Saturday, July 23, 2016

CAST IN A NEW LIGHT – The Real Reason for the Blue-mination of City Streets

An opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the the day caught my eye. It's by Paul Bogard, a fellow Minneapolitan, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

The piece is Bogard's reaction to a July 17 Strib news article headlined "LED streetlight change puts cities in new (harsher?) light." The essence of his commentary is that the growing embrace of high-color-temperature LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology for street lighting by cities across the U.S.—including his and my home base, Minneapolis/St. Paul—is an ill-considered, shortsighted decision with far-reaching effects on those cities' inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

Click on image to see Madrid street lighting 2011 vs. 2015 – IMAGE: Tech Insider

He cites research by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization showing that light emitted by the types of LEDs being adopted— those with the bluish-white light of Kelvin color temperatures over 4,000 degrees—compromises human health, causing sleep disorders, confusing circadian rhythms and even increasing risks for some types of cancers.

He makes an equally compelling argument for the adverse effects on non-human nocturnal critters, including 30 percent of vertebrates, 60 percent of invertebrates and insects we depend on for pollination.

All this in the name of safety—one of several LED selling points Bogard refutes.

   Are there really folks who 
   enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those 
   slashing swords of ice?

What Bogard fails to mention is the effect the icy stare of high-Kelvin-color lighting on the human psyche. It would be bad enough if we were choosing it just for city streets. But the soulless glare also emanates from folks' back-yard security lights, lighting in public spaces and transit vehicles, and even from newer LED flashlights.

One evening this past spring, as I drove home from work well after dark, I passed a city bus. The lighting inside it was that cold, bluish color. I imagined myself riding that bus, and, barring an exceptionally friendly conversation with a fellow passenger, how utterly alien it would feel.

And don't get me going on car headlights. Are there really folks who enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those slashing swords of ice? I know it's judgmental, but the easiest answer is that, along with the renewed trend toward bigger, "badder" cars and trucks, this is an act of pure aggression. In your face, buddy!

PHOTO: PaulTech Network

Back in my college days I flew quite often back and forth between Minnesota and the East Coast. I witnessed, from the air, the first mass experiments in mercury vapor street lighting, another technology challenged by unfortunate coloring.

In the New York City megalopolis, one city or borough might have been awash in indifferent, blue light; another, separated by just a street, train tracks or river, in much warmer, supposedly color-corrected, but still unnatural-looking pink or yellow. And a few neighborhoods still basked in their good-old, cozy incandescent lights. I remember how those stood out, like islands of humanity in a dead sea. I thought that's where I'd live if I were down there.
   The fear has reared its Chicken-Little head 
   in advertising, music, politics, and a seemingly 
   endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels 
   and films.

Perhaps it will shed some, well, light on this "blue-mination phenomenon to see it in its larger context.

We’re living in a world the media, along with some shameless, demagogic politicians, has convinced some of us is more dangerous than at any time in memory. Radical Muslims beating down our door; immigrants stealing our jobs and corrupting our culture; cops (or African Americans, if you're on that side of the "war") making a mockery of Amurican justice.

It seems anyone with an outsize ego or a buck to make is trying to capitalize on the amorphous, baseless fear. It's reared its Chicken-Little head in advertising, where folks are portrayed lying, intimidating and stealing—even from loved ones; in music, with aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound and lyrics, in neurotic, polarizing politics, and in a seemingly endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels and films.

Yep, it’s us versus them or else…or else I guess it doesn't sell.

               Warm light makes us feel close, 
               welcoming and secure.

Be afraid, be very afraid, they say. Close the borders; keep your daughters home; lock every door…and kick some serious ass with those ruthless blue lights. Call me a wimp; call me old-fashioned. But in an insecure, paranoid world, keeping warm lights burning—like the proverbial home fires and candle in the window—might just go a long way toward salving the savage beast.

There's a reason human beings soften in candlelight, turn to song round the campfire, and take amazing, glowing photos is that precious light just before dusk. Warm light makes us feel close, welcoming and secure. Feelings I do not fear.


jean said...

One of my "worries" about all of the lighting in general is that it will put an end to firefly mating and we on the east coast will enter into summer without those magical litte fairies that take me back to every summer of my childhood. That would be a huge loss to me and to so many of us who look forward to seeing the first "lightnin' bug" of the season! That and the prevasive scent of honeysuckle mark the beginning of each summer for me!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks for your comments, Jean! I hope you'll do whatever you can to influence local decisions about public places lighting. My understanding is that cheap, long-lasting LEDs with friendlier coloring do exist, but that they're a bit more expensive than the blue. Worth it, don't you think?

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