Bring Back the Night? Or Bring on the Light?

"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

While some countries are struggling to gain access to 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 villages where the average energy footprint of 18 Ethiopians was equivalent to one American. My hot shower was often non-existent or available only in measured pitchers, yet everyone managed to get clean. The electricity went off several times a day in my rural hostel, but no one complained. And the Internet was a Russian roulette -- off most of the time or teasing the psyche by failing to send or receive (never mind trying to transmit any attachments!).

In contrast, many developed countries have recognized that their enormous energy footprints are unsustainable. And turning off the lights is one positive step toward reducing the use of electricity. France enacted one of the world's most comprehensive light ordinances last year; visitors to Paris (and the city's residents) 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. Yet, 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, and artificial lights during the night interrupt their natural cycles. Similarly, humans who stay awake well into the night, bathed in artificial light, suffer similar disruptions to their natural cycles that have both short- and long-term effects.

An example of light sensitivity in wildlife involves green and leatherback sea turtles. In Florida and the Caribbean, artificial lights during the turtles' nesting season can decimate future generations. 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 now have ordinances to turn off lights near beaches, which has helped to conserve threatened populations of turtles. Artificial lights also disrupt the feeding behavior of bats, a billion-dollar resource 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, which seek to darken their night skies, India eagerly seeks new technologies to increase lighting in rural areas. Innovative start-ups provide inexpensive "microgrids" (powered by solar photovoltaic panels) to offer electricity to households that otherwise have none. Approximately 300 million Indians have no access to electricity (nearly the same population as all of America). The influx of solar microgrids will power cell phones, allow kids to do homework at night, 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 5 percent of the average American's. So even large families of Indians (like Ethiopians) use far fewer resources than the average American family.

Solutions abound for developed countries to reduce light pollution and "bring back the night." In contrast, 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 classes in China and India increasingly want to live as Americans have for decades. The future is all about sustainability and creating solutions to use less but retain our quality of life. Given a chance, the next generation remains eager to solve these challenges.

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