent or available in measured pitchers, yet everyone managed to get clean; the electricity went off several times per day in my rural hostel, but no one complained. And the Internet was Russian roulette, off most of the time or teasing the psyche by failing to “send” or “download” (forget any attachments!).

In contrast, many developed countries have recognized that their energy footprints are too large to be sustainable. So turning off the lights is one positive step toward reducing use of electricity. France enacted one of the world’s most comprehensive light ordinances last year: Visitors to Paris now encounter darkness from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., an effort that has slashed the country’s energy bills by $266 million and her carbon dioxide emissions by 250,000 tons per year.

As countries like China and India become more affluent, the blazing lights of urban areas increase exponentially. “Light pollution” is one of the newest and most harmful types of environmental contamination from human activities (yet easily solved). Approximately 30 percent of vertebrates and a whopping 60 percent of invertebrates are nocturnal or night-loving; consequently, artificial lights during the night interrupt their natural cycles. Similarly, humans who stay awake all night with artificial lights suffer malaise over the long term.

An example of light sensitivity by wildlife involves green and leatherback turtles. In Florida and the Caribbean, artificial lights during their nesting season can destroy the next generation. Hatchlings follow lights to streets and hotels, instead of using the moon and stars to navigate back into the ocean as nature intended.

Many Florida coastal towns have ordinances to turn off lights near beaches, conserving threatened populations of turtles. Artificial lights also disrupt the feeding behavior of bats, a billion-dollar industry for farmers because bats consume agricultural insect pests. Despite these obvious hazards to economically important species, light pollution in developed countries is increasing by approximately 20 percent per year.

In contrast to America and Europe working to darken their night skies, India eagerly seeks new technologies to increase lighting in rural areas. Innovative start-ups provide inexpensive “microgrids” (translation: solar photovoltaic panels) to offer electricity for households that have none.

Approximately 300 million Indians have no access to electricity (almost equal to the total U.S. population). The influx of solar microgrids will power cellphones, allow kids to do homework, and minimize the pollution and illness caused by kerosene lamps and stoves. According to the World Bank, per capita consumption of electricity in India is one-twentieth that of the average American. So even large families of both Indians (or Ethiopians) use far fewer resources than the average American family does.

Solutions abound for developed countries to avert light pollution and “bring back the night.” And now, microgrids have the potential to “bring on the light” in developing countries.

Stay tuned, as the world juggles her finite natural resources, and the expanding middle class in China and India increasingly want to live like Americans. The future is all about sustainability and creating solutions to use less but retain our quality of life. Given a chance, the next generation is eager to solve these challenges.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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